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

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, III

Reading Early Economy Now: Bureaucracy & Administration in Sumer

Gonzalo Rubio, Pennsylvania State University

RSVP Required.

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.

The early decades of Sumerology were dominated by the study of historical, religious, and literary compositions. The field, however, eventually experienced a shift towards economic and administrative matters, towards the nitty-gritty of social history. This scholarly preoccupation with the daily lives of common people, as opposed to the intellectual realm of the elites, was called “Onionology” by I.J. Gelb, who placed it within “the struggle between Tammuz and onions.” The subsequent scholarly effort has yielded a veritable jungle of economic documents, often elliptic scraps of bureaucratic entries. As such, these constellations of texts constitute individual puzzles, which, when put together, can shed light on the administrative institutions of individual polities at specific times.

This multitude of puzzles calls for theoretical frameworks and models in order to reconstruct the economic realities to which they bear witness. No text speaks for itself: their textuality is contingent upon an act of reading. Such an interpretative process blurs the apparent dichotomy between “Onionology” and “Tammuzology.” For the institutions and phenomena behind the textual information pertaining to land tenure, trade systems, private vs. public agents, the role of silver, and so forth, were also the product of the same ideological mechanisms that shaped the literary, religious, and historical corpora. Within the intrinsic writtenness of the evidence, rather than dealing with different disciplines, one is simply approaching diverse textual genres with their distinctive types of ambiguity.

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).