Adventures in Assyriology

On a sticky September day two years ago, I first visited the Yale Babylonian collection. I was on assignment for the News, and Babylon was far from my mind; all I could think about was the set of Greco-Roman-Egyptian magical amulets that I was reporting on.

But the office of Ulla Kasten, assistant curator of the collection, soon caught my imagination. Shelf upon shelf of myriad cuneiform tablets, from an Old Babylonian (OB)-period recipe tablet to a mathematical tablet that proved OB mathematicians knew about the Pythagorean Theorem — more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras — caught my imagination. The collection, I was informed, was the largest of ancient Mesopotamian objects in the United States. And it sits right under our noses, in Sterling Memorial Library.

Kasten’s invitation to return when I had finished the article was too good to resist. The next Thursday, she showed me how to write on clay with a reed while she rifled through boxes to find clay-baked tablets and even inscriptions onto precious metals to answer my every question. She even pointed out the world’s oldest footstool, from the fourth millennium B.C. (“It’s unique — there’s nothing like it anywhere,” the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department chairman, Benjamin Foster GRD ’75, explained). The tide of guilt for ignoring such a fascinating field of study was only exceeded by my excitement at this vast abyss of the unknown.

“Yale provides you with wonderful resources to study Akkadian”; it was in my fourth week of freshman year classes that Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 provided this footnote to his “Introduction to the History of Art” lecture on Babylonian art. “Akkadian” — the idea bothered me somehow. I had already written for the News, shopped classes and sat awkwardly alone outside ADPhi while everyone else seemed to be having fun; was the study of a language that Microsoft Word spellchecks and the Yale Record once asked “Is that even a language?” an essential part of my Yale experience too?

“Nah, that’s not useful, why would you do that?” a friend (now planning to work at a hedge fund next year) laughed when I mused that I might take it my sophomore year. “Why don’t you learn Chinese?”

But still, the name haunted me, and memories of trying to decipher the cuneiform on the Gates of Nineveh in the British Museum as a child loomed specter-like over my attempts at erudition. Even Blue Booking taunted me, with “Akkadian” floating at No. 4 on AKKD 110 promised an “introduction to the language of ancient Babylonia and its cuneiform writing system, with exercises in reading, translation, and composition,” but still, I didn’t dare.

What was I missing out on? I’m sure the question plagues many Yalies, and up to this point, I remained in the dark, like everyone else. So, at the beginning of my senior year, there was only one thing to do — in a last-ditch attempt to understand anything I could about the field, I threw myself headfirst into AKKD 110 — who knows, maybe one day I would be able to read the inscriptions on those gates.

Learning Akkadian is very different from other undergraduate pursuits, I soon found out. Classes were short and intense, and the only two other students in the class were Mallory Ditchey GRD ’12, a graduate student in Assyriology who’s writing her master’s thesis on the use of tattoos in ancient Mesopotamia, and Benjamin Korenstein, DIV ’11, a student of Biblical Hebrew. I felt completely out of my depth — even more so as terms like “Sumerian loan words” and “D and Š stems” were tossed around, but there were still moments of elation, such as when I realized there was a similarity between the Akkadian “Šar” (king) and the words “tsar” and “shah” (apparently, this is not a coincidence).

Ditchey summed it up in an email much better than I could:

“I love the idea of reading something that hasn’t been read in thousands of years. It is amazing to think that ideas can be transmitted across millennia. Decipherment is such an incredible process,” she wrote. “There are still languages written in cuneiform (or cuneiform-like systems) that scholars are trying to piece together, and I want to be part of that process.”

Soon, we were learning cuneiform signs. Though it was hard, the excitement at being able to read the language, the literature of thousands of years ago, was unparalleled. The little triangle-headed horizontal and vertical reed impressions, and even the ominously named “Winckelhaken” (the wedge-shaped component of cuneiform signs) started to sing. Imagine my excitement, when I learned Akkadian is the ancient language with the second-largest corpus of extant texts after Latin. The variety of texts — many of which are stored at the Babylonian Collection, most notably the famous Yale Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh — that can be studied is immense. From tablets that record the minutiae of Babylonian and Assyrian lives to scientific and mathematical treatises to epic adventures, there is something for all interests in Assyriology. Those that want to pry further into the past can also learn Sumerian, the world’s first attested language, the oldest tablets of which are around 5,000 years old.

All of this got me asking — with such wonderful resources, why aren’t more undergraduates studying this civilization and its language?

The collection began in 1909, with a gift of $100,000 from J. Pierpont Morgan, and the Assyriology Department in 1912. Initially, professor Foster explained, the department required that its graduate students speak Hebrew, German, Latin and French to be admitted, and the small student body consisted mainly of scholarly clergymen; in the 1970s, Assyriology was made a track in the Near Eastern languages and civilizations major and admitted its first undergraduates, but today, few choose to pursue it.

Still, the graduate students sing the department’s praises. Ditchey emphasised the collaborative and supportive environment while Mary Frazer GRD ’14, who teaches AKKD 110 and studied at Oxford University as an undergraduate, said her main reason for choosing to study Assyriology at Yale was the professors.

“Within the field they’re world-renowned — and they can decipher anything!” she said, pointing out that Foster’s “Before The Muses” was “a monument of scholarship” and “an important research tool” for all Assyriologists. She added that the approach of Eckart Frahm, the department’s other professor, to the literature and history of the first millennium invites students to study the famous empires of that epoch in novel and interesting ways.

“[Assyriology at Yale] is about breadth, not just depth,” she explained. “You have to compute a large amount of detail on both the macro- and micro-historical level.”

Frahm, the department’s other professor, said that the study of another ancient Near Eastern language, Egyptology, has piqued more undergraduate interest at Yale.

“Students from a young age get obsessed with Egypt, but [in Assyriology], very few take a step beyond reading things in translation,” he explained.

Frahm is planning to teach an undergraduate course on ancient Mesopotamia and its history next year, pointing out that the large enrollment in Kathryn Slanski’s “Heroes” class showed that many undergraduates were interested in the field.

Colleen Manassa ’01 GRD ’05, DUS of the Near Eastern Langauges and Civilizations Department agreed in an email that Egyptology is more popular among undergraduates, and Yale’s Egyptolology professors have actively encouraged undergraduates to take their classes.

“We have actively promoted our Egyptian classes through the years as a fun and unusual means by which they [undergraduates] can fulfill their foreign language requirement,” she said. “We also benefit from the fact that in museum exhibits and TV shows, ancient Egypt receives far more exposure than ancient Mesopotamia.”

But undergraduates do sometimes venture up to the Babylonian Collection.

Ulla Kasten explained that students with varying interests come to the collection from time to time to see specific tablets.

“Certain classes come here from Women’s Studies to see the work of the first known poet, who was female,” she says, pointing to the tablet on a shelf. “The cookbooks are also sought after and the mathematical tablet is really, really famous — everybody can relate to that kind of math.”

And I agree. After a year of Akkadian, I believe the appeal of Assyriology is not that it’s esoteric or obscure, but that it’s universal — everybody should make at least one visit to the collection.

And maybe they should even learn Akkadian — after all, as professor Foster says, “Everything’s interesting; I have never read a boring cuneiform tablet.”

Correction: Aprl 8, 2011

An earlier version of this article mistakenly suggested that the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations had promoted Egyptology over Assyriology.