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Assyriology (from Greek Ἀσσυρίᾱ, Assyriā; and -λογία, -logia) is the archaeological, historical, and linguistic study of ancient Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and of related cultures that used cuneiform writing. The field covers the Akkadian sister-cultures of Assyria and Babylonia, together with their cultural predecessor; Sumer. The large number of cuneiform clay tablets preserved by these cultures provide an extremely large resource for the study of the period. The region's (and the world's) first cities such as Ur are archaeologically invaluable for studying the growth of urbanization.

Scholars need a good knowledge of several languages: Akkadian and its major dialects and Sumerian, aided by such languages as Biblical Hebrew, Hittite, Elamite and Aramaic for comparative purposes, and the knowledge of writing systems that use several hundred core signs. There now exist many important grammatical studies and lexical aids. Although scholars can draw from a large corpus of literature, some tablets are broken, or in the case of literary texts where there may be many copies, the language and grammar are arcane. Moreover, scholars must be able to read and understand modern English, French, and German, as important references, dictionaries, and journals are published in those languages.


From classical antiquity to modern excavation[edit]

For many centuries knowledge of Mesopotamia was largely confined to often dubious classical sources. From the Middle Ages onward, there were scattered reports of ancient Mesopotamian ruins. As early as the 12th century, the ruins of Nineveh were correctly identified by Benjamin of Tudela (also known as Benjamin Son of Jonah), a rabbi from Navarre, who visited the Jews of Mosul and their ruins during his travels throughout the Middle East.[1] The identification of the city of Babylon was made in 1616 by Pietro Della Valle. Not only did Pietro give "remarkable descriptions" of the site, but he also brought back to Europe inscribed bricks that he had found at Nineveh and Ur .[2]

18th Century and birth[edit]

Between 1761 and 1767, Carsten Niebuhr, a Danish mathematician, made copies of cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis as well as sketches and drawing of Nineveh, and was shortly followed by André Michaux, a French botanist and explorer, who sold the French Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris an inscribed boundary stone found near Baghdad.[3] The first known archeological excavation in Mesopotamia was led by Abbé Beauchamp, papal vicar general at Baghdad, excavating the sculpture now generally known as the "Lion of Babylon."[4] Abbé Beauchamp's memoirs of his travels, published in 1790, sparked a sensation in the scholarly world, generating a number of archeological and academic expeditions to the Middle East. In 1811, Claudius James Rich, an Englishman and a resident for the East India Company in Baghdad, began examining and mapping the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh, and collecting numerous inscribed bricks, tablets, boundary stones, and cylinders, including the famous Nebuchadnezzar Cylinder and Sennacherib Cylinder, a collection which formed the nucleus of the Mesopotamian antiquities collection at the British Museum.[5] Before his untimely death at the age of 34, he wrote two memoirs on the ruins of Babylon and the inscriptions found therein, two works which may be said to "mark the birth of Assyriology and the related cuneiform studies."[6]

Decipherment of cuneiform[edit]

One of the largest obstacles scholars had to overcome during the early days of Assyriology was the decipherment of curious triangular markings on many of the artifacts and ruins found at Mesopotamian sites. These markings, which were termed "cuneiform" by Thomas Hyde in 1700, were long considered to be merely decorations and ornaments. It was not until late in the 18th century that they came to be considered some sort of writing, when in 1778 Carsten Niebuhr, the Danish Mathematician, published accurate copies of three trilingual inscriptions from the ruins at Persepolis.[7] Niebuhr showed that the inscriptions were written from left to right, and that each of the three inscriptions contained three different types of cuneiform writing, which he labeled Class I, Class II, and Class III. Class I was determined to be alphabetic and consisting of 44 characters, and was written in Old Persian. It was first deciphered by Georg Friedrich Grotefend and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson between 1802 and 1848.[8] The second inscription, Class II, proved more difficult to translate. In 1850, Edward Hincks published a paper showing that the Class II was not alphabetical, but was in fact both syllabic and ideographic, which led to its translation between 1850 and 1859. The language was at first called Babylonian and/or Assyrian, but has now come to be known as Akkadian.


Noted Assyriologists include:


  1. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samule Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p 7
  2. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963 p. 7
  3. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 7
  4. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963. p 8
  5. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963 p. 8
  6. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p.8
  7. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 11
  8. ^ The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 13–15

See also[edit]

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