Written history in Mesopotamia began in the so-called Early Dynastic period III (c. 2600–2350 B.C.). At this time, the country was divided into a number of individual cities with their surrounding territories. The first inscriptions were little more than the names and titles of men who achieved positions of authority and who dedicated precious objects to the patron gods of their cities. It appears that many of these persons owed their influence and wealth to military success, often at the expense of neighboring cities. Their donations seem to have been partly an attempt to justify their actions to the deities. The written message linked the gift to the donor and his deed and transmitted his name to posterity. Although writing had been invented in the Uruk period (late fourth millennium), it then served only administrative purposes and did not encode speech of any particular language. It was instead a communicative system, rather like the mathematical or chemical formulas of our own time, which are understood rather than read by those accustomed to their use. The archaic writing had served to record economic transactions within a much wider geographical context than southern Mesopotamia—including the Susiana in southwest Iran, southern Anatolia, northeast Syria, and northwest Iran. When this network collapsed at the end of the fourth millennium, the acquired literary expertise was adapted not just to suit bureaucratic control but also to become an ideological tool—able to preserve the memory of individuals whose deeds were giving shape to “history.”
   Although it appears that the main centers of scribal education were in Mesopotamia and that the primary language referent for cuneiform systems was Sumerian, it could also be used in other linguistic contexts, such as the Semitic language spoken at the Syrian city of Ebla, or the Akkadian used within Mesopotamia itself. In fact, the cuneiform tradition is marked by bilingualism (Sumerian and Akkadian). Most scribes at all times were employed as clerks to serve the administration of large productive “households” (including temples and palaces), while a much smaller but important sector was engaged in transmitting the arts of writing and to compose works that became the cornerstones of Mesopotamian cultural values: most important, lists of words and signs that composed the conceptual framework and ordering principles of the linguistic and tangible universe. The memorialization of kings and their deeds was another genre of writing, as were compositions concerning the religious domain— hymns, prayers, myths, and rituals. In time the repertoire expanded to include the recording of divinatory material (from omen collections to astronomical data) and similar “scientific” enquiries (medical texts, technological treatises, etc.). It was a characteristic of Mesopotamian civilizations to foster an awareness of a very long historical continuity “from the days of old” to the “distant days” of the future. The early system of reckoning time by naming a year after a significant event no doubt contributed to this pronounced awareness of history as unfolding in an ordered sequence of dynasties and regnal years. In fact, the chronological system modern historians use is based on such ancient records and chronicles.
   The writers of king lists and royal inscriptions, annals, and chronicles throughout the two and a half millennia of Mesopotamian historiography have also bequeathed us a particular view of their past—one in which kings either maintain the status quo or enlarge their territories through military campaigns, and found, continue, or challenge dynastic lines; one in which the main threat to internal stability is the “incursion” of foreigners, most often of nomadic origin. Such were the main themes of official inscriptions, and their ideological purpose was to perpetuate the hegemonic claims of kingship. The problem is also that in difficult and, for modern historians, “interesting” times, writing almost invariably ceased, and the “other side” (the tribal immigrants) was illiterate. The best-documented and historiographically richest period was the time when Babylonia and Assyria had intense and controversial relations, in the first half of the first millennium. In each country, scribes were at work not only to record the campaigns of kings but to comment on their actions in a critical manner according to their “national” bias. In more recent years, historians have also begun to analyze the vast corpus of administrative texts for their historical relevance. Modern dataprocessing techniques have been very useful in dealing with such sources, and in the years to come, the seemingly mundane content of economic archives will become important analytical tools for the interpretation and understanding of Mesopotamian history.
   Writing was first invented to provide a durable record for economic transactions that transcended simple barter. In the Neolithic period, small tokens of different shapes, or with marks on them, were used for simple forms of accounting. In the fourth millennium B.C., when Uruk became a major center for distribution and exchange, the greater complexity of administrationdemanded more sophisticated recording systems, and small clay tablets were used, imprinted with abstracted pictorial representations and signs for numbers. They could be used, for example, to compute projected yields, as proof for delivered goods and expenditure of labor and rations. This form of writing was in use throughout the considerably large sphere of influence of the Uruk culture. It provided a medium for information that could be understood by bureaucrats with some basic training, but it did not attempt to record sentences in a particular idiom.
   This step happened after the end of the Uruk period, and the original pictographs were also used to refer to the phonetic value of the depicted subject; for example, the picture of a bee could be used to represent the notion of “to be” in English. The language of the earliest readable texts was Sumerian, and the Sumerian syllabary became the primary referent when the same signs were used to express other languages, such as Elamiteor Akkadian. This extended use complicated the writing system considerably and required an extended period of scribal education. This was made easier with the help of lists of syllables and signs, with columns for pronunciation. There were also lexical lists, divided into subject categories such as “wood, trees, and wooden objects,” “metal and metallic objects,” living beings, professional and geographical terms, divine names, and so forth. Such syllabaries and lexical lists were not only transmitted throughout Mesopotamian history but also used as basic reference texts in foreign cultures when cuneiform was adopted to express local languages.
   By the end of the second millennium B.C., west Semitic peoples invented new systems of writing that were more suitable for the linguistic peculiarities of their languages and quicker to learn. One such experiment was the cuneiform syllabary of Ugarit, a wealthy trading kingdom in northwest Syria. Farther south, under the influence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, another form of writing was invented that singled out those hieroglyphs with consonantal values. Few records exist, except for some rock-cut inscriptions. Since the Arameanswere a populous people who spread across the whole of the Near East, Aramaic writing became widespread. Aramaic, written on parchment or some similar flat surface, had been in use in Assyria, alongside cuneiform, since the eighth century. It was adopted as the main official script by the Achaemenidsand remained in use well into the Roman era.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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