The Materiality of Writing in 3rd Millenium B.C. Mesopotamia, by Dr Christina Tsouparopoulou

BRIHC Scholar George Harold (MA Ancient History) reports on the recent BRIHC Materiality Seminar hosted by the Rosetta Forum.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend the third research seminar in BRIHC’s Materiality series. This seminar was hosted in collaboration with the Rosetta Forum, and was delivered by Dr Christina Tsouparopoulou, from University of Heidelberg. The subject of Dr Tsouparopoulou’s research was the materiality of inscriptions in the ancient city of Ur from the 3rd Millennium B.C., examining the socio-cultural relationship between both inscribed and un-inscribed artefacts and the ancient peoples who made them. Her principal argument was that the inherent value of inscriptions which is attributed by archaeologists and historians to these artefacts is both erroneous and presumptuous.

Dr Tsouparopoulou began by explaining that Ur has been the site of regular archaeological excavations since the 19th Century. This popularity with archaeologists is due to Ur’s status as one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and also to the prolific discovery of artefacts, especially inscribed artefacts. Dr Tsouparopoulou drew our attention to the unfounded yet prevalent assumption among historians and archaeologists that the inscriptions on these artefacts bestows an inherent value on them.

The focus of Dr Tsouparopoulou’s argument was the contents of the temple foundation deposits which have been excavated in Ur. These contents – which probably had some ritual purpose – consisted of clay tablets and copper figurines. Dr Tsouparopoulou explained that the clay tablets were invariably well-polished and finely carved, while the copper figurines were of a more mediocre quality. Both the tablets and the figurines were sometimes inscribed, and sometimes left un-inscribed. Although there is no apparent reason for either adding an inscription or not, it is evident that there is no disparity in quality between those artefacts which are inscribed and those which are not. Dr Tsouparopoulou emphasised this point: if an inscription had an inherent value, then we would expect that the inscribed tablets and figurines would be of a higher quality. The fact that they are not of a better quality compared to their un-inscribed counterparts indicates that the supplementary inscriptions did not attach any perceived value to the object.

Dr Tsouparopoulou also referred to the claims of some archaeologists and historians – particularly widespread in the 20th Century but by no means extinct today – that words and inscriptions in the ancient civilisations were considered to be sacred, and that the act of writing was itself a sacred and ritualistic process. Dr Tsouparopoulou proceeded to demonstrate the fallacy of these presumptuous claims by pointing to one particular example of a clay tablet discovered in these foundation deposits. This clay tablet had been inscribed, but it had also been marred in a quite remarkable manner; when the tablet had been initially carved and inscribed, and then left to dry, it had subsequently been stood on by a dog, who had left his footprint clearly set into the tablet. Dr Tsouparopoulou argued that if the tablet was indeed a consecrated object due to its ‘sacred’ inscription, then surely being marred by a dog would have defiled it, and hence necessitated either its rectification or its removal. However, this did not happen: the tablet was deposited in the temple’s foundations, regardless of the supposedly sacrilegious footprint.

When Dr Tsouparopoulou concluded her presentation, we had an opportunity for questions. I myself asked how literate the civilisation in Ur was. Dr Tsouparopoulou explained that although we regrettably cannot determine this, it is evident that the intended audience for these clay tablets and copper figurines was capable of acknowledging the symbolism and value of the objects, with or without the inscribed text. This quite nicely sums up Dr Tsouparopoulou’s whole argument: it is too easy to assume that an inscription would inevitably lend value to an object, but this case-study of the temple deposits in Ur aptly demonstrates that we need to examine the evidence before jumping to these assumptions. This is a tenet which I will certainly strive to bear in mind for my own research, and which is a valuable contribution to BRIHC’s Materiality series.