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Reading and Writing in Babylon, by Dominique Charpin

Reviewed by Phillip Michael Sherman

The Babyloniaca, a third century B.C.E. work composed by the Babylonian priest Berossos to defend the antiquity and great learning of the Babylonian tradition to a newly Hellenized world, contains an account of the origin of writing. The god Oannes (half-man, half-fish) elevated humanity from an animalistic state with the introduction of written script. The first scribal instructor was divine. For those whose exposure to ancient Near Eastern languages such as Sumerian and Akkadian is because of training in contiguous fields such as biblical studies or classics, the myth is an evocative one. There is something imposing, otherworldly, and intimidating for many students about embarking on the study of these languages and the cultures which made use of them. Dominique Charpin, Professor of Mesopotamian History at the Sorbonne, notes at the very beginning of his work that the field of Assyriology has always been at a competitive disadvantage with regard to interest by the larger society. “No doubt Assyriology would be more popular if cuneiform writing were as appealing as Egyptian hieroglyphics and if a genius had early on provided the key to it. But such is not the case” (4). Egyptologists, apparently, get all the respect. His work seeks to introduce readers to the various writing systems present in ancient Babylon while providing a thorough overview of the various kinds of texts produced by ancient scribes. In the process, he also examines the social contexts responsible for the production of texts and pays close attention to what we can really know about how texts were used and preserved from one generation to the next. The work originally appeared as Lire et écrire à Babylone in 2008.

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