Scribes as Cultural Vehicles

Ludovica Bertolini (Prague)

A preliminary reflection on the use of Sumerian literature in scribal education at Ugarit

The present paper aims at investigating the reasons that may have encouraged the adoption in the Ugaritic milieu during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1200 BCE) of the Sumerian literary compositions belonging to the Old Babylonian (ca. 1900-1600 BCE) repertoire. A rather modest amount of traditional literary pieces in the Sumerian language have been found in the western areas of the spread of cuneiform culture. Among the sites which have yielded such literary sources in Sumerian, there is the city of Ugarit with its private and public archives. In these buildings, highly specialized officers had their administrative or notary offices and trained their own apprentices. The traditional Sumerian literary production was used in such schools as an educational tool to teach the young scribes the terminology shared by the administrative offices and chancelleries of the reigns and empires in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the Levant. Nevertheless, the set of composition reaching the western regions, although being quite coherent, displays a substantial difference with the almost contemporary corpora of Babylonia and Assyria. It will be shown how such an inconsistency between the core areas of the spread of cuneiform culture and the western peripheries might shed light on the perception that the western centres had of the Sumerian literary tradition in comparison with their own set of beliefs and why they had decided to incorporate a specific set of compositions in the training of their pupils.

Christopher Foster (SOAS) & Tomas Larsen Høisæter (Western Norway)

Writing Between Empires: Script Use in the Tarim Basin along the Southern Silk Road

During the first centuries BCE and CE, oasis states in the Tarim Basin (modern-day Xinjiang, China) provided travellers safe haven along the harsh terrain of the Taklamakan Desert, along what is now commonly called the southern Silk Road. Bordered by the Han and Jin Dynasties to the east (writing in Chinese script), and by the Kushan Empire to the south and west (writing a variety of scripts, including Kharoṣṭhī), these oasis states offer an intriguing case study of textual cultures in contact. In these oases, scriptless local communities came under the influence of powerful neighboring empires and their writing systems. Writing is often treated as a marker of civilization, a technology of imperial expansion, and a central component of ethnic identity-construction for peoples with robust historiographic traditions. Prior explanations for the use and users of writing in the Tarim oases privileged the roles played by the neighboring Han/Jin and Kushan empires, for instance positing their direct administrative control over the region. Sensitive to this bias, in our joint talk we examine manuscripts from the south-eastern Tarim Basin, and attempt to look behind the veil of their writing, for evidence of local agency in script use. Chris Foster investigates Chinese documents found at the Niya site N.XIV, surveying grammar and content clues which suggest the manuscripts were not compiled by Han scribes. Tomas Larsen Høisæter will look at the identity of the scribes writing Kharoṣṭhī documents at Niya, tracing their family history and discussing their place in local society.