This is a welcome translation of a book originally published in 2000 as Ecrire à Sumer: L'invention du Cunéiforme . The inversion of the title for readers of English puts the horse firmly before the cart.
Jean-Jacques Glassner's subject is the first stages of cuneiform writing, not the use of writing among the people of Sumer generally.
Writing was invented about 5,400 years ago in lower Mesopotamia by people who used it to write Sumerian, the first recorded language in history. Glassner stoutly fights off claims of greater antiquity for other writing, including Egyptian, Harappan and Chinese, but allows that prior invention does not discount subsequent re-invention.
At first linear, Sumerian script soon developed the wedge-shaped form that led to the coining of the term "cuneiform". The first written documents were aides-mémoire to accountancy, and most scholars agree that book-keeping gave birth to writing. Glassner bridles at the mundanity of this but does not give a convincing alternative.
From the beginning, the human intellect began to turn this new technology into a tool to organise knowledge. The need to teach would-be scribes a uniform system led to a fixed curriculum of vocabularies, lists of trees, animals, pottery vessels and human occupations.
By 2600BC, cuneiform writing had developed into a tool sophisticated enough to write royal propaganda and literature, including mythological narratives and collections of proverbs. It was later adapted to write other ancient Near Eastern languages, including Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian), Hittite (the oldest-known Indo-European language), Hurrian, Elamite, Urartian and Old Persian. Cuneiform was in use for nearly 3,500 years and, in terms of longevity, it is only now being overtaken by Chinese script.
Glassner gets off to a slow start. The book nearly founders in the first chapter, where an account of the ancient Mesopotamian literary tradition of the invention of writing by the legendary hero Enmerkar becomes bogged down in arcane detail. The treatment is excessively philological, hard to follow without prior knowledge and, in the end, unconvincing. But readers of academic inclination will find it worth persevering.
The following chapters set the cultural scene with great élan , describing the necessarily prehistoric archaeological context of the invention of writing, dismissing the theory that clay tokens represent the lineal ancestors of writing and setting out a case for writing as a "true mental revolution, which immediately aspired to condition thought".
In the heart of the book, Glassner gives a detailed and highly technical account of writing and written documents from the late fourth millennium BC, that is, the period of its invention and the following centuries. Here, Glassner takes his reader to the documents themselves, exposing him to all they have to offer. He does this seriously, yet with a brilliant lightness of touch, inviting fascination where others might admit boredom.
For all the scholarly detail, Glassner's central chapters display great lucidity. They are accompanied by apologies for what he calls a "dismaying banality" of argument. Glassner writes in an academic tradition where banality is sin, grandiloquence virtue and discursiveness the norm.
Chapters where he is less in touch with primary evidence often inform us less about ancient writing and more about modern intellectual preoccupations. He locates his work by reference to Derrida and Foucault.
The translators have done a magnificent job in converting Ecrire à Sumer into The Invention of Cuneiform , and if some of it palls, it is not their fault.
Andrew George is professor of Babylonian, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer
Author - Jean-Jacques Glassner
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Pages - 266
Price - £31.00
ISBN - 0 8018 7389 4