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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the science of the languages, writing, culture, and history of Babylonia and Assyria. Broadly speaking, it is the entire complex of sciences concerned with the civilizations that used the wedge system of writing (cuneiform). In this sense Assyriology embraces Sumerology, Urartology, Hittitology, Hurritology, and Elamitology. At present Ugaritic studies and the historical-philological studies on ancient Iran are usually not included in Assyriology; although the Ugaritic and Old Persian civilizations also used peculiar varieties of cuneiform signs, these do not seem to be directly related generically to Babylonian-Assyrian cuneiform.

The foundation of Assyriology was laid in the mid-19th century by the archaeological work of A. H. Layard (Britain) and P. E. Botta (France), who discovered in the mounds of Kuyunjik, Nimrud, and Khorsabad in Iraq numerous Assyrian written and artistic monuments from the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C., and by H. Rawlinson (Britain) who found the trilingual (Old Persian-Elamitic-Babylonian) Be-histun (Bisitun) rock inscription of the Persian ruler Darius I (about 521 B.C.). The founding of Assyriology is often mistakenly ascribed to the German philologist G. F. Grotefend, who in 1802 partly deciphered the Old Persian text of the initial lines of two trilingual inscriptions of Darius I and his son Xerxes (after correctly indentifying nine signs). But Grotefend’s work went virtually unnoticed, and Old Persian cuneiform was more or less successfully deciphered independently of Grotefend in the 1820’s and 1830’s by R. Rask (Denmark), E. Burnouf (France), C. Lassen (Germany), and Rawlinson (Britain). As to Babylonian-Assyrian cuneiform, it was deciphered as a result of the studies started in the 1840’s by Botta and others in France and then substantially advanced by E. Hincks, Rawlinson, and others in Great Britain. The new science was recognized for the first time in 1857 when the text of an unknown Assyrian inscription was deciphered. The Royal Asiatic Society in Britain delivered tracings of this inscription in sealed packages to a number of scholars at the same time: to the Frenchman J. Oppert, Englishmen Rawlinson and U. G. Fox-Talbot, and the Irishman Hincks. The translations made by these scholars independently of one another agreed in all the main elements. Further progress in Assyriology in the 19th century (which still provoked bitter debates) is associated with the names of G. Smith (Britain), F. Lenormant and Z. Menant (France), A. H. Sayce (England), P. Haupt (United States), T. Pinches (Britain), and E. Schrader (Germany).

It was Hincks who discovered that Babylonian-Assyrian cuneiform was used to record texts in two different languages, of which one (Babylonian-Assyrian proper, or Akkadian in contemporary terminology) belonged to the Semitic family, while the other (once mistakenly called Akkadian in scientific research, now known as Sumerian) was a language of unknown origin. Study of the Akkadian (Babylonian-Assyrian) language was placed on a scientific foundation by the German scholar F. Delitzsch (who put out a grammar in 1889 and a dictionary in 1896). The first research on the Sumerian language was done by Haupt (United States) and Oppert (France), but for a long time the very existence of this language was doubted. J. Halévy (France) and others maintained that the Sumerian texts were merely a peculiar secret writing of priests in the same Babylonian-Assyrian language. The finding of numerous genuine Sumerian inscriptions and economic documents of the third millennium B.C. by E. de Sarzec (France) at Telloh (ancient Lagash) and the brilliant reading of them from 1884 to 1905 by the French researcher A. Amiaud and the gifted and versatile Assyriologist F. Thureau-Dangin laid the foundation of Sumerology as a separate branch of Assyriology. They demonstrated the Sumerian origin of Babylonian-Assyrian cuneiform and the entire culture of Babylonia. The first strictly scientific grammar of Sumerian was published by A. Poebel (Germany) in 1923. The continued advances of Assyriology in the narrow sense are associated particularly with the work of the German scholars H. Zimmern, B. Meissner, A. Ungnad, B. Landsberger, and W. von Soden, while Sumerology was furthered by the German scholars A. Deimel (combined dictionary of Sumerian ideograms used in cuneiform) and A. Falkenstein, the Dane T. Jakobsen, the American S. N. Kramer, and others.

In Russia the first to publish work in Assyriology were the Egyptologists V. S. Golenishchev and B. A. Turaev (1890’s). The first professional Assyriologist and Sumerologist was M. V. Nikol’skii, who produced exemplary publications of the Sumerian documents collected by the eminent paleographer N. P. Likhachev. The teaching of Akkadian was started in St. Petersburg University by P. K. Kokovtsov. Among the world-famous Russian and Soviet Assyriologists, Sumerianists, and Hittitologists was V. K. Shileiko, who concentrated on cuneiform literature.

Discoveries in the 19th and early 20th centuries of Urar-tean inscriptions on the Armenian highland and in Transcaucasia, Elamitic inscriptions and documents in southwest Iran, the cuneiform diplomatic archive of the pharaohs in Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, and the multilingual archive of the Hittite kingdom at Bogazköy in Turkey resulted in the inclusion of Urartu, Hittite, Human, Luvian, Palaic, Hattic, and Elamitic among the languages studied in Assyriology. The major Urartologists were the Englishman Sayce, J. Friedrich of Germany, A. Goetze of Germany and the United States, I.I. Meshchaninov and G. A. Melikishvili of the USSR, and F. V. König of Austria; Hittitologists included B. Hrozný (Czechoslovakia), E. Forrer (Switzerland), F. Sommer (Germany), E. Sturtevant (United States), A. Goetze (Germany and the United States), H. Ehelolf, J. Friedrich. A. Kammenhuber (Germany), and others; among the Hurri-tologists was E. A. Speiser (United States); and the Luvian scholars included E. Laroche (France).

Assyriology developed in the 19th century mainly as an auxiliary science in the scientific critical study of the Bible. Early in the 20th century, pan-Babylonism became popular, especially in Germany. Pan-Babylonism enormously exaggerated the world significance of Babylonian culture and proclaimed Babylon the point of origin of almost all the cultural achievements of mankind (the German historian H. Winck-ler, the literary critic P. Jensen, and others). The great interest shown to Assyriology in imperial Germany was related to the attempts of German imperialism to penetrate Iraq. In the 20th century Assyriology became one of the major orientalist disciplines, engaging in comprehensive study of the languages, culture, and history of the ancient Near East. Assyriology is important because its task is to investigate the world’s first (along with Egypt) region of class civilization and the origin of civilization in general. However, in view of the exceptional complexity of the written sources and the great variety of genres (economic and juridical documents, letters, epics, religious lyrics, fables, proverbs, royal inscriptions, chronicles, pedagogical and scientific texts, rituals, divinations, and many others) and also in view of the substantial changes that took place in the languages of the Near East and in the cuneiform signs themselves from the fourth to first millennia B.C., foreign scholars concerned themselves until recently with such aspects of Assyriology as the textual and the lexicographic, and developed a great many subspecialties within the science.

In the USSR, A. P. Riftin, a student of Shileiko, restored the teaching of Assyriology in Leningrad in 1933 and founded an independent school of Soviet Assyriologist-philologists. The tradition of teaching cuneiform was later introduced in Tbilisi by G. V. Tsereteli, a student of P. K. Kokovtsov. N. D. Flittner in Leningrad taught the history of physical archaeology of the Near East.

In the early 1930’s, V. V. Struve achieved prominence in the course of the discussion on the Marxist periodization of the world historical process. On the basis of Assyriological and Sumerological evidence, Struve argued that slavery was the predominant mode of production in the Near East. He also was the first Soviet scholar to emphasize socioeconomic research in Assyriology. In debating with Struve, A. I. Tiumenev made a substantial contribution to the history of Sumer. Today the Soviet school of historians is a leader in world Assyriology. Soviet Sumerologists and Soviet Assyriologists proper are working on socioeconomic and legal problems (M. A. Dandamaev, I. M. D’iakonov, G. Kh. Sar-kisian, V. A. Iakobson, N. B. Iankovskaia, and others) as well as on languages (I. M. D’iakonov, I. T. Kaneva, L. A. Lipin), literature, art, and folklore (I. Kh. Levin, V. K. Afanas’eva). A. A. Vaiman’s deciphering of archaic Sumerian texts from the end of the fourth and beginning of the third millennia B.C. is of great value. Soviet Hittitology (the linguists T. V. Gamkrelidze, I. M. Dunaevskaia, and V. V. Ivanov and the historians G. G. Giorgadze, G. I. Dovgialo, E. A. Menabde, and others) and Elamitology (Iu. B. Iusifov) are developing successfully. Soviet Urartol-ogy is a leader in world science. The publication of Urartu literary remains of Transcaucasia by M. V. Nikol’skii even before the Great October Socialist Revolution was very significant. Urartology was taught first in Baku and then in Leningrad by I. I. Meshchaninov. Soviet Urartologists have great achievements to their credit both in the field of archaeology (B. B. Piotrovskii and others) and in the field of history and philology (G. A. Melikishvili and others).

The universities in Leningrad, Tbilisi, and Yerevan are the centers of Assyriology in the USSR. Small but highly interesting cuneiform collections assembled by Likhachev and Golenishchev are in Leningrad (Hermitage) and Moscow (A. S. Pushkin State Museum of the Fine Arts). The Urarto-logical collections of Yerevan (Museum of Armenia) and Tbilisi (Museum of Georgia) are important. Research in Assyriology, in the broad sense, is carried out in Leningrad, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Moscow, Baku, Minsk, and Vilnius. Pertinent articles appear in the journal Vestnik drevnei istorii (Bulletin of Ancient History; since 1937) and in the non-periodical publications Peredneaziatskii sbornik (Southwest Asia Collection; Moscow, since 1961), Kavkazsko-blizhne-vostochnyi sbornik (Caucasus-Near East Collection; vol. 1 appeared under the title Vostochnyi sbornik [Oriental Collection]; Tbilisi, since 1960), and in other collections and scholarly publications.

The main centers of Assyriology abroad are Chicago (Oriental Institute), Baghdad (Baghdad museum), Paris (Louvre), London (British Museum), Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Museum), Rome (Pontifical Biblical Institute), Istanbul (Archaeological Museum of Istanbul), as well as Prague, Berlin, Heidelberg, Munich, Leiden, Ankara, several university cities in the United States, and elsewhere. Iraqi scholars have become increasingly prominent in recent years. For them the study of Babylon and Assyria is the study of the great past of their country. Specialized journals devoted exclusively or mostly to Assyriology include the Journal of Cuneiform Studies (New Haven, since 1947), Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie... (Berlin, since 1886), Revue d’assyriologie... (Paris, since 1884), Revue hittite et asiatique (Paris, since 1930), Archiv für Orientforschung (Berlin, since 1923), Orientalia (Rome, since 1920), Iraq (London, since 1934), and Sumer (Baghdad, since 1945). General orientalist journals in various countries assign considerable space to Assyriology.


Buzeskul, V. P. Otkrytiia XIX i nachala XX veka v oblasti istorii drevnego mira. Part 1: “Vostok.” St. Petersburg, 1923.
Buzeskul, V. P. Otkrytiia i nauchnye dostizheniia za poslednie gody v oblasti izucheniia drevnego Vostoka. Kiev, 1927.
Friedrich, J. Deshifrovka zabytykh pis’mennostei i iazykov. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from German.)
Postovskaia, N. M. Izuchenie drevnei istorii Blizhnego Vostoka v Sovetskom Soiuze (1917–1959 gg.). Moscow, 1961.
D’iakonov, I. M. Iazyki drevnei Perednei Azii. Moscow, 1967.
Pallis, S. A. The Antiquity of Iraq. Copenhagen, 1956.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.