Oxford Postgraduate Conference in Assyriology


The Oxford Postgraduate Conference in Assyriology has just completed its sixth instalment, once again bringing together early career researchers from all over the world. The organizers volunteered to provide the newsletter with a full report on the conference, and as they write, this yearly gathering at Wolfson College has by now become a mainstay for doctoral research in Assyriology:

The following report on the proceedings of the conference highlights the breadth of topics covered over the two days and provides a first point of contact for readers of Mar Shiprim to learn about current doctoral research in Assyriology and related fields in Europe and across the world.

The 6th Oxford Postgraduate Conference in Assyriology, Wolfson College, 21-22 April, 2017

By Mónica Palmero Fernández, Parsa Daneshmand, Lynn-Salammbô Zimmermann and Adam Howe

The 6th Oxford Postgraduate Conference in Assyriology (OPCA) took place on the 21st and 22nd of April, 2017 at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. The event brought together around fifty attendees, who listened to twenty-four presentations by postgraduate and postdoctoral students from nineteen universities in nine different countries across the world, as well as two keynote talks delivered by Professor Dr. Walther Sallaberger and Dr. Anne Goddeeris.

As in previous years, the topics covered spanned a wide range of time periods and geographic locations, which motivated the discussion of methodologies and theories beyond the constraints of any given school of thought or academic milieu. This is a strength that OPCA has actively developed over the years. The limited size of the conference coupled with its interdisciplinary and international outlook makes OPCA a primary forum for the discussion and development of new ideas among the new generations of Assyriologists.

The following report on the proceedings of the conference highlights the breadth of topics covered over the two days and provides a first point of contact for readers of Mar Shiprim to learn about current doctoral research in Assyriology and related fields in Europe and across the world.

The 6th OPCA was kindly sponsored by Wolfson Academic Committee, The Lorne Thyssen Fund for Ancient World Topics at Wolfson College, The British Institute for the Study of Iraq, and The London Centre for the Ancient Near East. Without their continued support over the years, this conference would not be possible.

Friday, 21st of April

Friday was dedicated to a range of panels around topics of social identity including religion, communicating with others, death, or childhood. Of no less importance were three papers that dealt with the relationship between humans and animals, an area often overlooked in research into social identity during the historical periods but which must have been of great importance.

The day ended with Professor Dr. Sallaberger’s talk on the Bau festival in Early Bronze Age Lagaš. His use of both administrative records and archaeological evidence to discuss the social identity of the people involved in the festival offered an insightful conclusion to the day’s discussions.

The conference began with a short address from Professor Jacob Dahl, who recounted OPCA’s history since it started in 2012 and paid a warm tribute to all the previous organisers of the conference: Dr Moudhy al-Rashid, now Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford; Dr Nicholas Reid, now Assistant Professor at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida; Dr Selena Wisnom, now Junior Research Fellow at the Queen’s College, Oxford; Dr Laura Hawkins, now a post-doctoral researcher at Brown University; Dr Karenleigh Overmann, now Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs; Kate Kelley, who recently submitted her DPhil thesis and now works as a research assistant in Prof Dahl’s ‘Seals and their Impressions in the Ancient Near East’ (SIANE) project; and Eva Miller, who has a Research Fellowship at the Warburg Institute, London.

The first panel of the day covered a variety of approaches to the study of religion and cult and was chaired by Mónica Palmero Fernández, whose interdisciplinary research project into the figure of Inanna/Ištar in the 3rd millennium B.C. and the relationship of her cult with kingship fitted well with the topic. The four papers presented were circumscribed to the 1st millennium B.C., thus perhaps limiting the comparative potential with earlier periods.

Julia Giessler presented current research into the practice of marking animals and humans (šimtū) to establish ownership. Her paper, titled ‘To Mark a Living Creature for a Deity – Babylonian Practices and their Traditions’ covered, on the one hand, the well-known evidence from the Eanna-temple was reviewed, while a more in-depth discussion of private ownership added dimensionality to the understanding of these practices. Finally, Giessler discussed the symbolic meaning of these practices. A comment from the audience prompted a discussion on the animate/inanimate dimension of this practice and its relationship with the older practice of “marking” statues from the 3rd millennium B.C.

In a paper titled ‘Answers from the Sungod,’ Krzysztof Kalek provided a summary of the three methods he is employing to determine the value of the signs in oracle queries to Šamaš from the Neo-Assyrian period. During the discussion, it was suggested that, given that the sequence is now reasonably well understood, perhaps determining the outcome of specific queries might not be as productive without further discussion on the sociopolitical implications of these queries and their evolution over time.

The next paper fitted nicely with the ongoing discussion as Adam Howe discussed his research into the ‘Life-cycle Rituals of the Assyrian Court,’ which referred to the practice in using a “substitute king”. His paper focused both on the practicalities of the rituals involved in this process, including an instance in which the nail-clippings of the real king had to be disposed of in a ritualistic fashion, as well as on the religious and political implications of the ritual that elevated it into such a powerful event that the memory of it survived in later Greek and Near Eastern Sources. Comments to Howe’s presentation revolved around the concepts of purity and impurity that were associated with the ritual, and how these may have been conceptualized within the royal ideology apparatus.

Finally, Michael Moore’s paper on ‘Festivals and Social Hierarchies in the Hittite Court’ provided an interesting contrast to the methodology and 3rd millennium material later discussed by Prof. Dr. Sallaberger. Moore discussed his use of Michael Dietler’s theoretical framework of feasting to study the reification of social hierarchy within the Hittite court through religious festivals. His approach covers an in-depth study of pertaining literature from the Palace Chronicles and instruction texts, rather than focus on texts of an administrative nature. Thus, his approach is clearly framed within a symbolic-ideological study of stylized texts produced within the realm of the palace.

The papers in this first session appeared to share a common thread around questions of communicating religious identity and the hierarchical organisation of cultic practices.

The second panel of the day was divided into two sessions with two closely-related papers each. These were also chaired by Mónica Palmero Fernández. First, Francesca Minen and Gioele Zisa discussed approaches to the study of two areas of Mesopotamian medicine in their papers titled ‘Dermatological Notions in Mesopotamian Medicine’ and ‘Medical Anthropology and Babylonian Medicine: The Case Study of ŠÀ-ZIG.GA Therapy,’ respectively. In a highly innovative research project, Minen is currently working on defining the range and meaning of dermatological notions in Mesopotamian medicine, focusing on specific terminology found in the series SA.GIG, in Tablet 33 in particular. Her work draws on recent advances in the edition and commentary of medical texts. Interestingly, her topic overlapped with Giessler’s discussion insofar as the ways in which the concept of “skin” was conceptualized within the magico-medical realm.

Likewise, Zisa’s paper also highlighted the need to develop a stronger theoretical foundation for the interpretation of medical texts, especially within a modern scientific milieu. His analysis of the ŠÀ-ZIG.GA therapy is founded on theoretical and methodological advances borrowed from the fields of ethno-psychiatry and medical anthropology, which allowed him to tap into questions of gender and the conceptualization of illness within the physical body in ancient Mesopotamia. The latter, of course, is entwined with the concept of libbû.

For the second part of this panel we moved from the magic-medical realm into more mundane, though not prosaic aspects of communication in letter-writing. Izabela Nowak delivered a talk on ‘Greeting Formulas in the Old Babylonian Letters ana šapirīya and ana bēlīya.’ Nowak described the various ways in which the letters are addressed and commented on the issues associated with defining the geographical dimension of the correspondence through the analysis of the deities mentioned in the greeting formulas. The Old Babylonian letters discussed by Nowak are among the most studied text-groups in Assyriology, especially in terms of the social knowledge that can be gained from them (geography, prosopography, familial and legal procedures, etc.). Thus, digging deeper into the internal organisation of this epistolary corpus could offer new insights.

Finally, Jane Gordon delivered a paper on ‘Communicating Emotion in Old Assyrian Letters from Kanesh’, in which she specifically addressed the more technical aspects of letter-writing and how its constraints as a genre shaped communication about emotion. Adding a phenomenological dimension to her analysis, Gordon discussed how distance as a variable affected emotional expression both in business and personal letters, and how this in turn affected the effective communication of the intended message.

The second half of the day consisted of two panels on aspects of daily life and various roles of animals in ancient Mesopotamia, which were chaired by Lynn-Salammbô Zimmermann. The first session after the lunch break revolved around the topic of “The Vicissitudes of Life”.

Sara Manasterska, in her talk titled ‘The Poetics of Complaining: A Cross-Genre Investigation of Akkadian in Use,’ analysed the communicative context of “complaining” in various text genres, differentiating between the form meaning and discourse meaning to determine the function across different genres. Thus, the discourse meaning of a complaint can be a request in Neo-Assyrian letters.

In a very philosophical talk titled ‘Babylonian Perspectives on the Uncertainty of Death?,’ Sophus Helle discussed the conceptualisation of death in Mesopotamian literature, which according to him revolved around the idea of uncertainty and “nothingness”. He challenged and expanded the perception of the inevitable certainty of death in the Dialogue of Pessimism.

The panel finished with Christoph Schmidhuber and his paper on ‘Children in Old Babylonian Law Codes,’ in which he talked about the terminology applied to children in the Old Babylonian law codes and other types of documents, distinguishing between the legal dimensions pertaining to biological children on the one hand, and adopted children on the other.

The next panel centred around animals. Alexandra Llado has studied the attestation of bears in the Drehem archives of the Ur III dynasty, describing how the bears were transported from the periphery to the administrative centre. They went through the “The Department of Rare and Exotic Animals” to end up in different institutions, such as the euzga.

Andréa Vilela’s contribution, ‘Our Best Friend, Their Best Problem: Descriptions of Dog Behaviour in Mesopotamian Omens and Proverbs,’ analysed the perception of dogs in Mesopotamian literature, proverbs, omina and law codes, pointing out the contradiction between the negative and a positive depictions of dogs, which the cuneiform sources offer: Though dogs are described as aggressive and dangerous, sometimes their qualities as protectors seem to have been appreciated.

The panel ended with Jill Marcum and her paper ‘Exploring the Symbolic Value of Animals in Sumerian Fables vis-à-vis Sumerograms,’ in which she discussed a Peircean approach to understanding the motivation of animal-related Sumerograms as part of the cultural realm of fables and proverbs, and the symbolic value of animals’ speech in this genre.


Our first keynote speaker, Professor Dr Walther Sallaberger, finished the first day of the OPCA conference with his talk on ‘Participants at Bau’s Festival: Practising Religion in an Early Bronze Age City State,’ in which he offered an exciting analysis of the numbers and social classes of the participants of the Bau festival in Lagaš. He connected the evidence of their provision with a special dish (emmer), which was only tasted at this special occasion, and their perception of the religious act. In order to support his calculations for Lagaš, Professor Dr. Sallaberger referred to evidence from the site of Tell Beydar (Nabada), where the number of working people in the administrative accounts agrees with the archaeological remains in the settlement.

According to the Lagaš administrative documents, the Bau festival would have brought together individuals from both the upper and lower classes, from the high ranking family as well as neighbours and friends of the É.MUNUS (e.g. wives of the high officials) to the lower class workers. He also referred to the connection of food with religious acts in everyday life, as the gods were nourished by humans receiving different kinds of food according to their position in the pantheon.

Saturday, 22nd of April

While Friday was devoted largely to aspects of social identity, Saturday’s papers focused on philological questions, scribal traditions, as well as state administration. These fitted well with the final keynote address by Dr Anne Goddeeris, in which she brought together how the materiality of the scribal and administrative practices influenced the traditions associated with these realms just as much as the content of the texts themselves.

The first half of the day consisted of three panels on various aspects of text analysis and scribal traditions, and were chaired by Parsa Daneshmand.

The first panel of the day was on “Questions of Identity and Function in the Cuneiform Text Corpus.” Szilvia Jáka-Sövegjártó in her paper on “Layout and Intertwining: Qualitative Differences of Glossed Manuscripts and Bilinguals”, demonstrated that Sumero-Akkadian manuscripts with glosses differ substantially from bilinguals, not only in their form but also in their function.

The second speaker, Brandon Simonson, presented on “The Role of Non-Linguistic Criteria in Identifying Aramaic Names in the Cuneiform Text Corpus: A Re-evaluation”, in which he re-evaluates the role of non-linguistic criteria in determining the Aramean origin of names, focusing on the potential impact that cultural, theological, genealogical, historical, and geographical criteria can have on this process.

“Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scribal Tradition” was the theme of our second panel, in which Véronique Patai read her paper on “Identification of Training Processes within the Nuzi Scribes Families: The Case of the Apil-Sin Family.” She presented the finds resulting from the analysis of the corpus of a few scribes of the Apil-Sin family and the elements constitutive of their training process.

Soheil Delshad, in his talk entitled “The Matter of Medium in the Achaemenid Inscriptions: The Connection between Materiality and the Scribes”, focused on the role of media and material support in the royal Achaemenid inscriptions and their connections with the scribes, the process of composing the inscriptions, their contents and the audience.

The third panel of the day started on “Contextual and Intertextual Approaches to Text Analysis.” Johannes Bach read his paper on “A Transtextual Approach to Assyrian” in which he offered a condensed overview about trans- and intertextual theory and methodology and its application to the literary history of Assyrian Royal Narratives.

We closed the panel with Ludovica Bertolini on the topic “Dumuzi and Inanna, Considering and Re-considering some Literary Parallels. A Case Study.” She provided an overview of the relationship existing between the literary production focused on the divine couple Dumuzi-Inanna and the Sumerian social, cultural and religious context.

After lunch, we heard from speakers on our panel on “Approaches to Ideology and State Administration.” The final panel of the conference was chaired by Adam Howe.

Sophia Witzig, in her paper on ‘Provincial Administration in Ur III Times: The Governors of Girsu/Lagash,’ brought together some of the vast amount of material from Ur III period administrative archives to reconstruct the details of the office of governor of Girsu/Lagash. An in-depth prosopographical study of the documents presents interesting insights into the nature of succession to the office, as well as conflicts which arose between the king and his regional governors.

Alexander Johannes Edmonds presented a paper entitled ‘To Ḫabḫu and Back. Fashioning a New Historical Geography of the Western Zagros’ in which he presented his attempts to reconstruct the historical geography of this peripheral region of the Assyrian Empire. His methods combined more traditional archaeological and philological approaches with the novel approach of reaching out to locals over social media to explore the archaeology of the region from a distance.

Sophie Walker presented on ‘The Ideological Function of Liballi-Sharrat in the “Banquet Scene” of Ashurbanipal.’ The ideology behind this relief has been the subject of much discussion, and she reiterated the notion that this scene of internal stability was designed to justify the empire’s foreign conquests. She also highlighted the possibility that the relief was visible to an elite of Elamite women, thus co-opting a defeated foreign population into the audience of the ideological iconography and thus promoting social cohesion with the newly expanded empire.

Melissa Benson addressed ‘Darius’ Delegation Strategy and Achaemenid Persian Mutilation Practice’ in which she discussed the sections of the Behistun Inscription which are concerned with the suppression of revolts in 522 BC and the execution of rebel leaders. She demonstrated that, while the king was not always presented as playing a primary role in the suppression of revolts, the majority of mutilations of rebel leaders are ascribed to him. These are generally the most gruesome and detailed of the punishments described in the Inscription, which suggests that Persian royal ideology conceived of a “hierarchy of punishment”.


After coffee, we closed the conference with our second keynote address, from Dr Anne Goddeeris on the topic of ‘Everything in its Right Place. Tips and Tricks from the Old Babylonian Accountant.’ She emphasized the importance of remembering the materiality of the texts which we work with on a regular basis. She demonstrated that, while the power of monumental text-objects is obvious, shape and format could also give legitimacy to legal and administrative documents, as well as making them easier to archive. She also examined sealing practices for various types of documents as they changed across time and varied between cities.

The conference closed on a lighter but no less scholarly note, as Alexander Johannes Edmonds gave us a rendition of the popular song ‘Summertime’ translated into Sumerian. Prof. Dr. Sallaberger, Dr. Goddeeris, Christoph Schmidhuber and Alexander had joined forces the day before to translate the song as a surprise for all the attendees.

About OPCA

The Oxford Postgraduate Conference in Assyriology was set up in 2012 by Moudhy al-Rashid and Nicholas Reid – then DPhil students under the supervision of Professor Jacob Dahl – to provide a forum for students at the postgraduate level and early career researchers in Assyriology and related fields to present their work to a group of peers. There is no other such conference in the field and it offers a unique chance to support and encourage a community of emerging scholars.

Now in its sixth year, the organising committee has worked each year to build upon the success of previous years. We are committed to providing an open and welcoming space for emerging scholars, strengthening interdisciplinary alliances and collaboration, and offering financial support to overseas students to foster a truly international research community.

Over the past six years, the conference has grown from an initial 20 participants and 11 presentations in 2012 to 45 attendees and 28 presentations in 2016. The conference has attracted students from many countries, including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Iran, Israel, the U.S. and South Africa. Presentations have maintained a very high standard and covered a wide range of topics spanning the history of ancient Mesopotamia, making OPCA not only a conference but a learning environment.

The conference usually also welcomes a senior talk by an invited speaker. Previous speakers include Professor Nicholas Postgate, Professor Kevin Cathcart and Dr Paul Collins. Details of all previous conferences can be found on our website.

Through the hard work of previous organizing committees and the generosity of our sponsors, we have consistently increased the conference’s budget each year, enabling us to offer subsidized catering to an increasing number of attendees as well as several bursaries to students based outside the United Kingdom, making OPCA uniquely successful as a postgraduate conference. The Academic Bursary Committee in 2017 was formed by Professor Dr. Markham Geller, Professor Susanne Paulus and Dr. Kristin Kleber, who kindly gave up their time to review a total of seventeen submissions. To them, and to everyone who has helped us grow over the years, we wish to say:

lū šulmu adanniš adanniš ana kâšunu!


Email address

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>