The general public has often inquired how information about early near eastern music came to light; where did the the texts come from, and how did we know they were about music? Prof. Anne Kilmer will tell us modestly in the following narrative that it was all really “by accident.”
As we follow her story, however, we will begin to see how a genuinely inquiring mind, the most important asset of a true investigator, cannot resist picking up a simple clue, a mere thread, and will follow it steadily to the heart of a labyrinth without knowing where it will lead, until there is simply no turning back. This sort of accident can lead to many exciting discoveries.
It has been a pleasure to be a part of the latter stages of this project, and I thank Prof. Kilmer for allowing me to participate, in a small way, in her work. JS
TUCSON ARIZONA, JANUARY, 2008. (Janet Smith)
The study of ancient Near Eastern cuneiform texts and their connection to music is fascinationg, but not exactly what most of us expect to major in when we start college. How did you come to this specialty in your career?Kilmer:
All throughout my childhood and in highschool I had a general fascination with the ancient world, but that was just in general. The cover of my first photo album, given to me by my mother, had ancient Greek columns on it, so I may have developed an early interest in antiquities. But by the time I finished highschool I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
At college I majored in psychology but also took many other courses. Since I was an art practice minor, I had a fair amount of exposure to art and art history in general. In my senior year I had plenty of time to take courses "for fun", so I did Greek and Latin and ancient history, classical history and the Hellenistic period in particular. That made me aware that I really liked the classics, Greek and Latin in particular. I did that for a total of two years and two summers, and had the rough equivalent of another bachelor degree in classics.Smith:
So you extended your undergraduate studies?
Yes. I was accepted into graduate school for psychology at the University of Iowa, but during my senior year I realised that I found the learning patterns of rats much less interesting than ancient Greek texts. Thus I stayed on studying Greek and Latin, and eventually, through my new knowledge of the Hellenistic period and Alexander the Great, etc., I discovered the ancient near eastern literary world that went back thousands of years before the ancient Greeks.
I applied to graduate school to study Assyriology and was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania, and that’s where I began my cuneiform studies. My professor at Penn, Professor E. A. Speiser, was a recognized expert on the Hurrians and I studied Akkadian and Hurrian with him. There was a group of texts from ancient Alalakh dating to the Old Babylonian and the Middle Babylonian Periods that had been published in England by a well-known scholar there, Donald Wiseman. Speiser thought that a study of the Hurrian elements in those texts would make a nice dissertation. I liked the topic at the time. Thus my dissertation on the language and culture of these people.1
I was soon invited to the Oriental Institute in Chicago to become a research assistant there for Professor Benno Landsberger whose specialty was the Sumero-Akkadian lexical texts. He was truly an old master of Assyriology.
This was an auspicious beginning. Your dissertation was published by University Microfilms, and must have been a good indication of your abilities in near eastern studies and cuneiform writing.
When I went to the Oriental Institute and started working with Landsberger, whose specialty was Sumerian and Akkadian lexical texts (lexical texts are word lists and dictionaries in two or more languages, in this case, Sumerian and Akkadian), he presented me with a mathematical text. It was an Old Babylonian tablet, a list of coefficients for working a variety of mathematical problems. He didn’t care to deal with anything mathematical, and that’s probably why he asked me to study the text. In effect, I was led by Landsberger into the subject of ancient mathematics and music by accident.
Yes. Landsberger was under the mistaken impression that I was good at math. This was not true, but apparently I was better than he was. And so I was assigned this coefficient list (A3553) belonging to the Oriental Institute tablet collection, together with another coefficient list from the University of Pennsylvania collection, of which we had obtained a photograph.
Both tablets were lists of numbers for mathematical operations; key numbers that were to be used for calculations, such as as pi , (which they actually valued at 3), etc. We can understand the mathematical function of many, if not all, of the coefficient numbers. At any rate, both tablets were related to numbers.
Two-string combinations with names
In this latter text, CBS10996, which had never before been published, there was a Special section listing pairs of numbers referred to as "SA", in Sumerian and given specific names. The Akkadian equivalent of SA was pītnu , which can mean string, as on a musical instrument.
I was drawn to this portion of the tablet and found other terms associated with these number pairs, such as embūbu, a kind of reed flute, and šēru, which means the main theme of a song. This portion of the text seemed to refer to music, and probably to the strings of musical instruments. In the middle of working on this mathematical text, I started to investigate other Sumerian and Akkadian musical terms and began collecting all terms related to musical instruments in order to understand what this portion of the mathematical text was about.
My first published article in 19602 covered all the information on these two tablets, A3553 and on CBS10996, but I found the musical information to be the most interesting. CBS10996 was the first music-related text in a group that is still growing in number.
Nabnitu lexical text U. 3011
Names of the nine individual lyre strings
Then Landsberger introduced me to another lexical text, a text that related to music. A hand copy by Oliver Gurney at Oxford University of a tablet in the British Museum had been sent to Prof. Landsberger. The Lexical Text, U. 3011 was the thirty-second tablet in a large series of about 50 discovered at Ur.3 This has been published in the meantime by the British cuneiformist Irving Finkel.Smith:
What was Gurney’s field of study?Kilmer:
He was an Assyriologist and an expert in Hittite history. Gurney published general Assyriological texts, but he knew that Landsberger would be intrigued by the lexical list in two languages, and would probably be able to identify the series to which it belonged.Smith:
How fortuitous it is that scholars cooperate and copy and send material to each other.Kilmer:
Oh yes-one researcher may have a fragment and not be sure what it is, but they can send a copy or a photograph of it to someone who might have more knowledge about it.
Now we had two texts using a lot of the same information. This second text, the Nabnitu lexical text U. 3011 now explained what the names of the nine individual strings were. The material was becoming more intriguing.Smith:
Would that be names for nine strings on a particular instrument?Kilmer:
No, just a general list of nine musical string or possibly note names, more of a theoretical set of terms, we could not be sure about the details yet.
Then in preparing an article in honor of Benno Landsberger’s seventy-fifth birthday, I decided to make a thorough study of the strings of musical instruments.
Akkadian Song Catalogue
Looking through the Oriental Institute files I found another clue. I was looking for any of the string pairs or interval terms from CBS10996 such as išartu, which means “normal” , presumably, and I came across a card that said “eŝertu”.
This term eŝertu , found in the text VAT10101,4 was in the Chicago Assysrian Dictionary file. VAT 10101, was a Middle Assyrian Song Catalogue. The list of songs and hymns on this Assyrian tablet (the original text belongs to the collection in Berlin in the Vorderasiatischen Museum) used seven of the fourteen string pair terms found on the Mathematical text, CBS10996. A group of love songs was categorized using these same terms. The material was starting to fall together.Smith:
So the term eŝertu or išartu was the name of a string pair, but it was also used as a way of classifying a group of songs, right?Kilmer:
Yes. Rather as if a string pair had the same name as a group of songs, which were described as being in eŝertu , perhaps a mode or tuning. Finally, in 19655 I was able to publish a longer article that included all the music related texts that we knew about at that time and everything we knew about the strings of musical instruments, including the Song Catalogue material. I gathered material for that article from any music text that I could find, while working at the Oriental Institute under Landsberger.Smith:
That must have been so exciting!Kilmer:
It was very exciting.