Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

"I Have Forgotten My Burden of Former Days!" Forgetting the Sumerians in Ancient Iraq

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

"I Have Forgotten My Burden of Former Days!" Forgetting the Sumerians in Ancient Iraq

Article excerpt

The honor and occasion of an American Oriental Society presidential address cannot but evoke memories. The annual AOS meeting is, after all, the site of many of our earliest scholarly memories, and more recent ones as well. The memory of my immediate predecessor's address, a very hard act to follow indeed, remains vivid. Sid Griffiths gave a lucid account of a controversial topic with appeal to a broad audience. His delivery was beautifully attuned to the occasion, and his talk was perfectly timed. At the very first AOS presidential address I attended, the speaker was a bit tipsy, and, ten minutes into his talk, he looked at his watch and said, "Oh, I've gone on too long!" and sat down. I also remember a quite different presidential address in which, after an hour had passed, the speaker declared, "I know I've been talking for a long time, but since this is the first and only time most of you will hear anything about my field, I'll continue on until you've heard all I think you ought to know!"

It is but a small move from individual memory to cultural memory, a move I would like to make with a slight twist. As my title announces, the subject of this communication will not be how the ancient Mesopotamians remembered their past, but rather how they managed to forget, or seemed to forget, an important component of their early history. (1) The quotation from a Sumerian proverb in my title is taken from the mouth of an ass, who, having thrown off his load, immediately proclaimed: "I have forgotten my burden of former days!" (2) Its relevance to my subject will be discussed toward the end of what follows.

The era of world empires culminating in the Roman Empire began in the early first millennium B.C. with a renascent Assyria. (I know, a very occidental conceptualization in an address to the American Oriental Society!) At its greatest extent in the seventh century B.C., Assyria stretched from Iran to Egypt. The last great king of Assyria was Ashurbanipal, whose forty-year reign marked both the climax of Assyrian power and the beginning of the rapid decline that led to the fall of Nineveh a mere fifteen years after his death, in 612 B.C. (3)

The mid-nineteenth century a.d. recovery of the magnificent bas-reliefs from the palaces at Nineveh and their installation in the British Museum (4) were accompanied by the transfer of the Assyrian royal libraries to that same institution, and the careful study of those tablets from Nineveh was foundational for the field of Assyriology. (5) A large percentage of the tablets were originally acquired by order of king Ashurbanipal, who prided himself on his scholarly abilities. In one inscription he boasted that he was able to "read complicated texts, whose Sumerian is obscure and whose Akkadian is hard to figure out." (6) Ashurbanipal read Sumerian! Sumerian texts first appeared around 3300 B.C., about as distant from Ashurbanipal as we are from him. The language itself had not been spoken for at least a thousand years when Ashurbanipal began to study it. This was clearly a civilization that did not easily forget the burdens of former days!

The earliest cuneiform was a Babylonian (7) phenomenon, that is, proto-cuneiform texts have been found in the far south, the area we call Sumer, as well as in areas to the north that we sometimes call Akkad. Although Sumerian was in contact early on with Semitic dialects ancestral to the language of later Babylonia and Assyria that we call Akkadian, (8) we assume that for a good part of the third millennium, Sumerian language use was dominant in the south--Sumer--whereas Semitic became increasingly widespread in northern Baby lonia--Akkad. With a few possible exceptions Sumerian literary texts appear only around 2600-2500 B.C., and letters even later. Our earliest published royal commemorative texts of any length date to around 2500. (9)

Nearly all of this early writing in Babylonia is in Sumerian, but this is probably because nearly all of the tablets recovered from the first two-thirds of the third millennium are from the south. …

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