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Although this is the end of term in Austria, I made time to hear a very exciting talk by Dr. Jens Høyrup of Copenhagen. What was billed as an overview of mathematical and scribal culture turned into a survey of Mesopotamian history from the Agricultural Revolution to the Neo-Assyrian Empire as seen through the lens of the technology of numbers. Høyrup has some provocative views, including the idea that Sumerian is descended from a creole. He also had a good overview of the transition from counting tokens to impressions of tokens to sketches of tokens to cuneiform writing. The first stage of this transition does not seem to have soaked the popular literature, and I will try to find and link a good article on it one of these days. (A famous book is How Writing Came About by Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat of Texas).

Like many people who have looked at the evidence on the first cities cities, Høyrup sees little to admire. He emphasizes that the rulers of these early societies liked images of themselves or their servants clubbing helpless prisoners, and that the third-millennium texts from Mesopotamia seem to portray a society where most people were serfs organized into gangs and obliged to give exactly 360 days of labour every year. On the other hand, he does emphasize the brilliance required to invent writing and to produce the literature and algebra of the early second millennium BCE. Agriculture and the first cities brought tyranny, back-breaking labour, and bad health, but they also set the forces in motion which enable me to know anything about what happened before my great-grandparents’ day. Unfortunately, the later would be cold comfort for the serfs.

A few of his comments touched on an area which I have been thinking about for a few years. Høyrup was rather dismissive of the ideals in royal inscriptions, seeing them as moral commonplaces of the “widows and orphans” sort. This view is common amongst Assyriologists who insist that the ideals on, for example, the Cyrus Cylinder are typical for royal inscriptions and therefore not very important. It is certainly wise to not pay too much attention when someone says what they are expected to say. Yet cognitive dissonance troubles people, and Mesopotamian kings spent great effort on their royal inscriptions. I am not sure that I believe that the ethical part of Mesopotamian royal inscriptions was insignificant or rote. What people say about themselves often tells more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually act, but both of those things are worth studying.

I may, of course, change my view as I read more Near Eastern sources over the next few years, and I suspect that Høyrup’s remarks were part of a debate on the nature of early kingship which I am not familiar with. The talk has certainly given me things to think about for the next few weeks.