Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

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Analyzing Cuneiform Communications

Twenty graduate students from around the world were invited to attend an Advanced Seminar in the Humanities on the island of San Servolo in Italy last fall, and Mary Frazer (NELC) was one of them. The program, titled “Literature and Culture in the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece, Rome and the Ancient Near East,” was hosted by Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, in cooperation with Venice International University.

During the day, Mary attended lectures on the origins and development of literary genres and literacy in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Near East. In the evenings, she says, “It was possible to visit Venice after the seminars and lectures were finished, and I took advantage of that. We were also taken on a nocturnal tour of San Marco and visited the Biblioteca Marciana and the Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. Professor L. Milano took us on a tour of the places associated with the British Assyriologist, Austen Henry Layard, who lived in a beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal, which today is part of the the Ca’ Foscari University.”

cuneiform tablet

Letter from King Shulgi of Ur to the grand vizier Aradnu, courtesy of the Yale Babylonian Collection

The second half of the Advanced Seminar, at which Mary will present a paper on her research, will be held next November.

Mary studies correspondence written in cuneiform on clay tablets, purportedly by rulers of the Assyrian and Babylonian states, which were located in what is now Iraq. The tablets, between 2200 and 2900 years old, are dispersed in museums around the world. Several of the talks at the seminar in Venice touched on topics that relate closely to her research: royal letters from the ancient city of Ebla, in modern Syria and Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions.

Her dissertation, advised by Eckart Frahm, will collect and analyze all the currently known letters. One problem she faces is that the original letters no longer exist. She studies copies, transcribed “after the corresponding kings reigned,” she says. “I hope to address the question of the authenticity of these letters and to be able to answer why there was an interest in them in Mesopotamia at certain points during the first millennium BC.”

Three of the letters deal with the formation of a library by Assurbanipal, the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (668 - c. 627 BC). “These letters contain important evidence for how he amassed his tablet collections in Nineveh and also provide evidence for the fame of his library out-living the fall of the empire.”

Mary became interested in the ancient Near East in the course of her study of Greek and Latin. “I came to realize that the Persian Empire, which I learned a little about from studying Greek literature and history, did not come from nothing, that there was a discipline called Assyriology, and suddenly the ancient world was a lot bigger than I had previously thought.”

That interest is what brought Mary to Yale, which has a strong faculty and a well-known collection of cuneiform documents. The Babylonian Collection, in Sterling Memorial Library, houses the largest assemblages of cuneiform inscriptions in the Western Hemisphere, and fifth largest in the world. The Collection also maintains a complete library in the fields of Assyriology (the study of ancient Mesopotamia), Hittitology (ancient Anatolia, roughly equivalent to modern Turkey), and Near Eastern archaeology.

The letters she studies offer three related challenges, she says. “They present multiple parallels with other genres, such as chronicles, so are generally difficult to classify. Second, the historicity of the events referred to in the letters is often problematic. For some of the letters, there are limited grounds to doubt their authenticity, however others contain such clear anachronisms that they must be seen as pseudonymous compositions, perhaps written retrospectively to justify certain actions of contemporary rulers. My third challenge is to explore the choice of the epistolary form as a medium for for historiography.”