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Dr Stephen Bourke, University of Sydney and Dr Luis Siddall, University of London and Macquarie University, 14 October 2016

MIKE PICKERING: Good afternoon and welcome to the National Museum. My name is Mike Pickering. I’m the head of the Museum’s research centre. I’d first like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and which the Museum was built. Let’s pay respects to the elders, both past and present. Welcome to the next in our History of the World in 100 Objects lecture series. So far, we have explored ‘Big history’, ‘Dawn and diaspora’, and today we keep moving through time to ‘The cradle of civilisation’. We have Dr Stephen Bourke and Dr Luis Siddall who will give us an insight into the early cities and civilisations of the first millenniums.

Dr Stephen Bourke from the University of Sydney is an archaeologist with 35 years field experience in the Middle East. He is the director of the Pala excavations in Jordan, where the debris of human occupation stretches back many centuries. He has worked in Syria, Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt and is a research associate at the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation at Sydney University.

Dr Luis Siddall is from the University of London and Macquarie University and is a history master at Shore in North Sydney, and an honorary associate with the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University. He is the director of Cuneiform in Australia. I’ll rephrase it, the Cuneiform in Australia and New Zealand Collections project, and is writing a book on the life and career of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. Would you please join me in welcoming Dr Stephen Bourke to the stage to begin the discussion?

STEPHEN BOURKE: Thank you. Technology is wonderful.

MIKE PICKERING: You want your little buttony thing?

STEPHEN BOURKE: I think this might be my buttony thing, but let’s find out. Yep. My brief today is very much a matter of the third millennium BC, and in a way it’s looking from Ireland to Pakistan, so I’m going to leave a few things out. I’ll touch on a few things specific to the exhibition, and try to give you some context about what you might be looking at. When people think of cradle of civilisations, they invariably think of ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians, and Ur. Cities grew up by rivers. Rivers brought silt, silt supercharged agriculture, meant you had a reliable surplus, as long as it rained, and with that surplus, you could spend money on something other than feeding yourselves.

The earlier civilisations of the fourth and the third millennium BC did just that. You tend to find the Southern Mesopotamian regions – the great cities of Sumeria – are characterised by palaces with wall paintings, massive temples of mud brick, which we sometimes are lucky enough to find in shrines, and when we can find out, multi-story houses with six to eight rooms, which are not uncommonly filled with materials that come from across the Middle East and beyond. In other words, stone vessels from Iran are found throughout the Middle East and the Southern Levant. Copper can be sourced to everywhere from Oman to Hungary and places in between. Of course, there’s a wide range of drinking and storage vessels. It’s a prosperous society built on the back of successful agriculture.

It’s also a society that becomes increasingly prone to war as the third millennium stretches on. You have a Middle Eastern version of the Warring States, as China in later times. Effectively, you have a series of competing cities competing for what?

Agricultural land and resources, and access to those resources. Resources that come from outside Mesopotamia. A simple map of resource acquisition in southern Mesopotamia, the Sumerian heartlands will source obsidian from Anatalia, lapis lazuli from the Afghan northern border, carnelian from Pakistan and fine alabaster from the eastern desert of Egypt. You can find that in pretty much any one of the major cities in the Fertile Crescent.

Acquisition of exotic stone, acquisition of jewellery items is a way that people communicate with each other effectively in a society that is, broadly speaking, without writing. A society that, broadly speaking, is without iconic communication devices. The first way that you communicate with someone is what you wear, who you are is what you wear. This is helpful because you don’t really want to bump into a warrior or a king by mistake if you’re a peasant. It tends to go badly.

Equally if you are two aristocrats bumping into each other in the street, it’s as well that you know your place in the pecking order, or that too can become a source of problem. We’re a long way from the peelers and the police force in the third millennium BC, given that we have the law codes which probably date back to this time, and those law codes make it pretty clear that percussive discussion went on quite a lot between equals, such that an eye for an eye was not just a biblical concept.

Bullying is typical of the third millennium BC. This is a moderate tune in a moderate area of central Syria, Tel Tamer. You will find obsidian, carnelian, gold, silver, lapis lazuli in multi-streamed necklaces. Partly, it’s very nice stuff we buy today, partly it’s a measure of your power. Lapis lazuli is not found down the road. It takes a lot of money to get it there. It’s a way of signalling who you are, who you aspire to be, and who you expect to be treated … how you expect to be treated. This stuff is communication. It’s communication in hard stone and beautiful golden earrings, or in many cases nose rings and lip rings, but it always looks more elegant if they’re hairpieces.

We come to the first object, the harp from the royal graves at Ur. This one from the famous grave of Queen Puabi. Ur isn’t the largest of the Sumerian cities of southern Mesopotamia. It’s about the third or fourth ranked, but the reason that Ur is useful is that there was a series of royal graves discovered by Leonard Woolley in the early 1920s and dug in 1926, 1927, 1928. It’s about 16, and when we say royal, we kind of mean royal, princely, mums, dads, cousins, uncles with a lot of money. One of the things from the get-go that surprised people is just how many skeletons are found in these tombs. These aren’t skeletons of aged retainers that have been put gently to sleep themselves. These are young, virile warriors, and in many cases, songstresses. These are people in their 20s. Doesn’t show in the plans, but they often find them with tiny, small cups beside them. Pretty clearly, they took a draught.

The concept of quietly walking in to a large pit, reasonably characterised as a death pit and then quietly sitting down, taking a draught, and following your mistress, she’s up here in the chamber, full of the most exotic bling, wonderful jewelled headpieces, which contains lapis lazuli, carnelian, gold, silver, obsidian, so she’s effectively going into the afterlife declaring who she is. There’s quite a lot of discussion about the virginal motifs, and the queen’s role in fertility, but I’m not going to bore you with that. The critical thing for me, with this harp, it’s a small harp, it’s knee-harp.

In two cases, Woolley was able to show that the young lady, and she is a young lady in her 20s, she’s actually got a hand around the strings when she died. We have to have a concept here, not just a piece of art, it’s a beautiful piece of art, got lapis lazuli, and gold, and what not, that is being used by someone in their 20s, perhaps as a double row of her friends quietly sang as they dropped off to sleep, as she played the harp. It gives you an idea that for all of the bling, and all of the jewellery that you might manage to imagine yourself wearing, this past is a foreign country. These people had very different views of life and death and afterlife. It’s, to me, a fairly sobering thought.

Reconstructions, again, there are many harps. There’s a lot of musical instruments played in parties, offerings to the gods, healing ceremonies. People knew that music healed mental illness, even in the third millennium BC. The concept of 30 people in three rows, elaborately gowned, carrying their musical instruments, sidled into a four-metre deep, 12-metre deep pit, and sat down, and took a draught, and followed their lady, or in this case, possibly their lord into the afterlife. Again, just to emphasise this effect that this isn’t quite what it appears to be. This isn’t just a musical instrument that you might imagine some Irish bard playing. Imagining someone playing that as it all becomes quiet.

At the same time, in northern Europe, places like Stonehenge, the first simple form of Stonehenge, Newgrange in Ireland and the great stone lions of Karnak in France, a part of the, broadly speaking, great megalithic culture of the third millennium and the fourth millennium BC. It’s not, as we used to think, ex oriente lux, everything good comes from the East first. Not a bit of it. There are independent and extremely impressive civilisations in Europe at exactly the same time as the royal graves that were in use. These civilisations had very nice stone, bone, flint, copper, silver and quite a lot of gold.

This is a warrior from Varna in south-eastern Bulgaria dating as early as about 4200 BC. Don’t imagine that all of the elaborate gold and jewellery must have gone to Europe from the Middle East. Quite the contrary. They were very skilled metal smiths themselves, and you will see evidence for it in the golden torques in the exhibition. The torque, again, is sort of a neckpiece. A very public neckpiece, displaying again, the wealth, the status, the communication of who the wearer is. Probably a king, but certainly a member of the aristocracy. Although, there are some magnificent bronze works like the Danish sun-chariot, typical assemblages of copper, and even just possibly astronomical phenomena. Again, third millennium, pushing into the second millennium BC, that European metallurgy learns nothing from the Middle East. It’s highly sophisticated, and we can source the metals to show that they come from European sources.

The interface between Europe and the Middle East – Crete – is a wonderful amalgam of the two. We all know a little bit about the great Minoan civilisation that lay off the coast of Greece and created the magnificent palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, and of course, the world-famous wall paintings.

They were, however, extremely skilled metalsmiths. You find a modest, small example of Minoan metalsmiths’ work in the exhibition, but you should see it in the context of the detailed, inlaid swords that come from contemporary deposits in the shaft graves at Mycenae, which are inlaid with silver yellow  and gold, and – even allowing for the potentially Kaiser Wilhelm II  moustache in the royal graves – it  should remind you that this Minoan style, if not actual Minoan metallurgy, loses nothing by comparison with the Middle East.

Trying to understand how all this works, and how their interconnections might work, if indeed they exist. They probably did, because we can source amber from the Baltic into the Middle East. We can source beads from Pakistan in Greece at the same time. Possibly, it has something to do with the central Asian steppes.

Chariots, heavy wagons really, they’re not exactly Ben-Hur here, but they probably are more like the wagon trains that move backward and forward connecting China and northern Europe, and the Middle East via the caucuses, and certainly central Asia and Iran. We see various forms of wheeled vehicle from the third millennium BC. They are a common part of the European Bronze Age of the second. They are common in Central Asia, from the third. They get more mobile, better understanding of spokes, better understanding of weight-bearing and axle protection.

They show up in China in the second millennium. The likelihood is that this is at least one of the ways that people communicate. Of course, in the old days, everything came from Mesopotamia, but we’re now pretty sure that the understanding of horse and the use of horse originates in southern Russia in the fifth millennium. We’re now beginning to understand that the horse cultures spread both into the Middle East, into Asia and into Europe at that time.

Beads. You always feel sorry for the bead studiers in archaeology; they spend most of their time hunched over; they’re like mediaeval jewel smiths and they can’t really focus much beyond their fingers. But they do, from time to time, turn up some awfully interesting things. One of the major exports of the Harrapan civilisation, and I’ll come to them in a second, in Pakistan, are the so-called etched carnelian beads. What they do is they actually etch out and fill in with inlay, carnelian beads.

You might think, ‘How lovely.’ Well, yes we found them all the way up and down the Gulf, we found them in Central Asia, we found them in the Caucasus, and we found them as far away as the island of Aegina off Athens in Greece. All third millennium BC. Made in Pakistan, and showing up at least as far as Greece. Then, when you think about the fact that some of the copper and tin – tin as well in Greece at this time comes from Cornwall – you have a link between Pakistan and Ireland fairly effortlessly, which should teach us to be just a little bit careful when we talk about the ancient world’s narrowed horizons, and our much greater interconnections today, because a case could be made for linking the great cradles of civilisation one with the other from at least the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.

Harrapan civilisation is one of the last, great mystery civilisations that archaeologists are grappling with. When it was discovered in the 1920s, or fully understood in the 1920s, it seemed a bolt from the blue, but the gift of the Indies if you will. Nowadays, well until things got a little interesting in Pakistan, people were able to show that as it were, hilly slopes of Pakistan did engender this culture in the fourth millennium BC.

This is a culture that has major, 50 hectare sites, with huge compounds, wonderful august stone sculpture, and as I say, lots of these beads. The Harrapan civilisation is exactly contemporary with the great cities of Sumeria. One of its great glories are these stamp seals. What are they? I wish we knew. The Harrapan language is still very difficult to interpret. More recent times, people have suggested that it might be a form of proto-Dravidian, but that’s the last guess. At least it’s not Martian anymore. We have so few inscriptions, and they’re so short, and they may be very specific to the purpose of the seal that it’s hard for us to know precisely what language we’re dealing with.

We need longer inscriptions, and we don’t have them. That said, these stamp seals appear up and down the Persian Gulf, up onto the Euphrates River. They are most definitely Indus Valley in origin. They can be pretty cool. They can be wonderful seals of elephant and bull, but they can also be of people or deities. We can’t read, so we don’t know. But they are found throughout the Harrapan civilisation of the Indus Valley and adjacent lands, right the way up the valley, the waterways, across Iran, into central Asia, onto the borders of Syria.

This is the third millennium BC, in Pakistan linked through to the great civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, effortlessly. One of the main things that they’re exporting through their colonies at [inaudible] on the Afghan-Tajik border is lapis lazuli, which shows up as far away as Libya in the third millennium. Carnelian beads and jewellery of the aristocrats of Indus civilisation achieved the same aims as elsewhere. To differentiate people, to communicate who you are, to communicate how you wish to be treated. We would be a lot clearer in our concept of stratified society if we could read inscription, but we can’t. We’re still trying to work on that. We would guess, not unreasonably, that they are trying to communicate similar messages. One of the reasons is because these little beads. These little ridged, rounded beads.

We have them in Indus Valley necklaces, and we have them as far away as Troy, Central Asia, and [inaudible]. In effect, we have material from the Indus stretching across this entire area, material from Mesopotamia stretching from the Nile into Central Asia, lapis lazuli from here stretching right the way through to Greece and Egypt. Some of the gold, and copper, and tin links the cultures of northwest Europe and the Scandinavian cities into the Mycenaean-Minoan world and through them into Egypt and the Middle East.

In effect, what these objects tell us a little bit about is the interconnection of the ancient world. It’s a modern cheek, it’s a modern hubris that we are the great, interconnected society. That people’s lives in the past were nasty, brutish, and short. That they knew little outside their own villages. Study of the archaeological evidence with a solid chronology makes it quite clear it was possible for someone in Ireland to have reasonable knowledge of things in Afghanistan, because objects moved, and if objects moved, ideas could move as well.

When you get to the end of the exhibition, and you look at the wi-fi, and you realise that 20 to 30 years ago we’d been told we were a far less connected society, and that as speeds increase and as frequency of communication – as I know from my emails from my students – increase, we tend to assume that something phenomenally new has happened.

Really, of course it took a long way, a long time for Ireland to be connected with Pakistan. You had to schlep stuff from one place to another. It’s more likely that you lose stuff by degrees from place to place to place. Really, from something like the third millennium BC, the time of the first great cities up until the modern world of today, what we’re really talking about is an increase in speed of communication, increase in the frequency, increase in the ability for large units of things to be moved, which in the past was problematic. There was a limit to how much you can put on a donkey before you flatten it, which is why those wheeled wagons were helpful.

If you think in terms of civilisation and interconnection between civilisations as a matter of speed and frequency of communication, one of the measures of civilisation might be, effectively, increasing bit speed. Nothing new is happening here. It’s merely a slow progression of technology from a time in which communication was slow to a time today, in which communication is faster. We always like to do these graphs that show the ski-slope up to the modern world today. I’m not so much convinced that in 5000 years’ time, they’ll consider this to be a slow ascent to something in the future that we can’t really even easily conceive of today, because it’s all about bandwidth, it’s all about speed, and in our own lifetimes we’ve seen quantum leaps in both. I suspect they saw that as well as far back as 5000 years ago in the third millennium BC. Thank you very much for listening.

MIKE PICKERING: Thank you very much Stephen for a very entertaining lecture. Certainly something that has been coming out through the exhibition is the interconnectedness of all of those cultures. One of the messages that we try to sell here to make the exhibition relevant to Australians is how our own culture is so much built upon the interplay of so many cultures over space and time. We’re not as far removed from them as we like to think. I now move on to invite Dr Luis Siddall to the stage. Would you continue our exciting journey?

LUIS SIDDALL:   Thank you. I’m talking about something a little bit more narrow, though I hope just as interesting, and indeed is in its own way a technology. It’s looking at the development of writing, and indeed its origins. In his work The Histories, the fifth century historian Herodotus took the time to account for the introduction of writing to Greece. For Herodotus, this was a great accomplishment, and it came from the East. Phoenicia to be exact. The Phoenicians did not invent writing, and their script comprising only consonants that the Greeks used to develop their alphabet derived from far older writing systems, namely Mesopotamian cuneiform, and Egyptian hieroglyph. Indeed in the early books of The Histories, Herodotus often marvelled and provided translations of Persian and Egyptian inscriptions he saw during his travels.

It would be asinine to pass comment that Herodotus valued the practice of writing, however his descriptions of texts he encountered often note their key characteristics and he gave a sense, and this gives a sense of their grandeur and cultural importance. For instance, in book four, Herodotus states that, ‘Then after seeing what he, [and that is Darius] could of the Bosphorus he had two marble columns erected. On one of which was an inscription in Assyrian characters, showing the various nations which were serving on the campaign. The other had a similar inscription in Greek.’ What I like about this description is the sense that the scripts carry in themselves meaning. In the Behistun inscription that you can see here on the slide, Darius commissioned the same text to be written in three different languages, Elamite, Babylonian and Old Persian. These were the languages of the entire Persian Empire, and therefore this was a text for all peoples.

Similarly in Herodotus’ account, Darius had produced an inscription somewhere along the Bosporus where Asia and Europe meet, and it was written in an Eastern and a Western script. Writing is not all about artistic pictographs and cultural indicators. Writing is also a practical technology. It would be farcical to discuss the key features and the development of the cradle of civilisation without looking at it. Many of us use this form of technology every hour without even thinking about the impact it has on our social development, and much in a way that Stephen spoke about. Consider for instance the way that text messaging on personal mobile phones has, for better or worse, shaped our social interaction.

If you think of writing as a technology, few innovations have been as influential. The ability to convey information through time and space is a major enabling factor in the organisation of a society. It means that humans have been able to establish ideas, traditions, and knowledge not only for their contemporaries, but for the many succeeding generations. In this way, writing is not merely the material existence of spoken words, but a transformative mechanism in the development of human civilisation.

What I would like to do in this talk is to look at artefacts used in the History of the World in 100 Objects, both in the BBC series in the case of one object, but the others are all in the exhibition here at the NMA. These object illustrate the importance of writing in the Middle East, in particular, Mesopotamia and Egypt. I would like to explore some of the ways that writing’s been used variously in these cultures. I’d like to begin with some thoughts about how writing originated. Writing seems to have been invented in four different regions of the world at different times. In southern Mesopotamia and Egypt in the late fourth millennium BC. In China, during the second millennium, and in Central America probably sometime in the first millennium BC.

However, since the evidence in each case is so sparse, there is a great deal of debate about when, where, and why writing was invented, and how it developed in these different regions. The evidence currently available suggests that writing was invented first in southern Mesopotamia, however Egypt is another possible candidate. Much depends on what historian decides to use, and how accurately archaeologists have been able to date the context from which these texts have excavated. Let’s begin with the clay tablet from Uruk, which you can see in the exhibition. This tablet dates sometime between 3400 BC and 3200. That places it at the very beginning of writing in Mesopotamia. This tablet would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, and the writing you can see on it is called cuneiform, because of the wedge shape of the signs. Writing was formed by scribes impressing a reed stylus while the surface was still wet, making a triangular shaped wedge in the clay.

Hence, the name for the script comes from Latin, cuneus forma, or wedge shaped. Cuneiform was used to write many languages, such as Sumerian, as in the case of this tablet, but also Acadian, Hittite, Elamite, Luwian, and others. Much like the way the Latin script is used to write languages such as English, German, and French. This cuneiform tablet records the distribution of beer to individuals, and is probably a record of a payment for labour gain or a ration list. If you look at the bottom-right corner, and I’m just talking about down here, what you can see is, this is like, I suppose a header. You have what would have been a drawing of a head here and a mouth drinking beer out of a bowl. They often have these signs in the bottom of the corner like this, and I presume it’s for some form of filing system or easy reference to see which tablet you’re after.

What this tablet and the many thousands like it that date from this region and this era provide us is the best insight into why writing was invented. Unfortunately for accounting, to put this in some sort of context, the people who lived in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium experienced a great increase in urbanisation, and as Stephen showed us, certainly trade. This required a far greater system to administer the movements of goods, labour, taxation and revenue. The increasing pressure on city and temple administrators led to a technological development that saw a movement away from the existing system of tokens that represented the goods exchanged to a system where abstract representations of commodities were inscribed in sign form on tablets, or to put it simply, writing.

Now, I struggle to read text from this particular era, because at this stage, writing was largely an aid memoir with a complete lack of any sort of narrative. In short, they’re like reading shop dockets. All figures and numbers with a few nouns. In terms of writing, most signs are logographic at this stage. They represent a particular thing or an idea. Often, but not always, these signs were pictures of the objects they represented. In this tablet you can see, well, I’ll point it out to you, this sign turns up here, and here, and here, and here, and I’m sure in one or two other places, but you get the picture. Down here again.

This is the sign ‘cash for beer’, hence we can see that it’s being distributed out. If you turn your head, the script is actually at 90 degrees, if you turn your head that way, to the left, you’ll see that it’s actually a jar of beer. The scribes of this period, however, quickly realised that writing did not need to be restricted to logography. By the third millennium, far more complex inscriptions were being produced. However, to do so the scribes of the third millennium in Egypt and Mesopotamia developed their scripts in a way that separated the graphic mark, or sign, from its pictographic meaning, and allowed a sign to represent a sound alone.

That intellectual shift was a crucial step towards producing a writing system that could closely represent a spoken language and produce sophisticated texts like hymns, epics, myths and royal inscriptions. Scholars call this level abstraction in their writing system the Rebus principle. Once the Rebus principle had been realised, scripts expanded, usually to cover all of the needs of the scribes. Interestingly for us moderns who predominantly use alphabets, each society invented a writing system that was based on syllables. Here you can see some examples of hand, which comes to have the sound ‘D’, a horned viper which represents the sound ‘F’ and while you may, at this point, say, ‘Ah, but isn’t this an alphabet?’ What Egyptians don’t do is write out vowels.

What we’re reading is a consonant plus a vowel syllable that was to be read and understood as you read it out. One can see this new practise in writing in some of the very earliest Egyptian texts. This ivory label was once attached to a pair of sandals. We think, and it dates from the reign of the first dynasty pharaoh, whose name was Den, and he ruled some time during the first centuries of the third millennium BC. It’s an excellent example, not only of the Rebus principal, but probably also why so many students go to Egyptology rather than Mesopotamian studies. Here you can see already at this very early stage how identifiable the characters are of Egyptian hieroglyph as opposed to the clay cuneiform tablet, which is largely, to the untrained eye, indistinguishable from a dog biscuit.

This small ivory label was discovered in Abydos in Egypt’s south, and features the Pharaoh Den in an unmistakable pose as a brutal warrior standing over his foe whom he’s holding by the hair with his other arm raised about to smite him with a raised mace. The label bears inscriptions that describe the scene and give some indications of its origin. All of inscriptions are at least partly written phonetically, putting the Rebus principle into practice. [Points to a slide] Here, you can see the name, Den, with a D and an N. Underneath this is his Horus name, down here you’ve got [inaudible]. That’s another one of his names. Pharaohs by the new kingdoms had five names. From this period, they largely have two.

Over here we’ve got a little detail of what’s happening, and it says something along the lines of, ‘The first occasion when the Pharaoh had smitten the East.’ That’s a word that must have changed over time, smitten. Over here is a bit peculiar, it says, ‘Incar.’ The best we can do with this section, we think it’s the name of the official who had dedicated these sandals to his overlord. Hence we have the protagonist with both these royal names, a clear statement that Den was either the first to conquer the East, or perhaps celebrating his first conquest of the East. He did sort of live up to this reputation in which he’s depicting himself, he went on more than one campaign.

The sandals were probably presented by a person named, Incar. In this way, Den’s label represents a great departure from the early cuneiform tablet in many respects. Writing here is used to reinforce the royal state authority, rather than a function of local administration. Writing systems represent the Egyptian language closer than the archaic logographic system too, as we saw in the last tablet.

In time, cuneiform too implemented the Rebus principle as we can see here. This is my favourite artefact in the exhibition. This is the flood tablet. Named so, because it contains a section of the standard Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which recounts the great floods sent by the gods to wipe out humanity. Sound familiar? This tablet is not a standalone composition, but is actually the 11th, or a part of the 11th tablet in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The tablet was first translated in the 1870s by a young Assyriologist working as an assistant at the British Museum,  named George Smith. The tablet had been excavated in Nineveh, which is in Northern Iraq in the famous Library of Ashurbanipal, who ruled Assyria from 669 to about 627 BC. Upon reading the tablet, George Smith was struck by the similarities it bore to Genesis 6:9, or the Noah story.

To those of you who are unfamiliar with this text, here are the highlights. It opens with Utnapishtim, who is the Babylonian Noah, and his name means ‘high discovered life’. He explains to Gilgamesh how he survived a deluge. First the lord of the gods in the Babylonian pantheon, Enlil had been disturbed by mankind and decided to wipe them out with a flood. Now, we know from another text called Atrahasis that was caused the disturbance was the fact that the humans just made too much noise. The original neighbours complaint I suppose about a Saturday night party. His answer was he was going to wipe them out with a flood, and I think we all know how that feels. The god of wisdom, Ea, did not like this. He had taken pity on the pious Utnapishtim, and instructed him to build a great boat, and instructed him to keep his family, all living beings, and all the beasts of the field inside during the flood.

The flood lasted seven days, and there are different traditions about this, but in this text it lasts seven days. After which, Utnapishtim sent out a dove, a swallow, and then a raven to see whether or not the waters had receded, and give a indication that there was land on which to settle. After recession of the waters, Enlil realises that he had probably done the wrong thing, and bestows immortality upon Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh, of course, is desperately seeking immortality, this is why he ends up seeking out Utnapishtim.

The decipherment of the flood tablet was George Smith’s eureka moment. Much like Archimedes who ran through the streets of Syracuse naked after inventing the water screw, Smith, upon realising the similarities with Genesis proceeded to strip naked and dash around the room in the British Museum in excitement. That’s not usually your first image of Victorian England, is it?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is commonly held to be the greatest literary work from Mesopotamia, and a forerunner to Homer’s poems and the One Thousand and One Nights. I would suggest that the legacy this has for world literature was far less likely to have happened had it not been for writing. Finally, I want to discuss the use of writing in the funeral stele of Didymos. Like Denslay, this stele was probably found at Abydos in Egypt but it is dated to the other end Egyptian history, to the Ptolemaic era, when the Greeks ruled Egypt. While the Ptolemies followed their predecessors and commissioned monumental inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyph, in every other aspect of life they were candidly foreign.

Most of the elite of this era spoke Greek rather than local Egyptian. In fact, it was Cleopatra who stood out in a way of trying to take the throne, learned Egyptian to get the locals on her side. This attitude of imposing Greek came to have, well maybe not imposing, that’s too strong a word, but at least speaking Greek among elite circles came to have an impact on many aspects of Egyptian life, not least writing. For the elite in society, the practise of the day was to commission funerary stele that displayed a fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture. The Didymos stele is a classic example of this type of text.

The stele is divided in two sections. There’s an upper section here, which you’ll recognise is very Egyptian, and you have the deceased, this is Didymos here, being led by Anubis, this is Anubis here, and before, that’s Osiris, which is what it says there, and Isis whose name is there. That’s the top half. In the bottom half you’ll see, that’s not hieroglyph. That there is Greek. Beneath that is a very, I mean I can’t read Demotic at all, and I find very difficult, but even those who do read Demotic find this inscription not particularly easy to read, but we suspect it’s probably the same thing as what’s written there.

The Greek reads, ‘Didymos, son of Hirakon, 27 years old, before his time.’ He has died too young at the age of 27. Conversely, the Egyptian up here says, ‘May he live forever.’ This juxtaposition of Egyptian and Greek scripts is reminiscent of the famous Rosetta stone, and indicates that in Ptolemaic Egypt, script was an important cultural signifier as any form of art. In a way, with the Didymos stele we have come full circle back to Herodotus’ description Darius’ inscription at the Bosphorus. The use of script in these texts is there to engage with different cultures.

Now, I could go on and on about writing all day, but mercifully for you I shall not. Instead I’ll finish with a statement about the joy of being an ancient scribe. It is taken from the Middle Egyptian literary text called The Satire of the Trades. The scribe who is instructing his son says, ‘A scribe at whatever post in town, he will not suffer it, as he fills another’s needs, he will not lack rewards. I don’t see a calling like it, of which the same could be said. I’ll make you love scribedom more than you love your mother. I’ll make its beauty stand before you. It is the greatest of all callings. There is none like it in the land.’

Thank you.

MIKE PICKERING: Thank you very much. I’d now like to invite both speakers up to the comfy chairs for some time for some questions if we have …

QUESTION:   Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed both those talks. The question for Stephen Bourke, on the net and in the papers about the possibility that Greeks worked on the entombed warriors has come out recently, and I personally thought, ‘Surely not.’ Your thoughts on that?

STEPHEN BOURKE: Well, I’d like to see a little evidence. Is it possible that at the time that first millennium BC, first millennium AD, or that area, that the Greeks knew of China? Yes they did. We know they did. They wrote about it. They were quite clear. They knew about the great Chinese civilisation. They had a pretty fair idea about India right down to the Ganges. There was a Greco-Bactrian kingdom that was flourishing as late as 80 BC, in the Ganges valley. There were certainly Greek colonies pushing deep into western China, or at least Indo-Greek, let’s call them local Hellenised peoples. Again, as I said, this question of ideas, and people moving backward and forward, and the royal roads stretched from central Asia right the way through to Macedonia. Those roads were frequently used from probably the time Darius , so let’s call it late sixth. They only became more frequently used if you push through the Hellenistic age to the first century BC.

Could there have been Greeks, yes of course there could. Did there need to be Greeks? No. The Chinese were perfectly capable of building the excellent civilisation that is evidenced in entombed warriors. What’s fascinating is that they are beginning to have a good, close look at the ethnicity of some of the warriors themselves, and some of those warriors don’t look Han-Chinese. They look like they might have come from quite a way West. Then, of course we have to remember that what we consider to be the Chinese homeland today was much smaller even in the first and second centuries BC. What made up the kingdoms of Ancient China was a much more polyglot empire than today. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? Less convinced.

QUESTION:   Thank you very much for those delightful presentations, really a pleasure to listen to. Just to get the macro level, in particular with Dr Bourke’s speculation about connectivity, I wonder if we could just get opinion from both of you about the possible links between the two parts of the presentation. That is, with the idea of connectivity going back all the millennia. How important might writing have been for bringing the parties together over these vast distances, and if it wasn’t writing, what would have actually brought people together? Possibly bringing this connectivity out, would that connectivity itself have led to the importance of writing, or would writing have led to the importance of connectivity? Sorry, it’s a rather complex question.

LUIS SIDDALL:   I think the precursors to writing could be informative here. I mentioned very briefly that there are tokens. The earliest, and some people will actually argue that this is writing, so it depends what you class writing as. In terms of where writing may fit into what Stephen was talking about is that you have these tokens that are clearly used as receipts for exchange of goods. Usually cattle or food, stuff like barley. You get this progress that you have these loose tokens, then you start finding them in a clay bowl with the tokens inside, with the tokens impressed on the outside.

It’s accounting, almost a little fraud check. ‘Well, no we’ve got this agreement and there were five sheep that you gave me.’ They say, ‘Well, no I said I gave you ten.’ Then, ‘Okay, well let’s open up the clay bowl to check how many are in there.’ You can imagine as more cultures become involved with each other from further reaches of the world, all of a sudden, perhaps the move to something a little bit more complex, something more sophisticated like writing, where you move beyond the tokens, and in the very early proto-cuneiform inscriptions, you do see these signs that were used in the tokens then coming into the writing system. I think it would be through those sorts of interactions that would actually have pushed writing to develop as a technology. Does that answer your question in some way?

STEPHEN BOURKE: I think I’d just add, it’s useful. It helps you remember stuff. Once you get the idea of how this might work, you pick it up pretty quickly. It’s fascinating to see that when the New World is conquered, the French trappers in Canada take about five years before the local Indians have worked out what’s going on, and they are trapping the things for them, they are meeting the boats that are coming in to the shore before they get there, they’re doing the accounting using French weights and measures. They pick it up four years after first contact. Doesn’t take long for people to work out how to turn a buck. Writing is a really useful way of keeping track of your own guilt. People pick it up very quickly.

AUDIENCE:   Yes, on one of the tablets you showed there earlier, on the cuneiform tablet on the flood, the left-hand corner was cut away. What’s the significance of that?

LUIS SIDDALL:   Clay, we are so happy that the ancient Mesopotamians wrote on clay, because every time you burn down one of their cities, you accidentally fire their literature forever. It’s not 100 per cent fool-proof, and a lot of these, if the tablet’s been picked up, it’s actually been smashed.

AUDIENCE:   It looked as if it was pre-done for some reason.

LUIS SIDDALL:   That was actually done in antiquity, and now sits among many more fragments that actually join up in it. What you see there is one column. You see actually column three and a bit of column two. It was actually originally, if you count both sides, a six-column tablet. It was much longer than what you see there too. We actually only got a quarter of the original tablet.

QUESTION:   I looked at the ghost form around the outside, and it seemed to be very good formation, but the left-hand was neatly cut off.

LUIS SIDDALL:   It was found in, well, in 612, somewhere between 612 and 609, the city of Nineveh is destroyed. If you, the Assyrian’s weren’t the kindest of emperors. The lengths that the Neo-Babylonians and the Medes went to to destroy the Assyrian palaces, it wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, there is a series of treaties that we signed between the Medes and Ashurbanipal’s father, Esarhaddon, that were deliberately taken to the Court of Nineveh. We found them in hundreds of fragments because they were there and smashed in the royal court. That’s what we think happened, anyway. You’ve got this deliberate destruction of these artefacts that are going on. If they ran through and raided the library, and took them and smashed them to pieces in antiquity, that would be why, unfortunately, we find them like that today.

QUESTION:   Thank you.

MIKE PICKERING: I think I’ll have to close it there. Before we thank our speakers, I’ll just remind you all that our next lecture is on Sunday, 16 of October 2pm to 3pm: ‘Rise of empires’. If you’re available, please, pop by. Now, if you’ll join me in thanking our two wonderful speakers.

LUIS SIDDALL:   Thank you.

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Date published: 21 April 2017

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