Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Sumer in the Mesopotamian World: Reading Traditions & Traditions of Reading, I

Photo by the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Courtesy of Richard Zettler, Associate Curator-in-Charge of Near East Section

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Sumer in the Mesopotamian World: Reading Traditions & Traditions of Reading, I

Traditions of Origins: Where Did the Sumerians Come From? And Where Did They All Go?

Gonzalo Rubio, Pennsylvania State University

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NOTICE: Admission to the ISAW Lecture Hall closes 10 minutes after the scheduled start time.

In a distinctively modern understanding, the term Sumerian often appears essentialized (the Sumerian World, Sumerian Art, etc.). This practice, however, reflects a construct, which is at odds with the original sources and stems from conflating linguistic realities and perceived identities. Instead, the civilization that blossomed in the southernmost region of Ancient Mesopotamia can be approached in accordance with categories that attempt to reflect (or at least not to ignore) their own original, explicit and implicit, discourses, inasmuch as they can be reconstructed. Any such reconstruction has to deal primarily with the nature of textual production in Sumerian and constitutes an endeavor defined and defied by the inherent writtenness of these traditions already in the third-millennium BCE.

In this regard, our own reading of the Sumerian corpus and its tradition can be contrasted with the ancient readings enacted in Mesopotamia itself, particularly long after the Sumerian language had become a cultural relic to which only a few scholars and bureaucrats had access.

At the root of the essentialization of the label Sumerian lies the so-called Sumerian Problem, the preoccupation with when and how the Sumerian-speaking inhabitants of Sumer arrived in this region. These very questions may vitiate the nature of our engagement with the evidence. Instead, one may choose to focus on the factors that came together to weave the cultural and political fabric of the civilization that developed in this region in the fourth and third millennia BCE.

Dr. Rubio is an Assyriologist whose work focuses on the languages and literatures of Ancient Mesopotamia (Sumerian and Akkadian).  His research and publications deal with Sumerian grammar and literature, early Semitic languages (particularly Eblaite), comparative Semitic linguistics, the cuneiform writing system, Mesopotamian history, and various aspects of language and cultural contact in the Ancient Near East. His edition of the Sumerian literary corpus from the Ur III period will be published soon. He is currently working on a project on Early Dynastic literary texts from Ebla and Mesopotamia, for which he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2012-13). He is also finishing a volume on Sumerian grammar, as well as coordinating and editing a large handbook of Ancient Mesopotamian studies to be published by De Gruyter. Dr. Rubio is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University.  He is also the editor-in-chief of the monograph series Languages of the Ancient Near East (published by Eisenbrauns) and Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records (published by De Gruyter).