Monday, September 16, 2013

Mieroop: A History of the Ancient Near East (2004)

Two pieces of information from this textbook surprised and fascinated me:

The first is that the Babylonian scribes during the Uruk period apparently used different number systems for different things (ch. 2.2). They would thus have one system for discrete objects (including human beings) based on symbols for the numbers
1/2 (or 1/10), 1, 10, 60, 600, 3600, 36000.
Another system would be used for things that would come in volume, like grain. This system was based on the unit symbols for the numbers
1/2, 1, 10, 60, 120, 1200, 7200.
A third system would be used to express areas.

What's particularly whacky about this practice is that dried fish would count as discrete objects, while fresh fish would not. Once you dried a fish, you would thus count it using a different number system.

20th century BCE list of stones, plants, fish, birds, and clothing (from the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative).

A second this is the role of lists in the ancient educational system. There are hundreds and hundreds of so-called lexical lists remaining from the period, recording the names of, for instance, types of swine, often in several languages or with pronunciation guides.

It would seem that copying lists like this would be a core exercise for scribes during this period, perhaps also because they might not always have spoken the official language of the administration as mother tongue.

But there seems to be a particular philosophy expressed by this practice as well, a kind of "ordered universe" conception, with every object occupying its place in the great chain of being. This would might also explain certain aspects of the story of Noah, which seems to have roots in ancient Babylonia, too.

No comments :

Post a Comment