Spreading the Word, continued
If you want to understand history, says Tinney, and you believe that histories are contingent upon each other and that one can follow paths through history to explain things, we have to understand as much as we can about the history of human experience. Early Mesopotamia, with its incredible wealth of preserved documentation in Sumerian and other languages, deserves to play a central role in advancing our understanding of that experience.
As Dr. Samuel Kramer, the late Clark research professor in Sumerology as well as curator and pioneering translator of the museums tablet collections, wrote in his popular 1956 work, History Begins at Sumer, the Sumerians were a people of many firsts. They convened the first bicameral legislature, started the first schools, and left behind the first farmers almanac, medical handbook, and histories and proverbs. Tinney, however, steers the conversation away from questions about who the Sumerians were, where they came from, and who displaced them. We understand now that the relationship between ethnic movement and interaction and language use is much more complicated than that. Rather than looking at the Sumerians per se, I would say the Sumerian language is an essential part of Mesopotamian culture going back to 3200 B.C. or so, and continuing for more than three millennia.
Why did writing develop in Mesopotamia? It depends on whom you ask, he says. The simplest and probably correct answer is that writing emerged at the same time as the first substantial urbanization, and writing was associated with the increased administrative needs faced by larger organizations. Whether urbanization caused the need for writing or writing enabled urbanization, Tinney says, we dont really know at this point. There likely is a connection, though not a linear one, between writing and another recording system that involved using tiny clay tokens to represent commodities and numbers, says Tinney. Both methods were probably used early on, and subsequently writing won out.
According to Tinney, Sumerian died out as a spoken language around 2000 B.C.E., but continued to function as a cornerstone of the Mesopotamian education system until around 1700 B.C.E. It then continued to be used in certain contexts, religious and magical, down to the beginning of the common era.
But the power of writing didnt rest in everyones hands. Being a scribe in ancient Mesopotamia meant having access to higher level jobs in the administration, Tinney says. Its a career track, essentially. One interesting aspect of the literary texts is that they dont present kings in a uniformly good light. In fact, some texts show rulers who end up in sticky situations as a result of their misdeeds, providing an internal debate about the nature of kingship, Tinney says. So it really makes it look as if literature belongs to not a simple organ of the court but a societal stratum which has its own interests and which is designed to some extent to survive kings.
To the untrained eye Sumerian writing is a confusion of cramped markings that seem to run together on the baked clay. Proper lighting, a magnifier, and lots of experience are required to curl up with a tablet for a good read.
Sumerian is what is known as an isolate. The language has no relatives, living or dead. Scholars have been able to translate Sumerian writings because many texts are written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, which shares a common ancestry with other, better known Semitic languages. But Sumerian still is incredibly hard to understand. I always tell students that you have to know whats there before you read it, says Tinney.
The first gotcha, he says, is that the writing system doesnt directly represent the spoken language. Sumerian writing began with pictographs, pictures formed with a pointed stylus which represented the literal meaning of the words. But they quickly morphed into more stylized renderings, consisting of an arrangement of wedge-shaped marks, called cuneiform. And then grammatical markers were added to the writing system. So the sign for mouth, which has the pronunciation of ka, could be used to write the sound ka, representing other words that have the same spoken sound. (The symbol for ka is also used to write the participle of.) Sumerian also features ideograms, which are signs that represent concepts. The sign ka, for example, could also be used to indicate word, speak, or tooth. In addition, some of the signs represent syllabic sounds, and could be used to write personal names or words in another language, such as the Akkadian word for dog, formed with the signs for ka, al, and bu.
According to Tinney, Sumerology is still a new field, and the language has only been studied properly for the past half-century or so. One hindrance to translation has been the fact that some of the tablets in Penns collection were broken when they were excavatedand their fragments are now scattered in different museums. Iraq was under the possession of the Ottoman Empire at the time of Hilprechts excavations, and the Ottomans kept half of everything, says Tinney. On top of that, there was a minor scandal involving Hilprecht, who claimed the Sultan gave him a number of tablets as a personal gift and kept them at his home in Jena, Germany. Some were eventually donated by his widow to a museum there. Tinney hopes to eventually digitize the University Museums entire collection of tablets and try to get other institutions to do the same, so those fragments can one day be joined on the screen.
The actual body of texts, the core knowledge of Sumerian we have is constantly changing, he says. Considering the large number of untranslated texts out thereand those still being uncoveredthere will always be something to puzzle over. Lately, Tinney has become fascinated with another cuneiform writing system called Hurrian, for which very few tablets have been collected. The museum possesses a small number.
My fantasy is that someday soon, and by that I mean in my lifetime, somebody will discover a large collection of Sumerian-Hurrian bilingual texts, he says. And then, he adds with an irreverent smile, well really have the blind leading the blind.