Maarja Seire

PhD project

Archival scribes and archival practice during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods (7th4th century BCE)

The focus of my research project are the archival scribes who wrote private legal documents in ancient Babylonia. Thousands of such records from the first millennium BCE have survived to this day. These documents were written on clay in cuneiform script, using Akkadian language. My sources are selected archives from Babylonia which date to the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods (ca. 7th–4th century BCE).

The documents that I am using for my research pertain to family concerns, such as marriage, adoption and inheritance, but also inform us about various business and property related matters, such as establishment of a business venture or purchase of houses, land or slaves. On those documents one finds the two parties of a certain arrangement, but also the witness list and the writer of the document. In addition to that, the place and the date of writing have been added to the end of each document.

In combination, all of this information enables us to study the people who appear on these documents. For example, one can reconstruct their genealogy, social environment and economic profile. Moreover, the patterns in the documentation inform us about the regional processes, i.e. the system for managing the agricultural production or the taxation on land and services.

It seems like little changed in the archival practice when Babylonia became a part of the Achaemenid empire, after Cyrus the Great had conquered Babylon in 539 BCE. To which extent did the Achaemenid kings take interest in Babylonian archival practices and the affairs of their subjects? Were the Persians in control of the social and economic lives of the Babylonians?

Up to this point, the Neo-Babylonian archives have been mainly studied from the perspective of the archive holder(s) or what these texts reveal about life in Babylonia. Little is known about the scribes of these documents and their role in archival practice. I will study several issues related to archival scribes: the question of literacy; the archival practice and the making of the Neo-Babylonian text corpus; the inter-archival connections and the social networks of the scribes; the role of the archival scribe as the mediator of private affairs and as a representative of institutional organisation.

By doing that, I will be able to shed light on the local autonomy in Babylonian cities and villages vis-à-vis the political control that the Persian empire exercised in its most important periphery, Babylonia. In general, my research will contribute significantly to our understanding of (the survival of) local traditions in Babylonia under the Persian rule.

Research interests

Assyriology, cuneiform studies, Babylonia, Persian empire, social history, archive studies, prosopography, social network analysis, archival practice, scribes


2018 – present        PhD candidate, Leiden University
2017                              Research assistant, Leiden University
2014 – 2016              Research M.A. Assyriology, Leiden University
2013 – 2014              Pre M.A. Assyriology, Leiden University
2009 – 2012             B.A. Theology / Religious Studies, Tartu University (cum laude)

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