Navigation – Plan du site
Inaugural Lectures

How to be an Assyriologist?

On the Assyriologist’s daily work
Dominique Charpin
p. 14
Cet article est une traduction de :
Comment peut-on être assyriologue ?

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 2 Octobrer 2014
Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

Texte intégral

A letter from the Mari archives reconstituted from several fragments.

1There are many sides to the Assyriologist’s work; that is part of its appeal. It unfolds in four complementary places: the field where texts are discovered; the museums and collections where they are kept; the libraries that give access to scientific production; and the research centres where work is carried out, often in collaboration.

2The first stage is the discovery of the texts in the field. Epigraphists must be able to clean and consolidate the tablets themselves, even if the intervention of competent curators is subsequently needed. They must also be photographers. A crucial aspect of their work consists in consolidating fragments. This is done partly materially, through a sort of 3D puzzle, but the fragments can also be linked on the basis of characteristics such as writing, the use of a specific name or expression, etc. This fieldwork has supported my belief that the archaeological context of written documents must absolutely be taken into account. It is true that Assyriologists often work on tablets kept in museum drawers, which come from old excavations, donations or purchases. Unfortunately, in many cases the documents’ origin is unknown: one has to try to find it, and match up the tablets with corresponding data. It is therefore important to know a collection’s history. Once the Assyriologist has the tablets, he or she works in several stages, with interpretation involved at each of them. How should tablets be edited? There are two schools of thought on this. Some insist on keeping to the tradition of copying the originals by hand. But the benefits of photography are gradually prevailing, now that the cost of their reproduction is no longer a problem. It would however be wrong to believe that a photograph is more “objective” than a manuscript: the crucial issue is lighting. In this respect, the first tests with a 3D scanner have yielded very interesting results. The actual deciphering of the original, often damaged on the surface, is not neutral; it is necessarily relative to the reader’s knowledge. Hence the importance of collations: very often, as the edition of a corpus progresses, it is necessary to review the originals that are already published, and to improve their reading. Once the signs have been read, there is the issue of their transcription: the same sign can have one or several phonetic values, but it can also be an ideogram. Unfortunately, most of our texts are broken. How far should we fill these gaps in our publications? Some have severely criticized “bold restorations”. I would say that one must first be able to propose them, which involves being completely immersed in one’s corpus. This is one of the points where computer databases will allow us to work more and more securely, by giving the frequency of co-occurrences: in a given corpus, a specific word is preferably used with a specific other word, etc. Philologists sometimes consider that translation is enough to give the meaning of a text; this is incorrect. But it is also illusive to believe that once the tasks of the epigraphist and the philologist have been completed, the historian’s interpretation work can begin. In fact, the editing stage is not and cannot be neutral, for interpretation has already begun. In the current state of Assyriology, the idea that editing in the strict sense of the word is more permanent than the commentary is often illusory. To this work we must add what can be called the decoding of the texts. This is true not only when we deal with genres as specific as a hymn, an epic or a commemorative inscription, but also with those that are seemingly closer to ours, like correspondence. There lies the real danger linked to the apparent familiarity conveyed by reading letters. There is probably no greater illusion: the trap of ethnocentrism.

3Despite what famous titles can lead us to believe, we will never be able to resuscitate Babylon. What Assyriologists can offer is increasingly rich perspectives on Mesopotamian civilization, which is constantly changing, given both the proliferation of available material and the areas of interest of modern scholars. Revisiting known texts and editing new documents should not be opposed: the two activities are mutually enriching.

• A video of the Lecture can be found at, on the professors page.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Légende A letter from the Mari archives reconstituted from several fragments.
Fichier image/png, 2,8M
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Dominique Charpin, « How to be an Assyriologist? », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Dominique Charpin

Mesopotamian Civilization

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Collège de France

Haut de page