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Tracing Assyrian Scholarship 1

Professor Stefan Maul, University of Heidelberg

Text translated by Thomas Lampert, Ph.D., Berlin, Germany

The oldest written human documents are more than five-thousand years old, handed down to us in cuneiform on clay tablets which, over the course of time, have been shattered into thousands of tiny pieces. Stefan M. Maul of the Seminar for Languages and Cultures of the Middle East is the most recent winner of the Leibniz-Prize at the University of Heidelberg and one of the few scholars who can read these ancient documents. He is currently deciphering the collection of tablets found in the library of the conjuror Kisir-Assur from Assur. Professor Maul's work provides insight both into the ways in which conjurers in the 7th century BC worked and the kinds of questions which they posed. Meticulous detective work and scholarly imagination are required in order to understand the meaning of these clay tablets in their original context.

"Your wisdom and art have led you astray so that you say in your heart, 'I and no one else!' But now you will have misfortune which you will not know how to conjure away!" Isaiah's prophecy about Babylon, the "daughters of the Chaldeans," came true. This time, conjuring and magic could not save Babylon. Nevertheless, for a half millennium after the decline of the Babylonian world-empire, the "wisdom and art" of Mesopotamian conjurors remained highly regarded in Greece and Rome. Strabo and Cicero, Plinius and Arrian all praised the knowledge and abilities of the "Chaldeans." In the 1st millennium BC, Diodor still reported with amazement: "They have studied the entire history of their lives. They are greatly concerned with the art of prophecy, attempting to avert bad things and to bring about good things."
How did these scholars study? What kinds of questions did they ask? What sort of knowledge did they possess, and how did they attain it? The answers to such questions have now become possible through the deciphering and evaluating of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts. Today, we know that a written language (the first in human history) developed -- for the first time in human history -- in the cities of southern Mesopotamia around 3,200 BC. A complicated linguistic system of words and syllables with multiple meanings, written with a stylus onto clay tablets while they were still soft, developed rapidly. A number of languages appear in cuneiform, including Sumerian, Akkadian (the Semitic language of the Assyrians and Babylonians), and more than ten other ancient Middle Eastern languages.

The cities and empires of Mesopotamia bloomed for more than three millennium. Around the birth of Christ, however, the ancient cuneiform culture disappeared in the Hellenistic world of the Middle East. Cuneiform was given up and quickly forgotten. Although the ancient Middle East decisively influenced the world-view, religion, and science of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures, the memory of this proud culture soon faded. Archeological research in Mesopotamia (which began in the middle of the 19th century) allowed the ancient Middle East to rise again. Not only were the ruins of Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cities rediscovered, but archeologists found several hundredthousand cuneiform documents, only a small portion of which have been deciphered.

[Caption for image 1: An apotropaic relief from one of the 12 clay bricks under the conjurer's house.]

In the course of Mesopotamian history, archives and libraries were repeatedly destroyed both through natural disasters and wars. In this process, the delicate clay tablets were often broken into small fragments. In the ruins of houses, temples and palaces, some pieces were preserved. Along with stone and gold, the hard, air- dried or fired clay could survive in the ground even in unfavorable conditions. While the library at Alexandria burned (and with it, a large portion of the knowledge of classical antiquity), ancient Middle Eastern texts from nearly all domains of life have survived.

Significant insights into the world of the ancient Middle East were provided by the German Middle Eastern Society. Financially supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who himself studied cuneiform, the society sent an expedition to the Tigris in 1903 to excavate the city of Assur, the capital of ancient Assyria. Led by the architect Walter Andrae, the city was investigated for eleven years.

[Caption for image 2: The drawing of a clay tablet reconstructed from many fragments. It contains a Sumerian prayer to the God Enlil with an Akkadian translation indented on the left.]

The Medes and Babylonians conquered Assur in 614 BC, plundering it and leveling it to the ground, thus avenging centuries of brutal repression by the Assyrians. Despite the violent destruction, excavators were able to reconstruct quite an accurate picture of Assur's acropolis with its temples, palaces and military fortifications. They excavated the entire walled city area, digging pits ten meters wide every hundred meters. As expected, the remains of many private houses were discovered. In the debris of one house, which had been built in the 7th century BC and belonged to a "Chaldean," one of the most significant clay tablet finds was made. Over a thousand clay tablet fragments were strewn over the floors of a number of rooms. The archeologists had discovered the library of the conjurer Kisir-Assur, who had served the last of the great Assyrian rulers, Assurbanipal (669-627 BC), and who (as described by Diodor) was supposed to protect his king from "evil things" when the latter stayed in Assur. The cultural-historical value of this find was immeasurable. A number of texts from the ancient Middle Eastern scholarly tradition had been known to us through the discovery of the extensive library which Assurbanipal had collected in his residence in Ninive; but the royal library contained the entire writings of the time, and so it remained unclear which of the texts the conjurers used for their work. The library in Assur, on the other hand, offered us only those texts which the conjurers needed for their work. An evaluation of the library collection not only allows us to determine precisely the responsibilities of the "Chaldeans" in Assur, but also provides us with a deeper understanding of their methods and their work.

[Caption for image 3: A clay tablet with the description of a ritual, front]

[Caption for image 4: Map of the excavation of Assur, with a dot marking the house of the conjurer.]

Adequate analysis of these texts, however, could not be conducted immediately: arduous preparatory work was first required. First, the entire collection had to be catalogued and reconstructed. After the excavations had been completed, a large portion the approximately 16,000 clay tablets found in Assur were brought to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while a smaller number were brought to the Archeological Museum in Istanbul. Eighty years after the excavations had been completed, a Swedish colleague, using the excellent excavation diaries, was able to determine the location where most of the clay tablets had been discovered in Assur. Thus we now know, for the most part, which of the tablets were uncovered in Kisir-Assur's house. The better-preserved clay tablets were, for understandable reasons, investigated first. Approximately 600 tablet fragments, many of them in poor condition, remain unread.

The first goal of the project is to reconstruct the entire collection of the library and to edit the unpublished items. Like the shards of a broken vase, the greatest number of tablet fragments must be pieced together with the already published or unpublished tablet pieces. In this way, we can reconstruct the greatest number of complete texts from the smaller clay tablet fragments, which in themselves have been regarded as almost unusable. lf one were to attempt to piece together the 1,100 tablet fragments by simply holding one fragment up to another, there would be 604,450 different possibilities. We must therefore classify the tablet fragments into the smallest possible unified groups and then attempt to find textual connections within those groups.

First, a drawing for every clay tablet fragment which has not been published must be made, true to scale on the basis of the original. A photograph does not suffice for deciphering (particularly with damaged tablets), for the cuneiform characters are often readable only in a certain light. On a photograph, damage to the tablet surface is often hardly distinguishable from the cuneiform itself. An exact drawing of a tablet fragment ensures that even damaged cuneiform characters, which cannot at this point be identified for certain, are documented objectively.

[Caption for image 5: Arial photograph of Assur. The approximately 16,000 clay tablets found here offer insights into the life of ancient Middle Eastern people.]

[Caption for image 6: The back of the same clay tablet. A ritual which is supposed to avert the disaster of a prospective earthquake is described here.]

[Caption: "Joining": Meticulousness and a detective's instincts]

Even after the drawing of a tablet fragment has been made and each of the cuneiform characters has been identified, we are not always able to understand the meaning of a text. Most cuneiform characters have more than one meaning; only in context do they construct a meaningful whole. Thus, smaller tablet fragments often cannot initially be assigned to a textual type. Sometimes it even remains unclear whether such a text fragment is written in Sumerian or Akkadian. Only after studying numerous better preserved cuneiform texts is it possible to recognize a particular sequence of characters: through comparison with a better preserved piece, the content of the smaller fragment becomes understandable. If one succeeds in deciphering the wording of a text fragment beyond the point where it breaks off, then with a little luck one can find a fragment which contains precisely the completed expression. The probability is small, however, that both fragments fit together and make a more complete text.

In searching for textual connections, the appearance of the tablet fragments can be misleading. Although two pieces belong to the same tablet, they can have a completely different coloring. One fragment might be well-preserved but blackened with ash, while the other is greatly eroded and colored brown. The form of the tablets themselves, along with the structure and the grain of the clay can indicate as much about the connection between two fragments as exact observations about obvious orthographic conventions and character forms.

With the help of electronic data processing, the characteristics of published and unpublished tablet fragments can be stored, including those of content such as language and textual type, as well as those of key external characteristics. Fragments with particular characteristics can then be called up and tested for connections. In this way, many textual connections have already been discovered. For example, the description of a previously unknown ritual, which had served to appease the wrath of the gods who wanted to punish both king and country through fire, could be reconstructed from seven smaller fragments. Even if the philological deciphering of the library collection will still take several years, a rather exact picture of the activities of the conjurers from Assur can already be drawn from an initial examination of the tablets.

For the most part, Kisir-Assur, together with his nephew and student, Kisir- Nabu, made copies of the most important descriptions of Babylonian rituals. As they noted in rosin at the end of the texts, these tablets (often marked "urgent for the completion" of a ritual) "were copied from originals" which came from Babylon, Uruk, Nippur and other Mesopotamian cities. The philological conscientiousness with which the conjurers worked is surprising. If there were several versions of a text being copied, the different text variations were noted. if there was not enough time to check whether the copy actually agreed exactly with the original, this was also noted. Reference texts aided the conjurers in their work. Sumerian-Akkadian 'dictionaries' on clay tablets allowed them to provide Sumerian texts with an Akkadian translation. Lexicographical lists and indexes of the cuneiform characters, common at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, helped in understanding the ancient texts which Kisir-Assur had transcribed and for which, when he thought it necessary for his students, he provided a commentary. A collection of "a series of clay tables obligatory for the teaching and study [of conjuring]" which was discovered in Kisir-Assur's house provides us with the curriculum used in training a conjurer. Approximately two-thirds of the works named can, at this point, be identified in the conjurer's library. Fragments of catalogues from the library's own collection have even been found.

The essential task of the conjurers consisted in ensuring the well-being of the king and his servants, and in averting any misfortune which might befall the king, the people and the country. When Assur, the god of the empire, "determined the fate" of the king and the country during the new-year's festival, Kisir-Assur had to ensure that all the rites were carried out properly so that the gods would remain favorably inclined.

[Caption for image 7: In 1997, Stefan Maul was awarded the Leibniz-Prize for his research, including prize money of 3,000,000 DM .]

[Caption: What questions concerned the "Chaldeans"?]

The discovery of a series of historical texts was unexpected. The selection of texts suggests that Kisir-Assur--probably on the instruction of the Assyrian king occupying Babylon--attempted to answer the following questions: why had Marduk, the god of the Babylonian Empire, allowed a non-Babylonian to be recognized as the ruler of Babylon, and what were the mistakes which had led Marduk to withdraw his favor from a ruler of Babylon? The answers to these questions formed the basis of a new form of the Assyrian cult of the state, which Assurbanipal had commissioned the conjurers in Assur to work out. These early attempts to uncover regularities in history in order to politically exploit them are remarkable. The ritual "So that he who sees it is pleased" was supposed to increase the personal success of the king. Consecrating weapons "So that the enemy's arrow does not strike," along with magical and hygienic measures to prevent epidemics in battle, were supposed to provide military success. Whether the ritual, "To reconcile a quarrelsome wife with her husband," was intended for the king as well is not known.

Other texts describe how houses, temples and palaces might be protected from enemies. Under gates and doorframes and in the corners of houses and rooms, small figures of guardian spirits were buried during a great ceremony. These rituals were carried out by Kisir-Assur not only for clients -- a total of twelve clay capsules with 41 small figures of benevolent spirits were found under his own house. On one of them, the conjurer had written: "Enter, spirit of well-being! Disappear, evil spirit!" Collections of omens enabled the conjurer to recognize the anger of the gods, even before it assumed the form of palpable disaster. With the help of an extensive collection of "resolution-rituals" the conjuror attempted to appease the gods before misfortune occurred.

The diagnosis and treatment of diseases were also part of Kisir-Assur's and his students' responsibilities. Numerous medical texts which have been found in the conjurer's house prove that Herodotus was incorrect in his belief that the Mesopotamians had no physicians. Diseases were explained as being evidence of possession by demons or spirits of the dead, which seized and captivated people. Epilepsy, for example, was understood as the work of the "evil utukku-demon," and infant mortality and childbed fever as the treachery of the female demon Lamaschtu. Descriptions of exorcist rituals were an important part of conjurer's library collection. Prayers (often in Sumerian), sacrifices to ensure that the gods were favorably inclined, and magical manipulations not unlike the practices of Voodoo magicians formed the essential elements of the treatment of such patients. In addition to this, rites to avert of the evil consequences of black magic were important. No one doubted the effectiveness of the "magical-religious" therapies, for the prayers and ritual instructions (as noted on the tablets) could be traced back to divine revelations or to knowledge "from the ancient wise-men from the time before the flood."

While in many descriptions of rituals, the magic-religious classification of the diseases is obvious, other texts display a medical tenor: "If someone is very frightened and nervous; if his eyes wander constantly and he suffers from exhaustion; if his body temperature is not high, but he coughs frequently, and his saliva begins to flow, while there is increasing pressure on his innards; if his intestines hurt from the 'diarrhorea-disease' and he has diarrhorea; if his flesh outside is cold, while his windpipe is congested, if he gasps for air and has 'fire-burning' or 'burning of the insides' in many places -- then this man has the setu-fever." The conjurers from Assur put together therapeutic compendiums which often appear quite rational. One example is a prescription for the treatment of sacharschubbu, a highly infectious and often deadly skin disease: "If sacharschubbu appears on a person's body, you smoke the pustules with the sariptanu-herb until they dry out. Then you peel the pustules off. Apply a dressing of salt and the plant "horned alkali" and he will become healthy. [...] If someone is covered with sacharschubbu, you crush seeds of the horn plant, mix them with 'lion's tallow' (probably a plant.) Bandage them and he will become healthy." The most frequently named diseases are eye and ear diseases, tooth-ache, leprosy, epilepsy, jaundice, tumors, skin disease, fever, dropsy, coughing and gynecological disorders. There are even instructions for the treatment of speaking disorders or hair loss. One extensive tablet series is dedicated to the treatment of impotence.

In the surviving prescriptions, internally as well as externally taken medicines are named. A large number of plants and vegetable products (seeds, leaves, roots, fruits) were used, as were minerals and animal products. Unfortunately, we know many of the plants and minerals only by their Babylonian or Sumerian names, and are therefore unable to identify them as plants or minerals familiar to us. This problem is made more difficult by the fact that code names are also used for plants. As a result, it is often impossible to determine whether the healing effect of the medicine was of a pharmacological or a "magical" nature. Plants and minerals were often added to beverages made from beer, wine, milk, oil or water. Even pills were used. Among the externally applied medicines were plasters and bandages, which were laid over salves. Tampons and suppositories, enemas, medicinal smoke, steam baths and mouthwashes were also used. The discovery of very extensive, well-organized cuneiform "classificatory books," in which the appearance and medicinal effect of plants and minerals were collected, demonstrates the conjurers' serious scientific interest in the art of healing.

Even if the attempt to maintain order in the world through magic and ritual remains alien to the modern reader, one should not underestimate the psychological effect of conjurers' rituals. In every case, Kisir- Assur's meticulous search for knowledge connects the modern scientist to the ancient Assyrian researcher.

1. [Translator's note] This essay was first published in German in Ruperto Carola, Research Magazine of the University of Heidelberg in January 1997 as "Auf den Spuren assyrischer Gelehrsamkeit." ©1997, Ruperto Carola.