Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Transfer of knowledge in a cuneiform culture

Over the past decades the role of writing in the development of human civilizations has been the subject of much discussion. The adoption and development of literate skills has been linked to many developments in human history, be they cultural, social or even cognitive.

2006 - 2011

However, there still is a lively debate on the nature of the relationship between those developments. Broad-sweeping theories on the effects and consequences of the introduction and spread of writing, and especially alphabetic writing, are now seen by many as too deterministic and culture centrist. Such critics prefer to study the role of writing within the context of specific societies, relating it to issues such as power relations and the distribution and control of cultural assets. 

Inspired by these discussions the Leiden based NWO-project  The Transfer of Knowledge in a Cuneiform Culture is studying school material from the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 bce) found in the areas to the west of Mesopotamia, stretching from the Hittite realm in Anatolia to pharaonic Egypt. It seeks to reconstruct the mechanisms involved in this transfer of written culture as well as the impact the use of this script had on the local cultures. In these western regions learning to read and write the cuneiform script, which was originally developed for the Sumerian language and was adapted within Mesopotamia to the Akkadian languages, implied not just the technical mastery of the script itself but also learning at least two foreign languages. Scribes were taught their skills within so-called schools attached to the scribal workshops, which also included archives of texts produced there or in other workshops. Such workshops are found within royal palaces or connected to temples but more commonly in private houses. However, the texts found suggest that whatever the location a workshop usually had some kind of link with the palace. 

As part of this project an international and interdisciplinary conference was organized from 17 to 19 December 2008, entitled  Theory and Practice of Knowledge Transfer. Comparative Studies pertinent to Cuneiform Writing Schools, which was attended by assyriologists, medievalists, arabists, egyptologists, theologians and anthropologists. The proceedings of this conference will be published in the PIHANS series of the NINO in 2010. 

Other products of this project will include a PhD on lexical texts from Hattusa and Ugarit by Tobias Scheuchner, a monograph on literary school texts from the Mesopotamian periphery by Jeanette Fincke, and a monograph on education in the Late Bronze Age by Wilfred van Soldt.

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