All posts by Duane Smith

My formal training is in Semitics with special focus on Ancient Hebrew, Akkadian, and Ugaritic. While I spent the mid part of my life working in industry, in retirement I have returned to my studies. An active amateur scholar, I have published in Ugarit-Forschungen, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, and the Journal of Biblical Literature. I was an associate editor of Ras Shamra Parallels: the Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible volume II to which I contributed a chapter on the Akkadian wisdom text RS 22.439 from Ugarit. More recently, I contributed four chapters to Alan Lenzi’s, Reading Akkadian Prayers and Hymns. I worked in the field as an Area Supervisor with the Harvard Semitic Museum - Hebrew Union College Excavations at Tel Gezer in Israel.

A Brain Surgeon Is Not An Archaeologist

BuzzFeed NEWS reports,

At the 1998 commencement for Andrews University, a school associated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, [Ben} Carson also dismissed the notion that aliens were somehow involved in the construction of the pyramids.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said. “Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”

They even have a video of him saying this.

Ben Carson isn’t an expert on much of anything beyond brain surgery, oh, and making money. He also doesn’t make much sense on anything beyond brain surgery.

I don’t know if Dr. Carson still believes this nonsense but I wouldn’t be surprised. He sure believes a lot of other nonsense.

The Gods Rich in Praise

I’ve been reading and, I confess, occasionally skimming Christopher Metcalf’s The Gods Rich in Praise: Early Greek and Mesopotamian Religious Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). This publication is a revised version of Metcalf’s Balliol College (Oxford) PhD dissertation. I found it abnormally interesting. So much so that I’m now going back to look more carefully at what I skimmed.

Metcalf focuses tightly on the possible influence of Mesopotamian literature, primarily hymns of praise, on early Greek poetry. He primarily considers Sumerian and Old Babylonian hymns with considerable discussion of the relevant Hittite material. One might quibble about a few details but his three conclusions are well supported.

  1. “. . . on the basis of the material presented here, the case for pervasive Near Eastern influence is likely to have been over stated.” (226-7)
  2. “. . . if the arguments that have been made here are accepted, the Near Eastern material can help to achieve a more accurate understanding of certain passages in early Greek poetry, especially where enough sources are available to exploit the advantages of the cuneiform documentation as fully as possible.” (227)
  3. “Third, a more balanced appreciation of the relationship between early Greek and ancient Near Eastern poetry should eventually enable us to perceive elements that were never taken over in the first place because they were rooted in Greece. . . “(227)

Except for possible increased influence that may be the result of direct contact, one could say almost the same three things about studies, including mine, concerning the relationship between Mesopotamian literature and the Hebrew Bible.

Oh yeah, Metcalf cites my 2013 paper on the Mesopotamian origin of Homeric bird-divination, page 206, note 1. Only a “see also” citation but I am grateful!

Tablets as Archaeological Objects

Like Jim Davila, I missed the publication of a new, large, fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš when it came out last year. Al-Rawi and George’s publication (“Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 66 [2014], 69-90) of the fragment is abnormally interesting for a number of reasons. Among these is their discussion of the role of the physical examination of tablets in the scholarly history of how to order the material in tablet V. In the course of this discussion they take a shot at much recent work.

Understanding cuneiform tablets as archaeological objects is a practice that had few exponents for much of the twentieth century, when Assyriologists too often gave all their attention to the inscribed text as a self-contained intellectual resource disembodied from the medium on which it was written. (71)

Al-Rawi and George are talking about the shape and other physical properties of the surface of tablets but the same can be said of the details of the provenance of tablets. In the case of their fragment the provenance is unknown. Even where we know the excavation site we often don’t know the exact find spot. This is particularly true of older excavations. I once asked an Assyriologist about the find spot of a tablet from Kuyunjik. He told me to just be happy that we are relatively sure it is from Nineveh!


Still, I think it is important to treat tablets as archaeological objects, as artifacts, whenever we can. Back in March I gave a paper at the SBL Pacific Coast Regional Meeting outlining some evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit. Much of that paper was based on features of tablet utilization, the curvature of the tablet surfaces, sign morphology and find spot. As I said in that paper,

My evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit depends on the study of tablets with alphabetic cuneiform writing as artifacts in their totality and not just as media for texts in the Ugaritic language.

Some of you know that I have toyed with the possibility that the later kings of Ugarit were literate in the local vernacular. Much of my thought process on is driven by the archaeological context of certain Ugaritic tablets as much as by what is on those tablets. More on this later – – maybe.

Shumma Alu Volume 3

This is somewhat old news but Sally Freedman has published volume 3 of Shumma Alu. This volume covers tablets 41 to 53 which contain omens relating to cattle, equid omens, wild animals, cats and dogs, pigs, fire. But this time the volume is only available online. Of this she says in her introductory remarks,

It is uncertain whether further volumes will appear in a conventional book format. However, I am posting text editions of the reconstructed Tablets on, so that the work I’ve done on the remaining Alu Tablets will be available for anyone who is interested. Images of almost all the original texts are online, either on the British Museum website or in the database CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative).

Freedman’s publication of these tablets is a welcome addition to her previous two volumes on this important Akkadian omen series: only 67 tablets to go. Actually not all 67 remain tablets are extant but Freeman will not lack for work over the coming years.


How a Footnote Stopped a Note

I’ve been writing a note on how an Ugaritic meteorological term (ģrpl) can be a trope for snake venom (ḥmt) in KTU 1.107 (RS 24.251+). I thought I discovered something. Enuma Elish V:49-52 mentions that Marduk reserved for himself wind, kaṣāṣa-rain, and fog, “spreading her (Tiamat’s) venom (Akkadian imtiša).” And then I found this in a footnote in Pardee’s 1988 edition of the Ugaritic text.

De Moor (OTS 24 [1986], p. 10) a cité comme parallèle littéraire pour les nuages porteurs de venin l’association de la brume et du poison dans l’Enuma Elish babylonien (V 51); dans le texte babylonien c’est Mardouk qui agit mais dans ce même contexte (ligne 45) il s’agit de l’établissement de la divinité solaire, Šapaš.

And so ended my hope for fame and fortune.