Examining the Emar scholars.

Author:Fleming, Daniel E.
Position:Yomar Cohen's "The Scribes and Scholars of the City of Emar in the Late Bronze Age," Matthew Rutz's "Bodies of Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Diviners of Late Bronze Age Emar and Their Tablet Collection" - Critical essay

Since the publication of tablets from the excavations at ancient Emar (modern Meskeneh) by Daniel Arnaud in 1985-1987, their impact has grown gradually, avoiding the early phase of overreaching that can accompany flashier finds. Located on the great bend of the Euphrates River in northwestern Syria and roughly contemporary with the archives from Ugarit, the Emar texts fill gaps and offer novelties in ways that are still beginning to be appreciated. In spite of the considerable attention they have attracted, relatively few book-length studies have been devoted solely to the tablets from Emar.

Two recent volumes take up major investigative tasks related to these materials, each one offering a systematic framework for understanding the written assemblage as a whole from distinct yet complementary vantages. In the earlier work Cohen introduces us to all the named scribes associated with Late Bronze Emar, both from the excavated tablets and from the 300-400 tablets circulating after sale on the antiquities market. In contrast to this inclusive approach, Rutz gives priority to the largest single find with excavated context, the residential workplace of "the diviner of the gods."

Both volumes contribute substantially to the study of Emar and to the integration of its texts into larger questions about cuneiform writing in the ancient Near East. Each book substantially advances our grasp of the primary patterns and frameworks for writing at Emar and thus improves our ability to address wider questions of history, society, and culture. At the same time, both grapple with the published evidence as we have it, without collation of tablets now out of reach in Syria and with only preliminary reports of the excavations. Along with the clear progress, reading the two books will raise questions, a few of which I address here. With such material and interpretive challenges in hand, Emar calls for renewed attention, on its own terms and as a peculiar new entrant in the aggregation of cuneiform-producing sites.

Both of these volumes began as dissertations, revised over similar intervals: Cohen, Harvard 2003; Rutz, Pennsylvania 2008. In the revised form, Rutz had access to the finished book by Cohen, though it is occasionally evident that his dissertation did not. (1) In one crucial respect Rutz builds on the insight of Cohen, who first recognized that the scholarly texts of the diviner's archive display a diversity of script that suggests different training. This observation has far-reaching implications and is taken up by Rutz in his classification of all the tablets from the diviner's workplace.

My reference to the phenomenon of distinct script families at Emar requires a comment on my own choice of terminology. Upon first publication of the tablets by Daniel Arnaud, the mass of legal documents was separated into two groups labeled "Syrian" and "Syro-Hittite."* 2 Over time, it has been recognized that the immediate physical contrast between these groups is accompanied by corresponding differences in legal formulation, orthography and script, framework of authority and pattern of sealing, and even the communities who participate in the transactions. (3) As part of a long-term research project, my colleague Sophie Demare-Lafont and I have concluded that both these labels and the very duality they invoke are inadequate to the textual realities, and we have proposed a new terminology for which we will continue to advocate. (4)

It is indeed useful to identify two groups, but they do not represent two corresponding types. As a mode of document composition, the old-fashioned "Syrian" group truly constitutes a type or a style, shared by other Late Bronze Age sites in the Middle Euphrates valley: Ekalte (Tell Munbaqa) and Azu (Tell Hadidi). We identify such documents as in Conventional Format. These must be isolated from all the remaining legal texts, which are highly diverse, including a notable set drawn up for the Carchemish court and stamped deeply on the back with the royal seal. Even at Emar these exhibit a variety of form, terminology, and legal reasoning. (5) These are as Syrian as the other group but have been written employing more up-to-date scribal habits, so that we decline to regard them as especially "Syro-Hittite" and describe them instead as in the Free Format.

In more recent work, the Syrian/Syro-Hittite distinction has been extended to the remaining Emar texts based especially on script, though we must keep in mind that the groups derive their distinction first of all from the legal documents. Cohen and Rutz follow the common division, and I will translate these into our new terms except where the particular names or ideas are at stake. This is the only way to advance the case for a change.


Scribes and Scholars is structured according to this diversity of scripts, which was first identified in precise terms by Claus Wilcke. (6) Wilcke realized that the two main layouts for

Emar legal documents were also distinguished by script, with the Conventional (Syrian) retaining more archaic forms of certain signs. (7) With the distinction of writing streams by palaeography alone, it was possible to separate scribal practice beyond the limits of the legal corpus. (8) Cohen works through all the identified scribes writing at Emar, with data drawn from names provided in legal and administrative documents, inscribed seal impressions, and the colophons sometimes appended to what he calls "scholarly compositions": lexical, divinatory, and literary texts. When combined with differences in script and organized by shared find-spot and family or professional connections, the assemblage of names yields one key ingredient for locating Emar writing in history.

After laying out his understanding of history and chronology, the distinction of Conventional (Syrian) and Free Format (Syro-Hittite) scribal traditions, and the phenomenon of schools (chapter 1), Cohen divides the main body of his work according to what Demare-Lafont and I call the Conventional and Free Format categories, reserving the "scholarly" scribes of the colophons for separate treatment. One notable feature of the Emar text assemblage is its distribution of writing specialists and the local populations served by them into two almost entirely discrete groups that nevertheless occupy at least overlapping time and space at the same site.

Cohen's treatment of history and chronology is now superseded by his joint study with D'Alfonso (see n. 3), and the explanation for this strange array of evidence remains under discussion (Demare-Lafont and Fleming, in n. 4). The ingredients for historical reconstruction include seven or eight generations of local rulers from two different family lines, outside authorities associated with Hittite sovereignty through the regional court at Carchemish, and four generations of diviners in the building M-1, the archive that constitutes the object of Rutz's interest. Regardless of how we resolve the conundrum of the separate streams of scribal production in one historical space, Cohen has identified fixed points of reference that will be built into any interpretation.

Cohen begins with writing from daily life, the legal and administrative texts that he calls "ephemeral" (chapters 2 and 3). In general, legal documents from the old-style Conventional side identify their scribes much more often than the Free Format. Although all documents generated by certain scribes are witnessed by the local king and his circle, Cohen considers that these do not work "exclusively for the palace or temple institutions," which he associates only with transactions involving town or royal land (p. 89). Likewise, "[i]n contrast to what will be seen when the Syro-Hittite [Free Format] scribes...

To continue reading