Posts Tagged ‘Akkad’

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was going to write a very brief blog entry about Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess thought to be the first named author in history. I thought it was interesting that that honor fell to a woman. But as often happens, I kind of plunged down a rabbit-hole when I started to try to pin down some of the details.

Enheduanna was the name of an Akkadian priestess of the moon-god Nanna and daughter of the king known as Sargon of Akkad. I came across Enheduanna in “The Rhetoric of Origins and the Other: Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna,” a chapter by Roberta Binkley in the book Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Binkley is lecturer in rhetoric at Arizona State University (see an essay by her about Enheduanna here).

(Here at this website and blog I’m focusing on my historical-fiction writing project, The Cursed Ground. However, under another pen name I write non-fiction, thus the interest in rhetoric.)

Binkley’s chapter is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I was struck by her statement that Enheduanna is “the first named historical author.” (47) Enheduanna “lived and wrote around 2300 B.C.E.,” says Binkley, “almost two thousand years before the “golden age” of Greece. (48) I found that tidbit fascinating, that the earliest-known named writer was a woman. Beyond that, I was eager to read Binkley and the other authors who contributed chapters to the book, just because they challenge the received wisdom that rhetoric started in fifth- or fourth-century Athens.

To be frank, though, I got a little stuck on Binkley’s dating of Enheduanna at “around 2300 B.C.E.” The Wikipedia entry on Enheduanna places her a few years later, at 2285-2250 BCE. It seemed to me doubtful that the lifetime of someone living so long ago could be known so definitely that it could be placed within a 50-year range like that. How can they be so certain?

I get a little cranky when experts act too certain about events of the past and their dates — see my blog entry “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” An expert in one field generally only has time to thoroughly investigate his or her own narrow specialty enough to feel justified in making strong assertions. When it comes to placing their findings within the larger historical context, they tend to just go with whatever is asserted by other experts. This seems to go on frequently in academia, with the result that multitudes of specialists end up relying on other specialists, and they all kind of cooperate to construct this vast chronological model of the human past, everybody trusting the soundness of the others’ scholarship.

Most of it is valuable work and worth consulting, but is the great hypothetical model of the past so certain that the everyday thinking person should just accept it all on faith?

Enheduanna is believed to have been the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a, Sargon the Great. He used to be known as Sargon I, but then researchers found out about an even earlier Sargon, who now gets that designation. Some think that “Sargon” might really be more of a title than a proper name. Anyway, out of my interest in Enheduanna and her lifetime, I learned that Sargon of Akkad’s lifetime is actually somewhat uncertain. In the information box in his Wikipedia entry, his dates are listed as c. 2334-2279 BCE. (For this entry, I’m relying quite a bit on Wikipedia — maybe I’ll jump further down this rabbit-hole in the future, but I expect Wikipedia can be trusted as accurate for something like this.)

However, if you read the detailed discussion of Sargon’s origins and rise to power, you’ll see that the 2334-2279 range is based on what’s called the “Middle Chronology.” Meaning there are other chronologies. In fact, the Sargon article also mentions a “short chronology,” which dates Sargon later, at 2270-2215. I thought that was interesting to see two chronologies mentioned for the early period in Sumerian history, and that idea of multiple chronologies sounded familiar. I thought I had run into it before, so I went a little deeper.

In fact, consulting the article on “Chronology of the Ancient Near East,” what I found is that there are what the article editors call “competing proposals” for the chronology of the second and third millennia BCE. Here is an interesting table borrowed from the article under the section “Variant Bronze Age chronologies“:

Chronology Ammisaduqa Year 8 Reign of Hammurabi Fall of Babylon I ±
Ultra-Low 1542 BC 1696 BC – 1654 BC 1499 BC +32 a
Short or Low 1574 BC 1728 BC – 1686 BC 1531 BC ±0 a
Middle 1638 BC 1792 BC – 1750 BC 1595 BC −64 a
Long or High 1694 BC 1848 BC – 1806 BC 1651 BC −120 a

The various versions of the chronology depend greatly on the interpretation of astronomical records recovered from cuneiform tablets, particularly the Ammisaduqa tablet recording observations of the planet Venus. As you can see here, the reckoning of a key date can vary as much as 150 years, depending on which chronology you follow. The editor says that the Middle Chronology “has strong academic supporters” and that the High and Ultra-Low chronologies “are minority views,” which is probably why the Middle Chronology is the one that has prevailed in the discussions of Sargon and thus Enheduanna. However, that’s not to say that the Ultra-Low Chronology should be completely discounted. In fact, if I understand correctly, the Ultra-Low Chronology would place Enheduanna closer to 2200 BCE rather than 2300 BCE.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, I wonder whether there are Akkadian scholars who would scoff at the 2200 date and insist that 2300 is the “right” one — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

But I digress.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the cuneiform document so important to establishing anchor dates in the ancient Near East chronologies, is not universally loved. In fact, digging down further and consulting the Wikipedia article on that document, we learn that this tablet supposedly records the movements of Venus for a mere period of 21 years during the reign of a King Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi. However, the earliest extant copies of this tablet are dated between 720 and 704 BCE. You can see from the table above that this tablet is used to fix events that supposedly occurred about 900 years earlier than its writing. Maybe the copyists did their work properly during all that long period of time, but maybe not.

In fact, V.G.Gurzadyan casts doubt on the validity of the Venus tablet altogether, as seen in this abstract from his article “On the Astronomical Records and Babylonian Chronology“:

We outline the priority of high quality data of astronomical content as our strategy for the analysis of the ancient astronomical records in the search of the absolute chronology of the Near East in II millennium BC. … We then discuss why the 56/64 year Venus cycle cannot be traced in the Venus Tablet and therefore cannot serve as an anchor for the search of chronologies. … In sum the available data support the Ultra-Low Chronology proposed in the book by H.Gasche, J.A.Armstrong, S.W.Cole and V.G.Gurzadyan, “Dating the Fall of Babylon” (1998) and, particularly, leave no astronomical background for the High Chronology. Ultra-Low Chronology is supported also by archaeological, dendrochronological, Assyrian king lists and other data as summarized at the Intern. Colloquium on Ancient Near Eastern Chronology (Ghent, July, 2000).

Oops, that’s a least one scholar who prefers the Ultra-Low Chronology.

And another wrinkle on top of the other wrinkles. The editors of the “Chronology of the Ancient Near East” article in Wikipedia also add this little tantalizing tidbit:

The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.

If you want to learn something about the problems with the Egyptian chronology, I refer you again to my article “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?

So what’s the lesson here for the average person interested in the ancient world? Maybe the lesson is that we have to be careful when supposed experts tell us they “know” what took place thousands of years ago, and when it took place. This is especially so for those who are interested in Bible history and who know the chronology set forth in that reliable set of documents. The work of historians and archaeologists and philologists and linguists — and, yes, professors of rhetoric — is immensely valuable in helping us understand the past. But beware when someone claims to have the last word about what happened in the human past.

ARK — 1 November 2014







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