93155 - Archaeology and Writing (Lm)

Course Unit Page

  • Teacher Palmiro Notizia

  • Credits 6

  • SSD L-ANT/06

  • Teaching Mode Traditional lectures

  • Language English

  • Campus of Bologna

  • Degree Programme Second cycle degree programme (LM) in Archaeology and Cultures of the Ancient World (cod. 8855)

Academic Year 2020/2021

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will know the main epigraphic disciplines from a comparative, diachronic and diatopic perspective. They will be able to analyze the writer’s intention implicit in every written document in relation to the support and the type of archaeological context. Students will know how to use the main methods of documentation and study of inscriptions, including new developments in digital epigraphy. They will have a critical understanding of a written document qua archaeological find, thus enhancing its purely material side. They will also make independent use of the main corpora and repertoires (even digital ones), as provided by the epigraphic disciplines.

Course contents

The course focuses on the materiality of ancient Near Eastern written evidence. Starting from the emergence of the first written documents toward the end of the fourth millennium BC, the use of the cuneiform script, which was first invented to express Sumerian and was later adapted to write a variety of unrelated languages throughout the ancient Near East, will be analysed. Specifically, different material supports and the social, religious, archival, and archaeological contexts of writing will be examined. Particular attention will be devoted to the relation between writing and royal ideology, and to scribal training and education.

The following topics will be covered during fifteen two-hour classes:

  1. The Materiality of Writing: Cuneiform Texts as Artefacts and Their Archaeological Contexts.
  2. The Emergence of Writing in Babylonia and Iran: from Clay Tokens to Proto-Cuneiform Texts.
  3. The Use of Cuneiform Script in the Ancient Near East and Neighbouring Regions.
  4. Seals, Sealing Techniques, Paratextual Markers, and Other Graphic Devices.
  5. Scribes as Artisans: Scribal Training, Education, and the Sumerian “School” (edubba’a).
  6. Archives and Libraries in Ancient Mesopotamia (Part 1): 3rd and 2nd Millennia BC.
  7. Archives and Libraries in Ancient Mesopotamia (Part 2): 1st Millennium BC.
  8. Writing and Royal Ideology: Royal Statues, Stelae, Rock Reliefs, and Palace Inscriptions.
  9. Writing and Memory: Foundation Deposits and Other “Hidden” Inscriptions.
  10. The Social Dimension of Writing: Private Dedicatory Inscriptions and Boundary Stones (kudurrus).
  11. Script Obsolescence: The End of the Cuneiform Era.
  12. Digital Epigraphy (Part 1): Cataloguing, Capturing, and Copying Cuneiform Artefacts. [guest lecture]
  13. Digital Epigraphy (Part 2): Electronic Corpora and Research Tools for the Study of Cuneiform Texts.
  14. Early Writing Systems in Comparative Perspective (Egypt). [guest lecture]
  15. Early Writing Systems in Comparative Perspective (Mesoamerica). [guest lecture]


Students attending classes

J. Andersson, Private Commemorative Inscriptions of the Early Dynastic and Sargonic Periods: Some Considerations, in Th.E. Balke and C. Tsouparopoulou (eds.), Materiality of Writing in Early Mesopotamia (Materiale Textkulturen 13), de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2016, 47–71.

D. Brown, Increasingly Redundant: The Growing Obsolescence of the Cuneiform Script in Babylonia from 539 BC, in J. Baines, J. Bennet, and S.D. Houston (eds.), The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication, Equinox, London 2008, 73–101.

C. Cartwright and J. Taylor, Investigating Technological and Environmental Evidence from Plant Remains and Molluscs in Cuneiform Tablets, British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 5 (2011), 67–72.

D. Collon, First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987, 97–134.

I. Finkel, Assurbanipal’s Library: An Overview, in K. Ryholt and G. Barjamovic (eds.), Libraries before Alexandria: Ancient Near Eastern Traditions, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2019, 367–389.

Y. Goren, H. Mommsen, and J. Klinger, Non-Destructive Provenance Study of Cuneiform Tablets Using Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF), Journal of Archaeological Science 38 (2011), 684–696.

N. Morello, A GIŠ on a Tree: Interactions between Images and Inscriptions on Neo-Assyrian Monuments, in M. Hilgert (ed.), Understanding Material Text Cultures: A Multidisciplinary View (Materiale Textkulturen 9), de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston, 31–68.

O. Pedersén, Excavated and Unexcavated Libraries in Babylon, in E. Cancik-Kirschbaum, M. van Ess, and J. Marzahn (eds.), Babylon. Wissenskultur in Orient und Okzident (Topoi 1), de Gruyter, Berlin 2011, 47–67.

E. Robson, The Tablet House: A Scribal School in Old Babylonian Nippur, Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 95 (2001), 39–66.

J. Taylor, Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans, in K. Radner and E. Robson (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2011, 5–31.

C. Tsouparopoulou, Hidden Messages under the Temple: Foundation Deposits and the Restricted Presence of Writing in 3rd Millennium BCE Mesopotamia, in T. Frese, W.E. Keil, and K. Krüger (eds.), Verborgen, unsichtbar, unlesbar - zur Problematik restringierter Schriftpräsenz (Materiale Textkulturen 2), de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2014, 23–38.

C. Woods, The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing, in C. Woods (ed.), Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32), The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago 2010, 33–50.

R.L. Zettler, Archaeology and the Problem of Textual Evidence for the Third Dynasty of Ur, Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 38 (2003): 49–62.

P. Zimansky, Archaeology and Texts in the Ancient Near East, in S. Pollock and R. Bernbeck (eds.), Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical perspectives, Blackwell, Oxford 2005, 308–326.

Extra readings for students not attending classes

R. Matthews, Writing (and Reading) as Material Practice: The World of Cuneiform Culture as an Arena for Investigation, in K.E. Piquette and R.D. Whitehouse (eds.), Writing as Material Practice: Substance, Surface and Medium, Ubiquity Press, London 2013, 65–74.

M. Rutz, Libraries in Syria and the Levant in the Late Bronze Age, c. 1450–1100 BCE, in K. Ryholt and G. Barjamovic (eds.), Libraries before Alexandria: Ancient Near Eastern Traditions, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2019, 210–243.

W. Waal, Writing in Anatolia: The Origins of the Anatolian Hieroglyphs and the Introductions of the Cuneiform Script, Altorientalische Forschungen 39 (2012), 287–315.

R.L. Zettler, Written Documents as Excavated Artifacts and the Holistic Interpretation of the Mesopotamian Archaeological Record, in J.S. Cooper and G. M. Schwartz (eds.), The Study of the Ancient Near East in the Twenty-First Century: The William Foxwell Albright Centennial Conference, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, 81–101.

Teaching methods

Lectures and collective discussion of selected articles and book chapters provided by the teacher.

In order to provide students with a broader perspective on specific topics, three guest lectures are planned, with the involvement of experts in digital epigraphy and “pristine” writing systems.

Assessment methods

Oral examination aiming at verifying the student’s knowledge of the topics covered during the course and of the assigned readings. The overall evaluation will take into account attendance to classes and active participation in class discussions. Students not attending classes will be assigned extra readings (see Readings/Biliography).

Excellent knowledge of the topics, clarity in the exposition, correct use of the terminology, and ability to formulate and develop critical and rigorous arguments are necessary to attain an excellent mark.

Students showing good knowledge of the main themes treated during the course, ability to discuss specific issues, while failing to use an appropriate terminology, will receive a good mark.

Students who do not show an adequate knowledge of the topics discussed during the course will not pass the exam.

Teaching tools

PowerPoint presentations and other teaching materials will be provided by the teacher.

Office hours

See the website of Palmiro Notizia