Month: April 2012

Cuneiform: An Introduction to One of the Earliest Scripts

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Cuneiform has always interested me. It is difficult and subject to a huge amount of interpretation and choice. So let me set it out for you so that you can understand better the complexity of Cuneiform.

One of the first mistakes that people make when thinking about Cuneiform is that it is a language and writing systems in itself. More accurately, cuneiform is one of the earliest known expressions of writing, made up of a number of writing systems used for a number of languages throughout Mesopotamia. These several types of writing inscriptions include logosyllabic, syllabic and alphabetic scripts.

Clay Tokens used prior to establishment of writing systems

It dates to as far back as 3000 BC but precursors of Cuneiform reach far further into the 80th Century BC when clay tokens were used for record keeping. These tokens require an article in themselves but for the moment I direct you to the analysis of Denise Schmandt-Besserat. More direct precursors were being used in the Uruk IV period around the 4000 BC before more recognisable forms appear in Sumer. Precursors began as pictograms like many other early scripts. But these pictographs evolved through time becoming simplified and abstract with the number of symbols becoming smaller. Cuneiform simplified in a way similar to the Egyptian scripts become less pictographic and more phonetic. However, the Cuneiform scripts became extinct by the 2nd Century AD. It was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

So cuneiform itself was not a language but a writing system being adapted to many languages and evolving in form to suit such languages and period. It was particularly adapted for writing Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian. And the alphabet was used in both Ugaritic and Old Persian. The majority of examples that survive were written on clay tablets with blunt reed styluses which produced the wedge-shaped signs that give cuneiform its name. Wedge-shaped signs inspired the name cuneiform from the Latin cueus meaning ‘wedge’. While precursors were often written vertically, cuneiform eventually changed to being written horizontally from left to right.

We can split the forms into several periods which help us track the evolution:

Development of Cuneiform

The Proto-literate period from around 3500 to 3100 sees the first documents in cuneiform which survive, which were found at Jemdet Nasr in the Sumerian language. These early forms are on clay tablets in vertical columns which have survived because of baking in fires which occurred in the period. Particular to the earliest forms we see the use of pictographs to indicate important concepts and things such as gods, countries, objects, cities and peoples. These were used as determinants; signs depicting the concept at the end of a word or as the word itself similar in use to those found in Egyptian hieroglyphs. These pictographs began to lose their original function and in some cases disappeared around 2900 BC. Other pictographs started to exhibit phonetic elements as the range of signs decreased in number during a constant flux of forms.

Archaic Cuneiform saw the change of direction from left to right in horizontal rows around the middle of the third millennium BC. Additionally the signs rotated by 90 degrees counter clockwise to accommodate for the writing styles and implements. This made the writing quicker and easier for the scribe. The majority of examples from the Archaic period show cuneiform being used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs in an official capacity to record the achievements of the rulers involved. While the number of signs continued to decrease, their use and complexity increased as signs were used to portray several concepts and/or phonetic meanings. This increased complexity makes it very difficult to transliterate the script because of the vagueness in distinctions between pictograms and syllabograms.

Akkadian cuneiform started to appear between 2500 and 2000 BC and would later evolve into Old Assyrian cuneiform with additional modification to Sumerian orthography and new phonetic values being added to older signs. This led to a higher level of abstraction in the form of the signs being used. Typical signs from this period tend to hand between five and ten wedges making up one symbol. The script remained logophonetic though with its use of both logograms and determinatives in addition to phonetic signs. By this time, Akkadian cuneiform was made up of around 300-400 signs plus determinatives which made a total of about 800 signs being used.

Assyrian Cuneiform

Assyrian cuneiform was a mixed method of writing from the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. It was made up of a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing which eventually was adapted to form Hittite cuneiform in around 1800 BC. This Hittite cuneiform adapted Old Assyrian cuneiform to the Hittite language with a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings added. Between 1000 and 600 BC the Assyrian cuneiform continued in use but was further simplified.

So you see, the cuneiform scripts are difficult to transliterate and were very difficult to originally decipher. Decipherment attempts date to the Arabic and Persian historians of the medieval Islamic world and it is only recently that some of these scripts have been fully interpreted and deciphered. The difficultly in transliteration means that one is required to make choices during analysis because of the many meanings that can be ascribed to a sign.

One thing that has stayed the same in cuneiform scripts is their numerical system, which funnily enough we still use in part today. It was based on the numbers, 1, 10 and 60. Look familiar? Our concept of reflecting time still encompasses this numerical system. So no one can say the Sumerians didn’t do anything for us!

Akkadian Syllabary - just a few of the thousands of symbols involved in cuneiform scripts
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In the Beginning: Biblical Creation Myths vs. Others Around the Mediterranean

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We often read ‘In the beginning…’ but there are actually several beginnings told throughout the Bible, many of which have interesting relationships to other Mediterranean creation myths from Greece, Egypt and the Ancient Near East. So I want to explore some of those relation, the comparisons and contrasts. Frankly this could, and I’m sure does somewhere, make up an entire book series. So lets look at some of the basics.

The Old Testament contains at least a dozen creation “stories”.  Two of these stories are told in Genesis 1 and 2, in addition to the creation story in Job 38 and the fragment in Job 26:7-13 among others. These stories are not always consistent with each other, so some will hold similarities to contemporary creation myths, while others contain contrasts.

One major point of comparison between Biblical creation myths and other creation myths is the idea of separation as a key component in the creation process.  The idea of separation is seen several times throughout Genesis.  Genesis 1:4 reads, “God saw light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness,”[1] indicating the creation of night and day.  The idea is also in Genesis 1:6, “God said, let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”[2]

Separation of Sky from Earth in Egyptian Creation Mythology

Egyptian mythology also has separation themes; telling of the separation of the god of the earth and of the sky as a major part of the creation process.[4]  Though these creation aspects are represented as deities in Egyptian mythology, the idea remains; the separation of the earth and the heavens to create a place in between, to be inhabited.[5]  The idea of separation is also seen in the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish. The god Marduk ‘separates’ Tiamat (primeval waters), splitting her in half, placing one half above the other, forming heaven and earth..[6]  As in the Biblical myths, the act of separation is used as a key aspect of creation.  Hesiod’s Theogony illustrates this idea was also an accepted part of Greek creation mythology.  Hesiod explains that Gaia (Earth) was ‘separated’ from Ouranos (sky) through a scheme resulting in Ouranos detaching from Gaia, separating earth from the heavens.[7]

Another similarity is the idea of chaotic water being a primal substance.[8]  The first account of Genesis refers to chaotic water being present at the time of creation.  Genesis 1:2 states “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[9] This idea of chaotic water is witnessed in the Enuma Elish as Tiamat and Apsu both represent forms of chaotic water, and it is out of them that creation results.  In all accounts of Egyptian creation the idea of chaotic water is apparent.  The Heliopolis version of Egyptian mythology tells of the primeval matter ‘Nun’, the watery chaos from which all is created.[10] In contrast, the creation myth of Job 38 is almost methodical: “Who marked off [Earth’s] dimensions? … who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set…?”

Greek mythology doesn’t seem to directly refer to water as the primal substance, but Hesiod explains the first god was ‘Chaos’, resembling the watery chaos of the other myths, representing the same ideas of a void from which all was created.  Hesiod’s understanding of Chaos contrasts however Ovid’s, who defines it as an “anarchic dark matter that preceded the formation of the universe.”[11]

The creation myths of Genesis share another common feature of Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greek accounts: they have a cyclical theme.  Boadt indicates that this cyclical theme can be seen in Genesis as each of the first three days of creation parallels the next three days.[12]  Genesis’ Priestly account shows the creation of light and darkness on the first day is parallel to that of day and night on the fourth day.[13]  Whereas, the creation of waters and sky on the second day parallels the creation of sealife and life of the air on the fifth.[14]  This pattern is continued in with the third and sixth days.[15]

Tiamat, the Watery Chaos, on Babylonian Seal

This cyclical theme is seen in the Enuma Elish and Greek creation.  However, the cyclical acts of these mythologies are based more on the violent processes which do not appear in the Genesis. This is a point of uniqueness.  The Enuma Elish shows a cyclical theme in the overthrowing of Apsu by Ea in parallel to the overthrowing of Tiamat by Marduk.[16]  Hesiod also expresses this theme in Greek creation with the overthrowing of Ouranos by his son Kronos and then the defeat of Kronos by Zeus.[17]  The cyclical theme is also seen in Egyptian accounts as they believed in the idea of the first occasion and that life was part of a continuous process.  For example, the rising and falling of the sun was imagined as a cyclical process repeating every day, rising and returning to Nun.[18] However, the account in Job 38 is not cyclical; instead it is more of a process.

Biblical creation can also be compared and contrasted in relation to the formation of the god/s and the elements of nature.  Genesis indicates that creation resulted from the divine word of a monotheistic god. Sproul asserts that this form of creation is not completely reflected in other mythologies.[19]  Hesiod explains that Greeks believed the first acts of creation were the result of sexual procreation by the gods Chaos and Gaia.[20]  Sexual procreation as a primary means of creation is also seen in the Memphite versions of Egyptian mythology, though the gods are the product of  both asexual reproduction (Shu and Tefnut) and divine word in some accounts such as the Heliopolis (Re rising out of Nun).[21]  Near Eastern mythology also includes sexual procreation in creation, “…from Apsu and Tiamat in the waters gods were created.”[22]  From these accounts we see  Biblical creation as fairly unique as it never includes an act of procreation within Genesis, however, Egyptian accounts do share a relation in including creation by divine word.  Job, while not including procreation, does parallel it in 38:8 where it reads: “Who shut up the sea behind doors, when it burst forth from the womb.”

All four cultures’ accounts can be viewed as nature myths as they share a reaction to the power of nature and the creation of human life, even though humans have a limited role in Egyptian mythology.  The Biblical accounts and the Enuma Elish both have cultic functions.  The Enuma Elish displays cultic functions of kingship, and the Biblical Priestly cults feature the day of rest, both corresponding with ritual theories.[23]  Harris and Platzner explain Etiological theories of myths are attempts to explain origins.[24] This theory, seen in all of these mythologies, shows Biblical creation is not unique as a prescientific attempt to justify the creation process.[25]

Enuma Elish on Tablet

Biblical and other creation myths show contrasts in relation to the role and creation of humans.  The creation of humans in Biblical myth is more important in the J account than the Priestly account.  In both, humans are created in the image of god, whereas in Near Eastern myth they are created to serve the gods, but are divinely related as they are moulded from divine blood, “blood to bone I form, an original thing, its name is Man.”[26]  Hesiod’s accounts don’t include human creation, but Aristophanes relates that males were created from the sun and females from the earth.[27]  Some versions of Egyptian myth recount human creation by Khumn from clay, as do Near Eastern myth with the creation of man by Nintu from clay and blood.[28]  Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern accounts are similar to the J version of Genesis as  all refer to creation of man from the earth/clay.

Genesis is in part different because it saw creation not as the act of divine slaughter and violence, but as the divine word of god.  Harris and Platzner assess that this is unlike Mesopotamian and Greek creation mythology which “features violent conflict between different generations of gods.”[29] Hesiod describes the conflicts between the generations of gods creating order from chaos.  The same idea appears in the Enuma Elish as the violence between generations creates  ultimate order to chaos. Genesis, however, refers to a creation of divine word alone, reshaping older myths of “a primordial watery chaos to fit a monotheistic concept.”[30]  It would be wrong to say that Biblical accounts are purely non-violent. In Job 26:12-13, ‘By his power he churned up the sea, by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces, by his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.’

We also see that the Biblical myth is different because it contains the only creation myths encompassing monotheism.  All other creation accounts are based on polytheism. The Egyptian creation myths start with one god of many, such as Nun (the primeval waters), [31] Ptah in the Memphite versions and Atum in the Heliopolis versions.[32] Greek and Mesopotamian creation myths recount creation in polytheistic terms as the result of several generations of gods, each representing a creation component. Biblical myths do, however, include the trinity within creation. In John1:1-4, ‘In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made.’

The Biblical creation myths then do not stand out generally as unique. They contain themes that run through numerous creation myths from civilisations in direct contact and under similar influences to the Biblical cultures. And that my friends is ancient history for you! It is very difficult to be unique when it has all been done before. Any PhD student knows…

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[1] Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Genesis 1.3, p.3

[2] Ibid., Genesis 1.6, p.3

[4] Pinch, G., Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2004), p.65

[5] Allen, J. P., Genesis in Egypt (Connecticut, 1988), p.9

[6] The Enuma Elish in Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.92

[7] Hesiod, Theogony in Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.89, lines 160-190

[8] Harris, S.L., and Plarzner, G., Classical Mythology: Images and InsightFourth Edition (New York, 2004), p.66

[9] Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1.2, p.3

[10] Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.80

[11] Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.68

[12] Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York, 1984),  p.111

[13] Holy Bible, op.cit., Genesis 1

[14] Ibid., Genesis 1

[15] Ibid., Genesis 1

[16] Sproul, B. C., Primal Myths (New York, 1979), p.123

[17] Hesiod, op.cit., lines 160-190

[18] Pinch, G., op.cit., p.68

[19] Sproul, B. C., op.cit., p.123

[20] Hesiod, op.cit., lines 110-120

[21] Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), p.284

[22] Enuma Elish, op.cit., p.92, lines 1-10

[23] Sproul, op.cit., p.91 – The Enuma Elish’s main purpose was to praise Marduk’s divine supremacy and to honourBabylon.

[24] Harris and Platzner, op.cit., p.40

[25] Greek, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Biblical myths are all an attempt to explain creation in a non-scientific way (Eg. The sky, sea, earth and life itself) which reflects the primitive understanding of the world and its creation.

[26] Sproul, op.cit., p.104

[27] Arisphanes in Plato’s Symposium

[28] Sproul, op.cit., p.114

[29] Platzner and Harris, op.cit., p.70

[30] Ibid., p.70

[31] Pinch, op.cit., p.58 – explanation of the first god rising out of Nun, the primeval waters, due to differing accounts this god is ascribed as being Amun, Ra or Ptah depending on the version understudy

[32] Shabako Stone, king sha-bak, 700BC, 25Dyn

Holey Cranium Batman! The Archaeology of Trephination

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When I woke up this morning I had one of my unfortunate and very painful migraines, oh my! Pain pounding in my temples and the feeling of a truck’s worth of cotton wool being pressed into the back or my eye balls. Not fun, day ruined. But it got me thinking, not for the first time, the prehistoric people had definite method behind their madness. Trephination has been practiced since, well who knows when, but we have evidence for it from as far back ad 6500 BC! When one suffers from headaches sometimes it feels like if you could just relieve that pressure all would be good. Don’t go drilling holes in your head please but do listen to one of the many medical traditions which links the ancient to the modern periods.

Trephination from the 15th Century The Cure of Folly, by Hieronymus Bosch

Trephination (AKA. Trepanning or burr holing) is a surgical intervention where a hole is drilled, incised or scraped into the skull using simple surgical tools. In drilling into the skull and removing a piece of the bone, the dura mater is exposed without damage to the underlying blood-vessels, meninges and brain. Trephination has been used to treat health problems associated with intracranial diseases, epileptic seizures, migraines and mental disorders by relieving pressure. There is also evidence it was used as a primitive form of emergency surgery to remove shattered pieces of bone from fractured skulls after receiving a head wound, and cleaning out the pools of blood that would form underneath the skull.

Evidence for trephination occurs from prehistoric times from the Neolithic onwards. The main pieces of archaeological evidence are in the forms of cave paintings and human remains; the skulls themselves from the prehistoric times. It is the oldest surgical procedure for which we actually have archaeological evidence. At one site in France, burials included forty instances of trephination from around 6500 BC; one third of the skulls found at the site. The percentage of occurrences though here is fairly high and percentages largely differ between sites and continents. It is from the human remains found at such sites that we know that the surgery had a fair survival rate. Many skulls show signs of healing that indicate that the patient lived for years after the event, even sometimes having trephination performed again later in life and again surviving the experience.

Skull with multiple trephination holes showing signs of healing from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

From pre-Columbian Mesoamerica we find evidence on physical cranial remains in burials in addition to iconographic artworks and reports from the post-colonial period. The occurrences are widespread throughout South America, from the Andean civilisations and pre-Incan cultures such as the Paracas culture in Ica in South Lima where burials show signs of trephination, skull mutilation and modification. In Mexico, Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, archaeological evidence dates from between 950 and 1400 AD. The earliest archaeological survey from the American continent published is from the late nineteenth century when the Norwegian ethnogapher Carl Lumholtz performed surveys of the Tarahumara mountains. Lumholtz’s publications were the precurser to documented cases from Oaxaca, Central Mexico and the Tlatilco civilisation.

From Europe in the Classical and Renaissance periods we have evidence of trephination from archaeological and literary sources; including within the famous and essential writings of Hippocrates and Galen where it is termed in the Greek ἀνάτρησιζ. One thing that strikes one when dealing with evidence from both America and Europe is just how widespread this technique was and how it appeared as a major surgical technique on both continents independent of influence and association.

The Hippocratic Treatises make mention of trepanning in the chapter on the injuries of the Head, which states:

‘For a person wounded to the same . . . extent . . . will sustain a much greater injury, provided he has received the blow at the sutures, than if it was elsewhere. And many of these require trepanning.’

Galen also makes mention by explaining the technique of trephination and the risks involved to the patient:

‘For when we chisel out the fragments of bone we are compelled for safety to put underneath the so-called protectors of the meninx, and if these are pressed too heavily on the brain, the effect is to render the person senseless as well as incapable of all voluntary motion.’

Much of the archaeological evidence from Europe for trephination comes from south-western Germany dating to as early as the stone age. But the cranial evidence for the procedure is widespread throughout Europe; Ireland, Denmark, France and Italy in particular. And there is considerable evidence from Russia and China. The early documents from classical Greece and anthropologist’s observations of pre-modern people in Peru has shown that the people involved had a knowledge of the risk involved in the procedure. Publications detailing the technique from Mote Alban conclude that there was a process of non-therapeutic experimentation for some time which explored the use of different techniques and sizes of burr hole.

Han and Chen have completed a particularly interesting study of the archaeological evidence of trephination in early China. They looked as six specimens from five sites ranging from 5000-2000 BP which showed cranial perforation in prehistoric China. The earliest skull analysed by Han and Chen was the M382 Cranium from Fuikia aite, Guangrao, Shandong. M382 was the skull of an adult male of the Dawenkou culture which shows a hole which was 31mm at the widest point. Evidence of healing shows that the patient recovered and lived for a considerable time before he later died. M382 was radiocarbomn dated to around 5000 BP. Han and Chen bring up one particularly interesting hypothesis to why trephination was performed: to obtain bone discs from people alive or dead for protection from demons. This would suggest, if correct, that in prehistoric China there was a cohabitation of ideas concerning human and supernatural intervention in association with illness and disease.

Incan Skull

What we can conclude about trephination is that this ancient surgical technique was astonishingly widespread and was practiced on the living and the dead in association with head trauma and for other reasons including the spiritual and the experimental. The cranial evidence which appears is from a range of patients of different ages and sexes, showing that the operation was performed on men, women and children. Evidence of healing and multiple burr holes indicate that there was a survival rate and some were even operated on repeatedly. But some skulls show us the risks of the operation as well. Some skulls uncovered have had evidence that the procedure was abandoned mid-operation as the trephining is incomplete.

It may seem a strange thing that this technique was used throughout the world in different places and periods unrelated to one another. But there is a logic in the way a wish to relieve pressure may naturally lead to trephination as an accepted answer. After all, in theory trephination works, and in some cases in practice. This is why the technique is still used for multiple reasons in modern medicine. For instance, trephination is used in some modern eye surgeries such as a corneal transplant; it is just termed differently as a form of pseudoscience called a craniotomy. It is also modern in modern intracranial pressure monitoring and in surgery for subungal hematoma (blood under the nail) because one can also refer to trephination in reference to the nails and other bones.

Well there you go, there are my pearls of wisdom for the day. Trephination. Oldest surgical technique supported by archaeological evidence. Still used today. That’s pretty cool 🙂 And my headache is better.

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Recommended Reading:

Han, K., and Chen X., The Archaeological Evidence of Trepanation in Early China

Lisowski, F.P. 1967. Prehistoric and early historic trepanation. In Don Brothwell and A.T.Sandison (eds.), Diseases in Antiquity, pp. 651-672. Springfield: Charles C Thomas.

Oakley, K.P., W. Brooke, R. Akester, and D.R. Brothwell 1959. Contributions on trepanning or trephination in ancient and modern times. Man 59 (133):93.

Piggott, S. 1940. A trepanned skull of the beaker period from Dorset and the practice of trepanning in Prehistoric Europe. Proceedings of Prehistoric Society n. s. 6(3): 112-132.

Wehrli, G.A. 1937. Die trepanation in fruheren jahrhunderten. Ciba-Ziho 91:15-22.

Wölfel, D.J. 1937. Sinn der trepanation. Ciba-Ziho 91: 2-6.