Research projects conducted by the department of Assyriology.

By the Rivers of Babylon

Project members:
Caroline Waerzeggers
Jonathan Stökl
Bastian Still
Jason Silverman
Tero Alstola
Riene Sonnevelt
Anne-Mareike Wetter

In the history of Judaism, the Babylonian exile constitutes a major watershed. The social, institutional and cultic organization of the Second Temple differed markedly from the forms that had existed in the kingdom of Judah before the diaspora. These divergences are seen in almost every facet of religious life: in the composition of the temple community, the organization of the sacrificial cult, the social structure of the priesthood and its attendant role in the greater society at large, the system of governance, and the ideational world affecting its adherents’ theological and literary output. These areas of change can be more generally considered as functions of three forms of community organization: temple, society and intellectual universe. At all three levels, the central position was occupied by the Jerusalem priests, returning from the Babylonian exile.

Yet despite the exilic origins of the Judean priesthood, the extensive scholarship on the subject largely ignores recent advances in the study of Neo-Babylonian cultic and social forms, based on the rapid disclosure of the period’s extensive cuneiform record. This data offers a remarkably fertile ground for comparative research into the changed outlook of the post-exilic temple community of Jerusalem, and an opportunity to situate the Judean priesthood more firmly in their socio-historical context.

Read more about "By the Rivers of Babylon"

Transfer of knowledge in a cuneiform culture

Project members:
Prof. Dr. Wilfred van Soldt
Dr. Jeanette Fincke
Tobias Scheucher MA
Dr. Wolfert van Egmond

Over the past decades the role of writing in the development of human civilizations has been the subject of much discussion. The adoption and development of literate skills has been linked to many developments in human history, be they cultural, social or even cognitive. However, there still is a lively debate on the nature of the relationship between those developments. Broad-sweeping theories on the effects and consequences of the introduction and spread of writing, and especially alphabetic writing, are now seen by many as too deterministic and culture centrist. Such critics prefer to study the role of writing within the context of specific societies, relating it to issues such as power relations and the distribution and control of cultural assets.

Inspired by these discussions the Leiden based NWO-project The Transfer of Knowledge in a Cuneiform Culture is studying school material from the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 bce) found in the areas to the west of Mesopotamia, stretching from the Hittite realm in Anatolia to pharaonic Egypt. It seeks to reconstruct the mechanisms involved in this transfer of written culture as well as the impact the use of this script had on the local cultures. In these western regions learning to read and write the cuneiform script, which was originally developed for the Sumerian language and was adapted within Mesopotamia to the Akkadian languages, implied not just the technical mastery of the script itself but also learning at least two foreign languages. Scribes were taught their skills within so-called schools attached to the scribal workshops, which also included archives of texts produced there or in other workshops. Such workshops are found within royal palaces or connected to temples but more commonly in private houses. However, the texts found suggest that whatever the location a workshop usually had some kind of link with the palace.

As part of this project an international and interdisciplinary conference was organized from 17 to 19 December 2008, entitled Theory and Practice of Knowledge Transfer. Comparative Studies pertinent to Cuneiform Writing Schools, which was attended by assyriologists, medievalists, arabists, egyptologists, theologians and anthropologists. The proceedings of this conference will be published in the PIHANS series of the NINO in 2010.

Other products of this project will include a PhD on lexical texts from Hattusa and Ugarit by Tobias Scheuchner, a monograph on literary school texts from the Mesopotamian periphery by Jeanette Fincke, and a monograph on education in the Late Bronze Age by Wilfred van Soldt.

Old Assyrian studies

Excavations by the Turkish Historical Society at Kültepe have yielded over 15,000 clay documents written in the Old Assyrian dialect of Akkadian. These texts were found in the houses once inhabited by merchants from the city of Assur and their families (19th-18th c. BC). The great number of Kültepe texts makes the Old Assyrian trade (import of tin and textiles to Anatolia) the best documented episode in the economic history of Antiquity.

Klaas R. Veenhof (professor emeritus) and Jan Gerrit Dercksen are publishing several of the archives that are now in the Museum for Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. The edition and study by Veenhof of the archive of Kuliya, an envoy of the central colony (karum), is now in print as a volume in the series Ankara Kültepe Tablets, and similar publications of the tablets excavated in 1986 and 1991 are in preparation. Dercksen is preparing the edition of the texts found in 1951 (Kt c/k), which form the so-called “archive of Alahum”.

Music of Mesopotamia

Theo J.H. Krispijn is a specialist in the grammar of the Sumerian language. Among his other interests is the study of music in the ancient Near East. He is the co-organizer of a musicological conference that will be held in Leiden on 10-12 December 2009.

Musical traditions in the Middle East: Reminiscences of a distant past

A conference on ancient and modern Near East musicology

Leiden University, The Netherlands
Thursday 10 December 2009 to Saturday 12 December 2009

Sung poetry has a very long tradition going back to ancient times. Famous modern vocalists from the Middle East include classical poems in their repertoire. Even their performances can be linked to the past by ancient texts describing concerts and rituals. Music and poetry flourished at the courts of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Iconography depicts musicians and their instruments. Modern Middle Eastern instruments strongly resemble their Mesopotamian and Pharaonic Egyptian predecessors.

Arab, Persian and Turkish theorists from the past, such as the famous mediaeval philosopher al-Farabi, studied Arabic translations of treatises on the modal system in Classical Greek, which in turn trace their origins from ancient Middle Eastern musical theory. They adopted Classical Greek terminology for the modal theory and developed their own theory.

This three-day conference explores poetry set to music in its broadest sense. It will include various forms and genres of art, folk and religious music from all regions in the area. It will deal with ancient music from Egypt to Mesopotamia and examine the question of the continuity of their traditions. Contributions will be invited from leading experts in the field and some scholars and some performers from the Middle East and related areas will be invited to participate. The subject will be approached from different angles, with sessions on the texts of the songs, performance technique, music and identity, musical instruments and ensembles and ancient music as revealed by archaeology.

We are happy to be able to announce Stefan Hagel, John Bailey and Veronica Doubleday as keynote speakers.

Further information can be found on the website:

Last Modified: 09-12-2015