Project goals

With successive funding from the Leverhulme Trust (1997-2000) and the AHRC (2000-2006), the Faculty of Oriental Studies has for the past decade housed the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL). It has established a unique web-based resource (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/) that provides transliterations and English translations of almost all works of Classical Sumerian literature, the most ancient literature in world history reconstructed from manuscripts dating to the period from approximately 2100 to 1700 BC. Those are now readily available worldwide in a standard format and with up-to-date translations for purposes ranging from detailed linguistic and philological study to general appreciation. The online presentation is based on recent development in corpus linguistics, offering a full word-by-word analysis of the texts. The project was initiated and supervised by the late Dr Jeremy Black, who also made an enormous personal contribution to it.

The ETCSL has focused on the classical period of Sumerian literature, because one of its primary intentions was to enable synchronic linguistic analyses. The corpus makes it possible to create precise, statistically grounded profiles of individual compositions and groups of related compositions. In 2007 a book with a set of studies using this approach will appear at Equinox Publishing, London: Analysing literary Sumerian: corpus-based approaches, edited by Jarle Ebeling and Graham Cunningham.

Sumerian literature has a much longer history, however, and a much greater geographical spread. The first evidence for it appears in manuscripts from the mid-third millennium BC, while inhabitants of Mesopotamia and beyond continued to copy and compose literature in the Sumerian language into the Hellenistic period. The latest Sumerian literary manuscript known today dates to the year 85 BC or even somewhat later.

After the classical period of Sumerian literature, scholars and students of various Babylonian cities preserved and modified the existing corpus. They created new compositions, added segments to existing material, and often translated Sumerian literature into Akkadian, providing the text in both languages side by side. Also the Assyrians, whose literary remains are best known from Assurbanipal’s seventh century library at Nineveh, engaged with Sumerian literature as authors and students. Moreover, inhabitants from other parts of the Near East, especially in Syria, adopted and modified the Sumerian literary tradition. For example, in the second half of the second millennium Sumerian compositions appeared in the Syrian cities of Ugarit and Emar whose content was adapted to local tastes.

The Diachronic Corpus of Sumerian Literature (DCSL) seeks to document the entire history of Sumerian literature from the first evidence in the third millennium BC to when it was integrated in Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. The project’s goal is to facilitate the study of this literature from a diachronic perspective. As the recorded oldest literature in the world, Sumerian had also one of the longest histories –including a long period when it was a dead and purely literary idiom– and spread across cultural boundaries. An analysis of its full history will shed light on the world’s earliest intellectual developments.