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The Middle Assyrian period

By the last third of the 2nd millennium Assyria gained political strength in the Fertile Crescent and started a policy of vast expansions into other territories. Most notably in this period is the campaign of the Middle Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BC) towards Babylonia, which is reflected upon in an epic. In this text the ruler claims that he brought to Assyria Babylonian scribal lore. The religious and political center of this period was Assur. Although the archaeological context of many of the artifacts is disturbed due to the city's destruction by invading Medes at the end of the 7th century BC, quite a few particularly well-preserved tablets with copies of lexical texts came down to us. These tablets, frequently considered library texts, provide a representative, but certainly incomplete picture of the lexical tradition in the Middle Assyrian period. The problems with understanding the use of these texts are not only due to the destruction of the city, but also to the fact that in the Neo-Assyrian period scholarly texts have been selected by the scholars and officials of king Ashurbanipal and transferred to the new capital Niniveh in order to be included in his library. An example for this transfer is the large god-list K 4349 (CT 24, 20-46), which was copied "according to an old large-tablet" (ina pî dubgallî labīri) by the Middle Assyrian scribe Kidin-Sîn, son of Suti'u. While his copy might have been selected not only because of its content, but also based on its quality and size, another text by this scribe was not selected for the transfer. VAT 9307 was certainly archived at the same location as the afore-mentioned god-list.

The colophons on the tablets of this period offer much information, not only on the date of the writing the copies of imported scholarly material, but also on the scribes' social background, and finally on the origin of the source material. Rather useful is furthermore information on the length of a particular composition, since this information helps to reconstruct the original length of fragmentary versions. None of the tablets found at Assur could be identified as a source text, from which the Middle Assyrian scribes copied. There are, however, some tablets, whose scribal hand is certainly of Middle Babylonian origin and which either have been imported from Babylonia proper or were brought there on another occasion, as for instance through the military achievement of Tukulti-Ninurta I. It is certain that Babylonian scribes settled in Assyria already in the last third of the 2nd millennium, which is best demonstrated by the case of the important official and scholar Marduk-nadin-ahhe (Wiggermann 2008).

In other instances the scribes' origin cannot be verified with certainty, at least not due to the lack of any archival material. Such is the case of the scribal family of Ninurta-uballissu, who was in the prestigious office of a royal scribe (tupšar šarre). Not many of these scribes are known for this period. All our information about this official stem from the colophons of three sons, who were tupšarrū sehrū, "young scribes" according to the texts they copied. The texts identified so far only date to a few eponyms.

The scribal programme of these scribes contained full copies of literary, lexical, and other technical literature, which came from places such as Babylon and Nippur. Extracts by these scribes are not known so far. Although the term "young scribes" or "apprentice scribes" might indicate a school background, the copies of these and other such scribes in the Middle Assyrian period are rather accomplished, both regarding uniformity and quality of the various scribal hands as well as the layout of the tablets. One among the afore-mentioned sons of Ninurta-uballissu, Marduk-balāssu-ēreš, for instance, copied several compositions onto large rectangular tablets (e.g., VAT 8875 with a copy of Ana ittišu 6).

A particularly interesting question for the Middle Assyrian period is the relationship of the texts to the later tradition of the 1st millennium BC from both Assyria and Babylonia, and the texts' relevance for questions of "canonicity". As for the lexical texts, putting aside variants in the entries themselves, the sequence of entries is very close to what we find in parallel texts half a millennium later. Due to this fact and the extraordinary good state of preservation of the Assur texts these texts served as primary sources for the reconstruction of the major lexical lists.

As was emphasized by Niek Veldhuis recently the Middle Assyrian scribes, and the sons of Ninurta-uballissu, in particular, favored scholarly texts deriving from the southern Mesopotamian site of Nippur. Nippur was the center of Sumerian learning and knowledge in the first half of the 2nd millennium and kept on being an important center for the translation of Sumerian scribal lore into Akkadian during the Middle Babylonian and Kassite periods. Although bilingual sources go back much further, it is this period, which sees a systematic engagement with Sumerian texts and an establishment of an authoritative Akkadian version. This is reflected in various text genres, most notably in lexical texts, which allow for an easy addition of Akkadian equivalents thanks to their tabular layout. Although this type of format is also used for bilingual versions of literary and other texts, from the Middle Babylonian period onwards the format of interlinear translations is widely used.

The lexical texts themselves provide no information on the purpose of their copying. If derived from the apprenticeship of scribes, they were copies done in the course of a rather advanced degree of the involved "young scribes". Errors are negligible besides an intriguing phonetic writing here and there. The term "library texts" is problematic due to the fact that none of the texts can be attributed to an official manuscript collection. A likely scenario is the existence of various private collections of the royal scribes, in whose estates scribes had been educated in the scribal art. The significant part of the texts was certainly transferred into an institutional context in the first centuries of the 1st millennium BC ("library N 1"). In any case, tablets must have been accessible for the Ashurbanipal's scholars in order to select them for being moved to the royal manuscript collection at Nineveh.

Middle Assyrian scribes were rather prolific in copying texts and introducing new genres of lexical material. Among these texts is the first palaeographical list. The intention of such lists was to collect sign forms that are older in date. Inscriptions on stone are usually rather conservative in the selection of sign forms. An archaizing script underlined the prestige of the inscription. It is not surprising that the overwhelming use of older sign forms on inscriptions such as, for instance, kudurrus triggered a sub-discipline of lexical texts, namely the collection of sign forms. Of course these sign forms are not collected arbitrarily. The entries in the palaeographical list from Assur follow the sequence of a widely used syllabary, the so-called Syllabary A (or Sa). Its scribe Marduk-kabit-ahhēšu was well aware of the antiquity of the signs he collected in this list. Each entry contains an annotation with the corresponding sign form in Middle Assyrian script. This scribe's awareness is further reflected in the tablet's colophon, in which he uses palaeographically older sign forms as well. The same scribe is also known from a large copy of the incantation series Udug-hul (VAT 8883 (+) BM 130660), which is fully written in a Middle Assyrian scribal hand.

Scribes were in general rather aware of the antiquity of their sources. This antiquity is frequently indicated in their colophons. The large six-column tablet VAT 10172 containing a copy of the first tablet of the syllabary Ea refers to it as GIŠ.GAR3 A.Ameš LIBIR.RAmeš, "old A.A series." Although most of the tablet's entries contain sign forms that are consistent with other Middle Assyrian texts, this list particularly provides archaizing sign forms in such cases, in which they are part of complex graphemes. Another copy of the same text (BM 108862) uses only contemporary sign forms.

All being considered, the Middle Assyrian lexical texts appear to be well-executed copies of lists imported from Babylonia. Whether the so-called "Emesal Vocabulary" also was first created in Babylonia and subsequently found its way to Assyria cannot be determined with the present state of knowledge. An interesting feature of the Middle Assyrian lexical corpus is also the comparatively high density of manuscripts belonging to the legal phrasebook Ana ittišu.

As mentioned above, both lexical and literary texts bear colophons. Colophons are already attested much earlier in the Mesopotamian textual record, but the Middle Assyrian period for the first time provides more detailed information on the scribes involved and the provenience of the source material. The sons of the royal scribe Ninurta-uballissu are particularly careful with their colophons, as the subsequent example of VAT 8875 demonstrates:


(double ruling) MAN BE MAN
(catch line)
(blank space)
7th tablet of ki-ulutin-bi-še3 a-na it-ti-[šu]
In total: 180 are its lines.
It is complete. It is checked. Copy from Nippur.
Hand of Marduk-balāssu-ēreš, young scribe,
son of Ninurta-uballissu, royal scribe.
By the name of Aššur my written name you must not erase!
(blank space)
(Date formula)


Klaus Wagensonner (Freie Universität, Berlin)
For suggestions and corrections please email Klaus Wagensonner

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the_middle_assyrian_period.txt · Last modified: 2016/04/22 22:28 by wagensonner
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