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.

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