Understanding the Early Mesopotamian World


This course has two intertwined themes: the ways in which people made sense of the world in one of history's first urban societies; and the ways in which that society has been interpreted since its rediscovery some 200 years ago. First we will study how literacy and numeracy developed in the cities of southern Iraq (Mesopotamia), some 5–6000 years ago, as a means of quantifying, classifying and – perhaps most importantly – controlling the world and thereby changing it. Then we will focus on the training of scribes, scholars and intellectuals in the third and early second millennium BC. From a modern perspective, we can say that they learned a variety of literary works – a rather bewildering variety at first sight – as well as mathematics, law, and of course the complexities of cuneiform writing. But how did this cohere into a useful education, and who and what was that education for? Next we turn to understandings of the body. Before the late 18th century (AD!) medicine was largely ineffective, yet doctors and healers were highly valued in most, if not all, ancient and pre-modern societies, not least Mesopotamia. We will take an anthropological view of medicine to try and explain this apparent paradox. Then we will ask how, in a world controlled by unpredictable gods, was the future ever knowable? Various methods of divination are attested in Mesopotamia from at least the third millennium BC, each serving a different set of clientele and social functions. We will investigate how divine will was discovered and interpreted, through observation of the natural world. Running parallel to these explorations of the ancient world, we will consider how big themes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, such as exploration and war, empire and race, religion and science, shaped and reshaped popular and learned views of the ancient Middle East, and continue to do so today.

Module type: Thematic

Level: 5

Module code:

  • HIST0021 (HIST2108): 30 credits
  • HIST0508: 15 credits - Term 1 Affiliate students only
  • HIST0022: 15 credits - Term 2 Affiliate students only

Assessment method:

  • HIST0021: 2 X 2,500-word essay (50%) and a 3-hour examination (50%)
  • HIST0508: 1 X 4,000-word essay (100%) - Term 1 Affiliate students only
  • HIST0022: 2 X 2,500-word essay (40/60%) - Term 2 Affiliate students only