Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal: A Multi-sectional Analysis of Assyriology's Foundational Corpus

Lead Research Organisation: The British Museum
Department Name: Middle East


Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal will interpret the single most important group of texts from the ancient Near East using a series of interlocking case studies. The 31,000 tablets and fragments found in the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of King Ashurbanipal's (668-631 BCE) empire, have been central to the modern study of Assyrian and Babylonian scholarship for almost two centuries now. Yet the sheer size and complexity of this corpus, together with uncertainties generated by the shortcomings of the pioneering excavation techniques and museological practices, have hindered our understanding of what that collection of texts actually represents. For while we now understand in detail particular texts or groups within the "Library", we know very little about the "Library" itself. A body of interpretations has accumulated, based on the experience of several individual scholars, but the evidence base for these interpretations is very weak. These interpretations are open to serious challenge.
Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal addresses the key question: What is "Ashurbanipal's Library", as we know it? The project approaches this question through three subsidiary research objectives, each of which leverages paratextual information to elucidate a significant section of the corpus. The first such objective, "Understanding Colophon Types", systematically analyses the scribal notes appended to Library tablets by establishing a new taxonomy and studying the relationship between the text contained on the tablets and the colophons appended to them. For the first time, it will establish how many tablets from Nineveh bear a library label and how many tablets belonged to collections other than Ashurbanipal's own. The second objective, "Literature in Library Records", correlates the tablets discovered at Nineveh with those mentioned in ancient lists recording acquisitions by Ashurbanipal. This will reveal key information about the scope of his collection, as well as how his library functioned. The third objective, "Tablets to Nineveh", exploits the information provided in the texts about the origin of the originals from which they were copied. The main points to be studied are how scholarly knowledge arrived at Nineveh, what the significance of the Assyrian and Babylonian inputs was, and what form they took.
Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal makes it possible for the first time to offer an analysis of the "Library" based on detailed, systematic and thorough surveys of the evidence. It builds on many years of preparatory work, and utilises digital technologies to help overcome the otherwise unmanageable mass of material. The project relies on a series of carefully constructed studies to investigate aspects of the Library that have never been the topic of serious scrutiny, and benefits from the uniquely close relationship of British Museum staff with the collection and from the pioneering methods to study cuneiform tablets developed at LMU Munich.


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Title Colophons database 
Description The database collects and describes the corpus of tablets that forms the basis of the study. It is fundamental to our research. At present it is accessible to project members. In due course it will be made public. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The database permits us to define and refine our study corpus. It allows us to manipulate and visualise the data we have collected, helping us to evaluate correlations between features. 
Title Corpus of transliterations 
Description The corpus is a dataset containing transliterations of all the colophons under study in the project. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The corpus allows us to classify the individual manuscripts, reconstruct composite editions, facilitates joins between fragments, and will allow us to present content externally.