History and future of Assyriology

Dominique Charpin traces the rich history of Assyriology, from pioneers like Oppert and Grotefend to current projects, including the major institutions that have contributed to its development. Portrait of a surprisingly contemporary science.

In an original way, it is not in the introduction, but in a sort of afterword entitled Explanations and thanks that Dominique Charpin traces the origins of his book. It is true that, as the author himself remarks, the reader, wishing to quickly get to the heart of the subject, often tends to simply ignore the foreword or, at best, only return to it at the end.

So it is only after having finished reading it that we learn that the work of Dominique Charpin, In search of Nineveh. French scientists discovered Mesopotamia (1842-1975), comes from his teaching at the College de France and, more precisely, from a historiographical return to Assyriology undertaken after forty years of practice of this science. The approach is quite classic among many specialists who, having reached the top of their discipline, prove the need for an epistemological return to their field of research.

Even if he decided to stop his analysis in 1975, at the time when he undertook the studies which led him to become one of the central figures of French Assyriology, Dominique Charpin remains present implicitly throughout the chapters of the book, indicating here a bibliographic tool that he himself used during his studies, there a master whose teaching he followed, which makes the work singularly endearing, without taking away from the erudition which unfolds over the course of some 460 pages.

Champollion and the others

Code Prologue Copy Tablet
First half of XVIII 18th century BC (probably before the writing of the stele), Louvre museum. (Wikipedia)

The chronological approach adopted by the author is undoubtedly the most readable and makes it possible to distinguish important developments in the discipline. Thus, first of all, the transition from the era of the pioneers (part I) to the first stages of the institutionalization of Assyriology before 1914 (part II), the specialists trained from the years 1860-1870 taking over from a first generation of pioneers, in particular the scholars who were the first to succeed in deciphering the cuniform scriptures.

Dominique Charpin rightly notes that if Champollion, decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, has passed into posterity, the same is not true of the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775-1853), author in 1802 of a memoir on the decipherment of the inscriptions of Perspolis, nor of French Assyriologist of German origin Jules Oppert (1825-1905), the originator in the second half of the 1850s of considerable progress in the decipherment of Assyrian.

It is true that the decipherment of the cuniform was a collective rather than an individual undertaking and that this writing system was used to transcribe different languages, which made its approach more complex. This first period which, through the first and second parts of the book, takes the reader from the 1840s to the beginning of the XXe century is the one that has been the most treated by historiography, therefore the least original of the work.

The Flood, versions 1 and 2

Ruins of the Achaemenid royal palace of Susa, with the castle built by Jacques de Morgan in the background.

The parts III And IV continue the chronology, first for the inter-war period (part III), then for that of the Trente Glorieuses, from 1945 to 1975 (part IV). Between the First and Second World Wars, the development of field excavations was considerable, at least on the French and English sides.

From 1919 onwards, Great Britain and France shared two essential zones of influence for research on the ancient Mesopotamian world: Iraq for the British, Syria and Lebanon for the French. Between the end of XIXe century and the First World War, the French had already excavated four Mesopotamian sites, Sipar, Tello, Kish and Susa; To these were added in the 1920s and 1930s those of Ugarit and Mari, in Syria now under French mandate.

In France itself, the interwar period was marked by a strong institutional continuity in the teaching and promotion of Assyriology, the main centers of which remained the College de France and the practical school of advanced studies and, to a lesser extent, the Sorbonne, the school du Louvre, the Department of Oriental Antiquities of the Louvre, and more surprisingly than the Catholic Institute of Paris.

Because, since the last decades of XIXe century, the discoveries of Assyriologists called into question one of the foundations of Western civilization, by demonstrating that the Old Testament partly reproduced Babylonian texts. Thus we find in thePope of Gilgamesha Mesopotamian epic tale written in XVIIIeXVIIe centuries before our era, a version of the story of the Flood.

Jean-Vincent Scheil, pre-Dominican and French Assyriologist
Photo around 1913. (Wikipedia)

Also the community of Assyriologists is characterized by an over-representation of ecclesiastics, a singularity which has never been studied as such, but will be the subject of a future publication by Dominique Charpin. The author returns here at length to the religious who left their mark on the discipline, notably the Reverend Dominican Father Jean-Vincent Scheil (1858-1940), whose career stages Charpin traces at the practical school of higher studies.

The role of women

Beginning in the interwar period, the presence of women increased during the period 1945-1975 (part IV). The author rightly underlines the long exceptional character of this female presence: women have encountered many difficulties in rising to the highest levels of university and scientific research in France.

The examples developed by Dominique Charpin, notably those of Elena Cassin (1909-2011) and Marguerite Rutten (1898-1984), show that it was only after the Second World War that women were able to access positions. This observation is in no way specific. lassyriology.

The journey of Elena Cassin in particular, who integrated the CNRS just after the Second World War before ending her career as research director at the end of the 1970s, illustrates the greater flexibility of this institution, born in 1939 and reorganized in 1945, which was able to welcome women researchers well before the university opens its doors to them.

More mysteries

A cone commemorating the erection of the walls of Sippar by Hammurabi
First half of XVIIIe century BC AD, muse of the Louvre. (Wikipedia)

The fourth part ends with a final chapter devoted to the expansion of French Assyriology in the world and the way in which French Assyriologists interacted with their counterparts from other countries. If it is just as interesting as the previous ones, this chapter is nevertheless an opportunity to express a regret: the chronological approach adopted throughout the work certainly offers the reader great readability and appreciable reading comfort, but it also leads to a certain fragmentation of the themes.

So it is with this international perspective, addressed several times, but never in a synthetic or continuous way, while the rivalries and/or collaborations between scholars of different nationalities constitute the cornerstone of the history of archeology, which has been scientifically constituted since THE XIXe century in a context of emulation between the major Western countries, France, Great Britain, Germany and the United States in particular.

In the same way, the chronological plan results in a sprinkling of biographies of the Assyriologists. If Dominique Charpin's study is usefully supplemented by an index of the names of modern people as well as the names of ancient people and deities, of places and peoples and institutions, at the end of the work a series of biographical notices which would have provided an overview are missing. summary of the journey of the many protagonists of the discipline cited throughout the pages.

As the author reminds us, if his work fills a historiographical gap, in particular for the XXe century, the history of Assyriology is still in the making. Firstly to go beyond the date of 1975, relevant in the personal history of the author more than in that of the discipline even if the years 1974-1975 saw the disappearance, a few months apart, of two of the French masters of post-war Assyriology, Ren Labat (1904-1974) and Jean Nougayrol (1900-1975).

But also because, since that date, the axis of Assyriological studies has moved from Mesopotamia, which had long occupied a central place, towards the peripheral spaces of Syria in the west, Anatolia in the north and Iran in the east. Science in the making at last, because the period of decipherments is far from over: Mesopotamia still retains some of its mysteries, which new generations of researchers continue today, and will continue in the future, to try to unravel.