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the sumerians

3 august 2021

The University Museum in Philadelphia has had a rough past year in the annals of curating. But in more innocent, not to say oblivious times, the early 1970s when I was in high school, the Museum was one of my favorite places. I studied in their library and took time on every visit to wonder at the treasures of the Sumerians. I think I got a little Sumer-crazy. I copied cuneiform into my notebooks and planned a clay scale model of the ziggurat of Ur, which of course I never bothered to build.

In this I was only recapitulating a long-standing obsession of Western antiquarians, as Paul Collins demonstrates in his new book The Sumerians. Only the Egyptians have loomed larger in Western histories of civilization – despite the fact that the Sumerians were unknown to Westerners till fairly recently and still remain fairly enigmatic.

Imposing as their ruins are, the Egyptians were the villains of the Old Testament, distinctly Other in the Western imagination since Roman times. When colonial archeologists began to unearth Mesopotamian ziggurats, statues, and steles crammed with cuneiform in the mid-19th-century, Collins shows, the creators of these artifacts filled a vacuum in historical imagination. Their puzzling language, unlike that of the Assyrians and Babylonians (other biblical bad guys) was not Semitic; at first it looked akin to Finnish or Hungarian but later proved to be a true linguistic isolate. Whoever they were, the Sumerians seemed unrelated to known peoples, and thus available for westerners to read anything they wanted into them. They might have been the original people come from the East, as in Genesis 11, to build them a city and a tower. They seem to have invented civilization. They might have been the first "Aryans." The good guys had finally showed up.

Though Collins soon dismantles this construct. The Sumerian language may be an isolate, but language (pace Victorian theorists) does not equal race (a dubious concept anyway). The vast history of the Sumerians, going back to five or six millennia ago, seems all along to have been a dynamic, multilingual, cosmopolitan system. Indeed, as Collins describes the intricate and highly integrated "international" scene of the third millennium BCE (154, 160-62), I was reminded of Eric Cline's picture of the Mediterranean Bronze Age of the century before 1177 B.C.: by which time the early Sumerians were as ancient to those Bronze Agers as 1177 BCE is now to us. The Sumerians traded with the known world and, early on, blended their culture with that of Semitic speakers to their north (most prominently, the Akkadians).

The Sumerians is an exemplary history of an ancient people from the perspective of the process by which they became "known" and what (little) is known about them, and how. Collins stresses the dynamic whereby the ruins and relics of the Sumerians were familiar to the peoples of Mesopotamia down through the centuries; their "discovery" in the 1800s was simply the advent of Europeans and Americans on the scene, not some sort of revelation of an eternal mystery. Much evidence of Sumerian culture, however, remains below ground. Archeology has been piecemeal and much-interrupted by conflict over the past 150 years. As with Egypt and the ancient Greek world, a great deal of information has been scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth thanks to the ravenous demand of collectors for items associated with the fabulous Ur of the Chaldees. For many modern Mesopotamians, Sumerian relics are a natural resource, to be mined and marketed like any other, and one can hardly blame them. But dispersal of artifacts does not make for orderly progress of knowledge.

Much of the knowledge we have is about kings and temples. Much of the knowledge we have about all ancient civilizations concerns kings and temples; those who build monumental buildings and cause texts to be inscribed on them can dictate their stories to the future. But Collins is also sensitive to ethno-archeology (149-53) and what it tells us about ordinary lives in the communal housing of Sumerian cities. The environmental challenges that ancient Mesopotamians faced – including floods of literally Biblical proportions – still confront locals today, whose solutions can tell us something, inferentially, about the lifeways of their ancestors.

Fascinating in The Sumerians is the sense of how early Sumerian went from being a dominant everyday language to becoming a specialized, scholarly/priestly learned language, maintained in fossilized traditions. "The literary compositions of the Third Dynasty of Ur [c2110-2000 BCE] are known only from copies made by schoolboys during the early second millennium bc" (171). Such traditions of classicist recopying, which foreshadow the process through which we know as much as we do of Latin literature, always seem a bit like the work of epigones: why couldn't those schoolboys have written some innovative modern literature instead? But without their busy work, their ancestors' expressions would have vanished as almost everything else from four thousand years ago has vanished.

Collins, Paul. The Sumerians. London: Reaktion, 2021.