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  • Writing (and Reading) as Material Practice: The world of cuneiform culture as an arena for investigation

    Roger Matthews

    Chapter from the book: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R. 2013. Writing as Material Practice: Substance, surface and medium.

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    The ancient Near East was home to the world’s earliest written texts, from 3200 BCE, and the tradition of writing on clay endured for more than 3000 years, lasting from the Late Chalcolithic until the end of the Iron Age of Mesopotamia and neighbouring regions. A great many languages, generally unrelated to each other, were written in the so-called ‘cuneiform culture’. Cuneiform texts form an integral part of the socio-political and material culture of multiple societies of the ancient Near East, including early states, cities, and the world’s first empires, but hitherto their study has focussed on philological and historical issues. A new wave of research addresses the materiality of cuneiform texts, and I review and elaborate on that research here. In this consideration of current approaches to the materiality of text in the ancient Near East, I explore several significant issues relating to the materiality of writing in the cuneiform tradition. Key questions are: what was the extent of literacy (writing and / or reading) in the ancient Near East; who were the intended audiences for cuneiform texts of varying types; what is the significance of variation in the physical media of texts; and, how representative are surviving corpora of ancient writing systems? In reviewing these questions, I aim to demonstrate that the extremely rich assemblages of cuneiform documents, often in the form of archives, constitute a major resource for ongoing and future exploration.

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    Matthews, R. 2013. Writing (and Reading) as Material Practice: The world of cuneiform culture as an arena for investigation. In: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R (eds.), Writing as Material Practice. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.d

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Published on Dec. 18, 2013


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