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Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

RAI 49: Report

Five hundred Assyriologists in Bloomsbury

RAI 49 - Nineveh

In early July the 49e Rencontre assyriologique internationale convened in London. It was the first time a Rencontre had been held in London (and indeed Britain) for twenty-one years. The meeting was a highly successful and productive one, attracting 500 participants from all over the world, a record crowd for a Rencontre. Thanks to this high registration and the generosity of several benefactors, the organizers were able to bring to London for the duration of the meeting nine Iraqi colleagues and three from Syria, and also helped to meet the expenses of two Turkish scholars. It was good to welcome such a large contingent of participants from the Middle East, and equally good to find old friends safe and well after the campaign of March and April.

The Rencontre marked the 250th anniversary of the British Museum, and the theme was Nineveh, the last great Assyrian imperial capital. The match was perfect: the site that gave birth to Assyriology studied in the museum that is Nineveh redivivus. The week began on Sunday 6 July with a dramatic reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh, led by Timothy West and Prunella Scales, and an eve of congress reception in the Brunei Gallery building on the campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies. Frivolity is often the herald of more serious things. Monday’s opening session began five gruelling days of intensive academic work, most of which took place in the splendid new lecture theatres of the Clore Education Centre, below the museum’s Great Court. All in all, participants were able to choose from almost 150 academic papers. The medicine was sweetened by social gatherings, with a second reception elegantly laid on in the Clore Education Centre and a third served up al fresco in the gardens of Gordon Square.

The Rencontre’s main business was hearing about new research on Nineveh. Papers on important Iraqi and American excavations of recent years were given by Muayyad Sa‘id Damerji and Donny George, by Manhal Jabr and by Diana Pickworth. Another archaeological highlight was the morning devoted to Nineveh in relation to its landscape, coordinated by Tony Wilkinson. Other papers discussed various aspects of the archaeology of Nineveh across an enormous timespan, from prehistory to the Sasanian period. Assyriologists looked again at the topic of the royal libraries of Kuyunjik, whose cuneiform tablets have been since 1850 the foundation stone of their field of study, and at the intellectual life of Nineveh and its scholars. Jeanette Fincke, Ali Yaseen Ahmad and Christopher Walker reported on the British Museum’s latest initiatives concerning the Kuyunjik tablets, including a collaboration with the University of Mosul.

Historians looked at Nineveh in the pre-imperial period during the second millennium BC, at the repercussions of the city’s fame on classical and biblical writers, and especially at the policies and strategies of that most interesting of rulers, Sennacherib. Topographical matters arose in several papers, not least in Karen Foster’s discussion of the Hanging Gardens motif. Art historians looked afresh at the famous bas-reliefs from the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal, and considered the ideology of royal art. Anthropologists found subjects for study in the reliefs and in written documents. Students of mathematics and astronomy did not go without. Matters of religion provided fodder for a wide variety of papers, with some concentrating on the goddess Ishtar and others investigating the topic of exorcism.

Alongside papers on Nineveh and Assyria, the week also saw special workshops on Babylonian medicine, digital projects in Assyriology and the administration of the Ur III state. The last of these, a full day at the School of Oriental and African Studies, was effectively a conference within a conference, and all credit for its success should go to its organizer, Steven Garfinkle.

Rencontres are expected to find room for papers on other topics, especially where they present new discoveries. By packing the programme to its limits, the London Rencontre made space for many such reports. The most exciting of these filled a session on ancient Qatna, in which Michel al-Maqdissi, Peter Pfälzner and Mirko Novák shared the very latest findings from Tell Mishrifeh in Syria.

Into this very full academic programme was inserted on Monday a session devoted to the looting of museums, universities and archaeological sites in Iraq, which was addressed not only by representatives of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and the British Museum’s mission to Iraq, but also by Anna Paolini of UNESCO. The afternoon brought publicity for Iraqi archaeology in the media and was also extremely helpful in informing academic colleagues of the true situation of archaeology on the ground in Iraq. Comedy often intervenes to lighten the recollection of sombre issues. One journalist was quick to report the regrets of a participant that a few looters had not been shot on sight — and to record the British Museum’s prompt denial that killing looters was official museum policy.

At the last minute the schedule was changed to include, late on Friday afternoon, an unexpected hour-long report by the soldier heading the Iraq Museum Investigation Team set up by the coalition authorities to retrieve antiquities looted in April. The proceedings were fortunately concluded by one last reception, aptly enough in the Assyrian basement. This allowed a cordial atmosphere to prevail, and ensured that RAI 49 was not just a conference, it was indeed a Rencontre.

The final programme, list of participants and commemorative photograph of the London Rencontre can be found on-line at the RAI website.

RAI 49 was organized by a committee of colleagues mostly drawn from the University of London and the British Museum, under the banner of the London Centre for the Ancient Near East. It was supported by the MBI Foundation, the Charlotte Bonham-Carter Trust, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, the British Academy, the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara and the London Middle East Institute at SOAS. In addition the British Association for Near Eastern Archaeology made grants available to student participants. Other help was provided by the Department of the Near and Middle East and the Marketing Office at SOAS and the Departments of the Ancient Near East and of Education at the British Museum. The committee's thanks are extended to all these institutions, as well as to those interns and students who manned the registration desk and the bar in Gordon Square. Its chairman's go also to those who served on the committee.

A R George

Chairman, Organizing committee, RAI 49

RAI 49 organizing committee: Dr Morris Bierbrier (Chairman, the London Centre for the Ancient Near East), Professors A R George and J D Hawkins (SOAS), Dr J E Curtis, Mr C B F Walker, Dr Dominique Collon, Dr I L Finkel, Dr Alexandra Irving (Dept of the Ancient Near East, the British Museum), Mr S Moorhead (BM Education Dept), Professors A T L Kuhrt and M J Geller, Dr David Brown (University College London), Dr Roger Matthews (Institute of Archaeology, UCL), Dr Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, Professor Farouk Al-Rawi, Mrs Janet Politi (Secretary)