AHRB funding for Sumerian Literature Online


Over the last three years, a group of researchers at the University's Oriental Institute have been creating a universally available textual corpus of Sumerian literature. This is the oldest human poetry that can be read, dating from approximately 2100 to 1650 BC. The group have now been awarded £472,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to carry out a comprehensive literary and historical investigation using a wide range of corpus linguistics techniques.

Sumerian literature is a considerable and sophisticated ancient literature which is still virtually un-known to scholars in other fields. It originates from the area of modern southern Iraq, and is the product of a highly sophisticated cultural environment that valued writing and devoted considerable time to the training of scribes. The main classical corpus of Sumerian literature can be roughly estimated at 50,000 lines of verse including narrative poems, hymns, laments, fables, and didactic poetry.

The majority of the corpus has been reconstructed during the past fifty years from thousands of often fragmentary clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform writing. Since relatively few compositions are available in modern editions, the project decided on delivery of an electronic corpus through the World Wide Web, to be supplemented by a more popular selection of translations in book form.

The project will enable researchers to define genres and personal styles in a literature which is largely anonymous, and facilitate cultural and historical research by enabling comparison of all the contexts where a particular word or phrase occurs, as an aid to exploration of the semantic content of basic social concepts. It also offers potential for interdisciplinary interest, as historically a rich stream of survivals have flowed on through Babylonian literature, mediated by translations into other languages and by oral transmission into ancient Indian, Arabic, and Greek civilisation and from there into the European tradition.

Dr Jeremy Black, head of the research group and Fellow of Wolfson College, said: `There is a great interest in ancient literatures from a wide general public, who are drawn to their exotic and alien character and struck by their connection to the modern tradition, and we hope that both academics and the public will make use of our Web site.'

The electronic corpus is available on the Web site www.etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk.


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