An Assyriologist in the Public Humanities

Tablets from Ashurbanipal’s Library on display at the recent British Museum exhibit “I Am Ashurbanipal.” Photo by Matt Dunham/AP
August 19, 2019

Being an Assyriologist also studying the public humanities feels a little like tipping after a meal at a restaurant. Folks are consistently patting me on the back for doing so, but shouldn’t we all be doing it anyway? 

When I introduced myself in the “Methods in Public Humanities” class, it is not just that I was not in either the American Studies or Public Humanities program that caught a guest speaker’s attention; there are other students from outside the department in class. It was the allure of the term “Assyriology.” If someone knew what the field is, it was like I’m a mythical creature emerging from the shadows under the full moon. If someone didn’t know, I noticed them temper the instinct to ask me all of the questions that just entered their head. The reality is that it is quite odd for an Assyriologist to be studying the public humanities. However, it really shouldn’t be. 

The themes and struggles of the public humanist are those of the Assyriologist. Sometimes Assyriology just doesn’t know it yet. When we do acknowledge these struggles, often we do not fully deal with them, leaving many aspects of studying the Near East in the past along with the subject of our research. While this is certainly not true for everyone in the field, it is a prevalent enough problem that we need to address it. Large parts of really doing Assyriology involve being able to assert myself as an expert in my field, understanding the many moving parts of museums in order to access their collections, and understanding how my work can impact the cultural heritage of the Middle East. 

A prominent Assyriologist was once praised with an epithet from an ancient cuneiform text: “an experienced scribe who neglects nothing.” Studying the public humanities has shown me that while I am an experienced scribe, I have neglected almost everything. These are just some of the things that I will no longer neglect and try to make room for in my Assyriology.  

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An illustration of tablet VAT 6433 currently held in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. The tablet contains the text known as Shulgi B in which King Shulgi refers to himself as “an experienced scribe who neglects nothing.” Illustration and edition from Samuel Noah Kramer.

The Machinations of the Museum 

As Assyriologists we are told that the best way to work with a cuneiform tablet is to go to a museum and look at it. This often involves cutting through a lot of red tape, unless you happen to know someone who knows someone at the museum holding your tablet. Only then can you read your tablet and prepare it for publication. However, cuneiform tablets are everywhere; many US universities have at least one. While we write about the date the tablet was written and where in Mesopotamia it may have come from, we rarely engage with the question of where in modern day Iraq that object came from and how it came to be in the collection we are now examining. How colonialism affects museums and museum collections is a popular and important topic these days. While there is more and more research on the colonial past of Assyriology, it is still not a common practice to acknowledge this in our research. Ancient Mesopotamia is ancient Iraq and this is a fact I aim to bring to the forefront in my work. 

The Culture in Cultural Heritage 

I am also frequently told that Assyriological research, especially digital projects, does a lot for cultural heritage. Or at least that’s what I’m told to write in all of my applications for funding. It is true that digital tools can go a long way in preserving objects and texts that might otherwise be lost to time or to conflict in the Middle East. I am involved in several projects that claim to do these very things. 

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3D model of a Neo-Babylonian economic document I generated with a 3D scanner as part of a larger project to digitize Brown University’s collection of cuneiform objects.

However, I rarely encounter digital tools that are meant for use beyond academia. Cultural heritage work is not simply preserving information. In Assyriology we must ask ourselves for whom are we preserving this information and these objects? Are we engaging with the people who identify ancient Mesopotamia as their past? Is our work meaningful to more than just academics? Cultural heritage is more than a buzzword and more than just preservation for the sake of preservation. I have been guilty of using cultural heritage in this way in the past. Now, I will no longer be using the term “cultural heritage” to describe my work unless I am truly engaging all aspects of the term. 

The Academic in the Public 

If we are going to claim that Mesopotamia is the intellectual heritage of the entire world, then the entire world needs to know about Mesopotamia. Though certainly not a problem limited to Assyriology, there is a common idea that if research is made public, it is inherently less academic. There is a not insignificant population of people who are interested in the work that we do and would love to have access to it. I believe that we are doing a disservice to these people in thinking that we have to make our research less academic in order to make it available to the public. Public can mean many things, but non-academic is not one of those things. As well, we often talk about the struggle of getting people interested in Assyriology outside of academia. If we are to reach the public, we need to be more public. I am not the first to have this opinion, but the public humanities have made this clearer to me and have made the Assyriologists doing great work in making their research available outside of the academy more important as role models.  

Dr. Shana Zaia runs a personal website where you can download all of her articles for free and where she has compiled a comprehensive resource on Assyria. Dr. Eleanor Robson runs the Nahrein Network which aims to foster the sustainable development of antiquity, cultural heritage, and the humanities in Iraq and its neighbors. The YouTube channel Digital Hammurabi does a lot to debunk dangerous ideas about the ancient Near East and to offer easily digestible resources for those exploring the topic for the first time. 

In technical terms, the photo above from my digital Assyriological research lacks texture, meaning it doesn’t show the intricacies of the actual tablet. In other words, it’s a perfect representation of how Assyriological research appears and how we make it appear. The 3D model above smooths things out, makes things shiny and white. There is still more work to be done and more to think about, but it is my hope that the public humanities will bring color to my Assyriology and give ancient Iraq the texture it deserves. 

Sara Mohr is an Assyriology PhD student in Brown’s Department of Egyptology and Assyriology focusing on the digital humanities and aspects of secrecy in the ancient world. She is also pursuing a certificate in Public Humanities.