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Episodes from the Early History of Knowledge: Instruction Manuals in Cuneiform Scholarship
This talk examines the early history of the instruction manual, focusing on cuneiform texts identified as technical procedures. Addressed to “you” as the grammatical subject, procedures—in Akkadian, nēpešum, from the verb epēšu “to make, compute”— encompassed topics ranging from mathematics, glassmaking, horse-training, perfumery, medicine, and astronomy. Over the course of two millennia, procedures would develop into one of the most long-standing vehicles for knowledge transmission in cuneiform cultures. However, the longevity of the textual format, which on its surface appears to transmit practical know-how, belies a more dynamic history of linguistic innovation, scribal hermeneutics, and lexical ingenuity. From Old Babylonian school houses to Assyrian state archives, procedures provided a textual space within which scribes could contemplate the material world, numeracy, lexicography, writing, classification, and knowledge itself. Using instructions for perfumery, horse-training, and glassmaking as the starting point, this talk presents a history and historiography of procedures in cuneiform scholarship with the aim of defamiliarizing what we know about procedures, and in turn, reassessing the broader impact of these early instruction manuals within the emerging field of history of knowledge.
Dr. Eduardo A. Escobar
Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge The University of Chicago