Month: January 2015
Before Christmas a senior colleague recommended that I should read the new volume of Spätbabylonische Privatbriefe from Ugarit-Verlag. I am grateful that they did. The orientalists in Vienna are working on a project on Babylonia from the end of the seventh century BCE to the end of cuneiform writing on clay, and as part of this project they are editing the many letters which survive from this period. For some reason few school texts and libraries of literature have been found from this period, so private letters are our best view of the living language and everyday life. This volume contains 243 of which eighty have never been published and 58 never transcribed and commented upon. Every one is translated, and there is an introduction to the dialect of the letters and a dictionary with entries for every Babylonian word with references to use. Most of these letters are 100 to 200 words long and deal with instructions, property, and travel. A reasonable number, however, deal with military affairs and strong emotions.
It is easy for ancient historians to forget about farming. Ancient literature does not say much about it, ancient art rarely depicts it, and farming is distant from our own lives. Yet most people in the ancient world made most of their living by farming or herding or fishing, and the basic realities of farming pervaded their mental world. I am therefore glad that some of the land near the Zentrum für alte Kulturen in Innsbruck is still working fields and orchards. Although the caked soil at the edge of the field is marked by the tyres of the farmer’s tractor and not the hooves of his oxen, and the plot is crammed between a modern glass monstrosity, the loading dock of a supermarket, and a concert hall built out of shipping containers, it is still worth watching as the seasons turn.
The holidays are a time for reacquainting oneself with old friends, both the living and the paper varieties. One of those was Gwynne Dyer’s book War: The Lethal Custom. Dyer’s writing has earned him a worldwide network and a middle-class living, but not the global celebrity of a John Keegan or Steven Pinker, and I think that is a shame. Dyer has something to teach anyone interested in human behaviour, and his book shows more respect for evidence than many popular works do.