Widening understanding of the earliest written literature through The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentClassics
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) is quoted and
used in both schools and colleges across the world and read by people
without any direct academic connection to the subject: widening access to,
interest in, and understanding of Sumerian literature. Sumerian literature
is widely known as one of the oldest literatures in the world, inspiring
countless studies of world literature and history of religion. The ETCSL
has made the bulk of canonical Sumerian literature (c. 400 compositions)
available in prose translations and the original Sumerian to both
specialists and informal learners for more than a decade.
The literature written in Sumerian is the world's oldest poetry. The
majority of the written sources date to the beginning of the 2nd
millennium BC (1900-1600 BC), with a few forerunners from the 3rd
millennium BC (as early as 2600 BC). The main 'classical' corpus can be
very roughly estimated at 50,000 lines of verse, including narrative
poetry, praise poetry, hymns, laments, prayers, songs, fables, didactic
poems, debate poems and proverbs. The majority of this has been
reconstructed during the past fifty years from thousands of often
fragmentary clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform writing. However,
relatively few compositions are published in satisfactory modern editions,
and many are scattered throughout a large number of journals and other
publications. Thus an acute need for a coherently and systematically
published, universally available textual corpus was identified.
In 1997, the late Dr Jeremy Black, a leading international scholar
specializing in the Sumerian language and Sumerian literature, assembled a
team in Oxford to start to gather electronic editions of all Sumerian
literary compositions from world leading specialists. Dr Black and his
team were hugely successful in creating this data resource, which in turn
became the foundation for two monographs and a large number of scholarly
articles by members of the team, and has transformed scholarship on
Sumerian literature and the Sumerian language. In 2001, the project
secured a five-year grant from The Arts and Humanities Board which made it
possible to continue to expand and enhance the corpus and expand the
The compositions are organised according to the catalogue of Sumerian
literature established by Chicago Assyriologist M. Civil. A composite
Sumerian language text is given for each composition with lists of the
manuscripts appended. For each composition, metadata is available as well
as a translation into prose English and a link to a full bibliography.
Within the corpus the translations are kept in English which is easily
accessible and divided into conceptual units separated into paragraphs.
Each paragraph is back-linked to a placeholder in the original Sumerian
text. The entire corpus has been lemmatized and is searchable. It also
provides the core linguistic corpus for the Electronic Pennsylvania
Sumerian Dictionary of the University of Pennsylvania. The corpus is XML
formatted and deposited with the Oxford Text Archive (OTA).
The quality of the online material is very high. The list of contributors
(for each individual composition) includes only the absolute best
specialists. The team of Dr Black at The University of Oxford, including
Dr Graham Cunningham, Dr Gábor Zólyomi and Dr Eleanor Robson, amalgamated,
and streamlined these sources to produce a uniform and consistent corpus.
The translations, although they follow published editions, are the work of
Dr Black and his team.
A majority of the scholarly work on Sumerian Literature conducted across
the world currently either relies on the ETCSL, or relates to it. Project
members have published dozen of articles and several books based on
research conducted in connection with the project. Robson's 1995 study,
for example, used the ETCSL dataset to enhance our understanding of
education in ancient Babylonia by moving beyond a simplistic view of
education based on self-referential literature to an empirical view of
what was studied when. Black's 2004 article enhanced our understanding of
one particular segment of a Sumerian literary composition (Dumuzi and his
sisters) drawing on other texts in the ETCSL, whereas the special volume
of ASJ (Black and Zolyomi 2005) contained articles on various points of
grammar using a corpus based approach.
References to the research
Black, J.A., Reading Sumerian poetry. London: Athlone (1998). Available
Reviewed by A.J. Ferrara (University of Pennsylvania) in Journal of Near
Eastern Studies 61:4, October 2002. "[...] this is a welcome first
attempt" given that "no book-length general survey of Sumerian literature
has been written up to this point... Almost every page provokes thoughtful
Black, Jeremy A., Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson and Gábor G. Zólyomi.
The literature of ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2004).
Available on request.
Reviewed by A.R. George (SOAS) in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
15:2, 2005. "Sumerian literature is the world's oldest corpus of literary
texts. The work of recovering it is still under way; the progress made so
far is one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century scholarship
in the humanities, even if it has attracted little attention. Books like
this are needed to make the pioneering work of Sumerologists better known.
It represents a great leap forward for Sumerian literature, for it exposes
to a new readership very many compositions that have hitherto been read
only by a tiny number of specialists." Reviewed by Martin Worthington, Bryn
Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.27: "It will be welcomed by all
desiring closer acquaintance with the literary treasures of Ancient
Mesopotamia, and can be warmly recommended as the standard new first port
of call for those who approach Sumerian literature by medium of English."
Black, Jeremy A. and Gábor G. Zólyomi (eds.). The Study of Diachronic and
Synchronic Variation in Sumerian: Papers Presented at the 6th Meeting of
the Sumerian Grammar Discussion Group, Oxford, 17th and 18th September
1999. (Acta Sumerologica 22 [Special Volume in Honor of Professor
Mamoru Yoshikawa]) Hiroshima: The Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan
Articles in leading journals:
Black, J.A., and Farouk N.H. Al-Rawi. 'A balbale of Ninurta, god of
fertility'. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 90, 31-39 (2000). DOI:
Robson, Eleanor. 'The tablet house: a scribal school in Old Babylonian
Nippur'. Revue d'Assyriologie 95, 39-67 (2001). http://www.cairn.info/revue-d-assyriologie-2001-1-page-39.htm
Zólyomi, Gábor G. 'A manuscript of Ningišzida's journey to the Nether
World from Kiš, Ingharra'.
Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 93, 70-81 (2003). DOI: 10.1515/zava.93.1.70
Black, Jeremy A. 'Dumuzid and his sisters'. Orientalia 73, 228-34 (2004).
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson,
E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian
Pump-priming grant from the University of Oxford's Research and Equipment
Committee (January to September 1997).
The Leverhulme Trust 1997-2000.
The Arts and Humanities Research Board 2001-2006: £472,162.
The British Academy and The Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2003-2006:
Diachronic corpus funding (John Fell): £52,181
Details of the impact
The translation and presentation of the Sumerian text corpus as a
searchable database available to anyone with a computer and internet
connection has allowed not just scholars to be able to access and
understand the Sumerian language and literature but opened up the subject
to a wider public audience. Both the act of translating and the studying
of prose pieces has been used by schoolchildren, storytellers, hobby
specialists and in undergraduate teaching.
Promoting greater understanding of Sumerian literature through story
Amongst the many pieces of translated Sumerian literature available on
the ETCSL are several legendary examples such as the poems of Enheduanna
(the world's first named poet) and the Epic of Gilgamesh (often considered
the oldest written story on Earth). These are popularly used in
storytelling activities to give a greater understanding of the times from
which they originate. Dr Jeremy Black was the founding patron of The
Enheduanna Society, whose aim is "popularising the literature of ancient
Iraq through the art of oral storytelling". The society includes a group
of `Zipang modern Mesopotamian storytellers' who bring to life key
Sumerian texts to a wide variety and number of audiences[i].
Since 2008 their many activities have ranged from a multi-lingual cultural
event organised by the Iraqi Association in Hammersmith in July 2009
(where the audience included representatives from the Iraqi Association in
Canada and the event was filmed by two Iraqi TV channels) to a sold-out
evening at the Oxford Story Museum with Michael Rosen November 2012; the
audiences to their events are multi-cultural and multi-generational, with
one workshop in September 2008 including "post-graduate students
interested in storytelling as a psychotherapeutic tool, a science
journalist writing for a Gulf newspaper, and Hungarians intrigued by
similarities between their language and Sumerian"[ii].
As part of the 2009-2012 Discover Mesopotamia Through Storytelling
project, funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, `Zipang Big Day
Out' events were held which incorporated guided tours of the British
Museum (finding clues to various stories through key artefacts), and
follow-on poetry workshops integrating Mesopotamian history and literature
and local and classical folk music. Print-outs of ETCSL translations were
used as handouts at Zipang storytelling performances during this project.In
August 2011 Badia Obaid, an Arabic-speaking Zipang storyteller, gave an
oral storytelling performance in Arabic of the Huwawa story in a Moroccan
forest as a special guest at a storytelling festival in Morocco. The main
source for her performance was the ETCSL translation of this story.
The Society was also closely involved with providing storytelling sessions
during the British Museum's Babylon Exhibition in 2008-2009[ii].
Thus the ETCSL has been instrumental both in conveying knowledge of early
literature to diverse audiences and to help preserve the oral tradition
and culture of storytelling which was prevalent when these texts were
Providing a resource for further publications for a general audience
The world of Sumerian literature has been made available to authors of
popular books, both through early Mesopotamian stories, but also as a way
of discovering and exploring the earliest known examples of various
topics. Fran Hazleton from the Enheduanna Society has herself written
various works on epic stories such as Three Kings of Warka
published in 2012[iii]: one of the stories retold is the
Epic of Gilgamesh which was originally written in Akkadian, however, Fran
Hazelton has incorporated Sumerian elements of this story found in ETCSL
translations; the remaining two stories are originally Sumerian and
translation was assisted by the ETCSL.
Lennart Warring and Taina Kantola consulted the current Project Director
prior to the publication of their 2011 Swedish book Inanna -
skymningens drottning (Inanna - Queen of twilight)[iv].
In a different vein, Valerie Frankel's 2010 book From Girl to Goddess:
The Heroine's Journey Through Myth and Legend "explores the
universal heroine's journey as she quests through world myth" and directly
cites the translation of Inana's Descent to the Nether World
available on the ETCSL website[v]. Similarly Amnon
Altman's 2012 book Tracing the Earliest Recorded Concepts of
International Law: The Ancient Near East (2500-330 BCE) does not
re-tell a specific story but refers to various translations such as Lamentation
over the destruction of Ur or Gilgames and Akka to
investigate a wider theme of Law in early civilisations[vi].
Providing an educational resource
The Enheduanna Society have also created several teachers packs for use
in primary schools which contain numerous activities with specific lesson
plans on cuneiform writing which contain links back to the ETCSL signlists[vii].
The current ETCSL Project Director frequently receives requests to use
translation material published via ETCSL in a variety of course materials.
Recent granted requests are for use of The Exaltation of Inana, The
Debate Summer and Winter and The Sumerian King List as part
of a Cengage course reader[viii] [currently following up
with publisher what use of course readers is for]; including A hymn to
Ninkasi (Ninkasi A) as part of the free course History 126: World
Civilizations with the Washington State Open Course Library Project and
incorporating A song of Inana[ix] and Dumuzid
and Enkimdu in a course pack written by Professor David Miano of the
University of California, launched in early July 2013 to purchase from the
Almost all taught programmes in Sumerian language and literature at
undergraduate level in Europe and the United States rely on the ETCSL as a
basis for their teaching. The importance of this resource has been
attested to by numerous departments. Professor Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum from
the Freie Universität Berlin feels that it is an important tool for
students on their BA course, to establish an understanding of the current
research on Sumerian Literature; allowing students to quickly and easily
search for specific phrases and, as it is website based, use it to
continue their studies when not on University premises.
Dr T.J.H.Krispijn from Leiden University describes the increasing
relevance of the ETCSL for his students: "Since the amount of Dutch and
foreign students in Leiden without knowledge of French and German is
increasing, ETCLS (sic) has become an indispensable tool for reading
Sumerian literary texts. Our course Sumerian III: reading Old Babylonian
Literary texts, sceduled for the third year BA Ancient Cultures of the
Mediterranian World- track Assyriology in Leiden, would be almost
impossible without ETCLS". Dr Dina Katz from the
Netherlands Institute for the Near East says "I think that there is not
doubt that ETCSL revolutionized the study of ancient Babylonia...the
search functions result in a full overview of the use of words and
expressions in the literature, and a move of the curser over the text
which shows lemma and translation of the individual word makes an advanced
search in the dictionary easier". Bertrand Lafont,
Research Director at CNRS History and Archaeology of the Orient Cuneiform
in Paris adds "The field studies of Sumerian literature remains extremely
specialized...complex and difficult to access. ETCSL offers the only easy
and immediate access to the full text of Sumerian literary sources and
that we can understand through the transliteration and translation of
texts. It is clear that ETCSL is primarily a tool for teaching purposes,
plus a real search tool (although it is still useful also in this area).
In my own teaching, I often prepare a seminar recovering...the entire
composite transliterations of a particular work."
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Email correspondence with Chairperson, Enheduanna Society
 Email correspondence with Project Manager, Cognella regarding
David Miano course pack.
 Email correspondence with Professor, Freie Universität Berlin
 Email correspondence with Docent, Leiden University
 Email correspondence with Staff Member, Nederlands Instituut
voor het Nabije Oosten, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Other Evidence Sources
[i] The Enheduanna Society: http://zipang.org.uk/index.html
[ii] Past events: http://zipang.org.uk/pastevents.htm
[vii] Enheduanna's Teacher's pack: http://zipang.org.uk/teachers/teachers.htm
[viii] Cengage course reader: email correspondence and
[ix] Washington Library course: Email correspondence and http://opencourselibrary.org/hist-126-world-civilizations-i/