The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
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ETCSL: about the project

ETCSL: a brief overview

The literature written in Sumerian is the oldest human poetry that can be read, dating from approximately 2100 to about 1650 BC. The main 'classical' corpus can be very roughly estimated at 50,000 lines of verse, including narrative poetry, praise poetry, hymns, laments, prayers, songs, fables, didactic poems, debate poems and proverbs. The majority of this has been reconstructed during the past fifty years from thousands of often fragmentary clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform writing.

Relatively few compositions are yet published in satisfactory modern editions. Much is scattered throughout a large number of journals and other publications. Several important poems must still be consulted in twenty-year-old unpublished doctoral dissertations, some with translations which have now become unusable because of progress in our knowledge of the language. Major compositions have not yet been edited at all. The slow progress of research, with little organised collaboration until recently, means that Sumerian literature has remained inaccessible to the majority of those who might wish to read or study it, and virtually unknown to a wider public.

There was thus an acute need for a coherently and systematically published, universally available textual corpus. One of the main aims of this project has been to produce a 'collected works' of over 400 poetic compositions of the classical literature, equipped with translations and bibliographies. As our work on each composition is finished it is published on the website. This procedure is described in more detail in the section on creating the corpus. The interest that this corpus has generated is indicated by the fact that the website is now accessed up 60,000 a month from over 90 different countries.

The existence of a consistent textual corpus which can be quickly and efficiently searched has enabled us to initiate research on the style, lexis, grammar, and register of Sumerian literature. These four strands of research, now the main focus of the ETCSL project, are described in more detail in the section on current work. We shall also continue to publish further Sumerian literary compositions here on the ETCSL website.

There is also a broader dimension to the project. Sumerian literature is a considerable and sophisticated ancient literature which is still so far virtually unknown to scholars in other fields. Historically, a rich stream of survivals flowed on through Babylonian literature, mediated by translations into other languages and by oral transmission, into ancient Indian, Arabic and Greek civilisation, and from there into the European tradition. Potentially, this interdisciplinary interest extends to those working in comparative literature and history of religion. Beyond this, there is a great interest in ancient literatures from a wide general public, who are as much drawn to their exotic and alien character as struck by their undeniable connection to the modern tradition.

Next: The pilot project, 1997

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Page created on 7.ix.2001 by ER. Last revised on 7.ix.2001 by ER.