Modern discovery of the ancient Near East

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Assyriology (from Greek Ἀσσυρίᾱ, Assyriā; and -λογία, -logia) is the archaeological, historical, and linguistic study of ancient Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and the related cultures that used cuneiform writing. The field covers the Akkadian sister-cultures of Assyria and Babylonia, together with their cultural predecessor; Sumer. The large number of cuneiform clay tablets preserved by these cultures provide an enormous resource for the study of the period. The region's (and the world's) first cities such as Ur are archaeologically invaluable for studying the growth of urbanization.

As an academic discipline, Assyriology presents itself as one of the most demanding fields in the humanities. Scholars need a good knowledge of several languages: Akkadian and its major dialects and Sumerian, aided by such languages as Biblical Hebrew, Hittite, Elamite and Aramaic for comparative purposes, and the capacity to absorb the complexities of writing systems with several hundred core signs. While there now exist many important grammatical studies and lexical aids, many texts remain difficult to interpret accurately. Frequently, this is because the tablets they were written on are broken, or in the case of literary texts, where there may be many copies, the language and grammar are arcane. Moreover, scholars must be able to read and understand modern English, French, and German, as important references, dictionaries, and journals are published in those languages.

There are many dialects of Akkadian, the language of Assyria and Babylonia, ranging from the earliest texts in Old Akkadian and related Eblaite in the 3rd millennium BC down to texts written in the first century AD. Some dialects are indigenous, for example, the Old Assyrian found in merchant texts from Anatolia, while others appear to be specific 'inventions' of certain groups of literati or religious authorities (the Hymnic Epic dialect, and later, Standard Babylonian).

The writing system is based upon that which was developed in southern Mesopotamia for the Sumerian language. Sumerian has no known cognates and utilizes an entirely different grammatical system. Despite this difference, the adaptation of the writing system, together with many lexical items as well as possible influence on Akkadian grammar, make reading any Akkadian text a challenging task.

The writing system was also adapted for other languages, including Hittite, Hurrian, Urartian, and Elamite. Distinct cuneiform scripts were also developed for Ugaritic and Old Persian.

The categories of literature which exist are enormous, including documents such as business and legal records, religious texts, canonical literary texts (for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh), historical inscriptions of rulers, personal letters, as well as music, mathematical. and pseudo-scientific texts (omen series). There are lexical series of a type which reflect a scholarly interest in comparative linguistics, including the preservation of knowledge of the Sumerian language for religious and cultural purposes. In fact, because cuneiform was used for close to 3000 years, the range of records is as naturally diverse as that found in writing today, notwithstanding lower literacy rates in antiquity.

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