Preserving the history of the Assyrian Empire, once the largest in the world

Amidst the Islamic State’s destruction of historical sites and museums in Iraq and Syria, Grant Frame, an associate professor of Assyriology and graduate chair in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences, is leading an international team translating royal inscriptions of the region’s ancient empires. Their ultimate mission: to increase understanding of Assyrian and Babylonian history.

Frame has received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for $245,000 for 2017-19 for his Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period, or RINAP, Project. The grant—his fifth—brings the total amount provided by NEH for the project since 2008 to $1.2 million.  The project, funded under the NEH Division of Preservation and Access, makes available historic materials from Iraq and Syria, some of which have come perilously close to being destroyed by ISIS.

“What we’re trying to do is preserve and make accessible information about the history of the Assyrian Empire. At the time, it was the largest empire the world had ever seen,” says Frame, who is also associate curator of the Penn Museum’s Babylonian Section.

His project, which produces both hard copy and online formats, currently consists of four volumes. This latest grant will enable Frame and his research team to add three additional volumes and complete the project.

Ancient Mesopotamian rulers had countless inscriptions written in the Akkadian language (the oldest written Semitic language) and the cuneiform (“wedge-form”) script, ranging from short one-line inscriptions to lengthy, detailed inscriptions of more than 1,300 lines. Thousands of these texts have been discovered preserved on clay tablets, prisms, and cylinders, stone statues and wall slabs, and numerous other artifacts from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and additional parts of the Middle East.

Composed between 744 and 609 BCE, the royally commissioned texts being edited by Grant and his team provide rich history lessons on the lives of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian kings, as well as Israelite and Judean kings of the Hebrew Bible, and rulers such as King Midas, who appears in classical texts.

“One of the volumes to come describes the exile of the lost 10 tribes of Israel,” Frame says.

He and his research team are editing and translating into English all of the known royal inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian kings from the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BCE) to that of the last Assyrian ruler, Ashur-uballit II (611–609 BCE).

Scholars, students, and those interested in ancient history can read texts published in print volumes and online in the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus. Akkadian and Sumerian words appearing in the inscriptions and English words used in the translations are searchable on the RINAP website.

Four books have been published so far. Additional books will include the official inscriptions of Sargon II (721–705 BCE), Ashurbanipal (668-c. 631 BCE), and those of his successors, up until the fall of Assyria.

“One of the books will describe Ashurbanipal’s training to become a king,” Frame says.

He adds that some of the inscriptions describe “the hunting of lions, the building of temples for various gods, and campaigns into [what is now] Iran and Turkey, through mountainous terrain where trees were so thick you couldn’t see the sun.”

The RINAP project builds on Frame’s work begun nearly 40 years ago at the University of Toronto, which produced 10 volumes of official inscriptions of rulers from Assyria, Babylonia, Sumer, and Akkad.

Grant Frame