Summary of The Future Visions of the Ancient World seminar

10.11.2021
The theme of the October session of the Ancient and Medieval Middle East Seminar was Future Visions of the Ancient World. Prof. Gina Konstantopoulos (UCLA) gave a talk titled "The Power of Words: Ancient Texts and Future (Re)Interpretationss” and Dr. Frauke Uhlenbruch (UCSC) spoke about “Science Fiction and Fan Fiction as tools in the study of ancient texts”.

The first presenter Gina Konstantopoulos is the Assistant Professor in Assyriology and Cuneiform Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA in California. Her research centers on religion, magic, and literature in Mesopotamia, with a particular focus on the role of demons and monsters in Sumerian and Akkadian texts. Her paper in the seminar pertained to her current research, which examines the creation of distant and imagined lands and notions of space and place in the ancient Near East, particularly the intersection of distant space and empire in the first millennium BCE. Her talk analyzed the shift in the reception of Mesopotamia in popular culture, considering how its representation in more modern contexts reflects equally modern and distinct perspectives on the ancient world.

Cover art of the Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson_in the picture a man standing under an arch gate holding a sword over his head

Cover art copyright 1993 by Bruce Jensen

According to Konstantopoulos, we see a number of instances where Mesopotamia has captured popular public attention. One particularly famous spike of public interest is seen with the first excavations of the mid-nineteenth century, whose finds captured the Victorian imagination. Although this early attention fixated either on Biblical links or archaeological finds, Mesopotamia's presence in popular culture during the latter half of the twentieth century was increasingly connected to texts and language, particularly the Sumerian language. Furthermore, the reception in more modern popular culture shifted to look forward, inventing past histories as well as new science-fiction futures. One of these is presented in Neal Stephenson's 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. The modern reception of Mesopotamia, focusing in particular on its appearance in science fiction, as exemplified by the use of Sumerian in the book, being perhaps the most in-depth appearance of the language in modern science fiction. According to Konstantopoulos, Snow Crash draws strongly on Mesopotamian mythology, and features Sumerian as essentially the fundamental programming language for humanity as whole.

The second speaker Dr. Frauke Uhlenbruch is an instructor at UCSC Silicon Valley. She studied Jewish Studies at Düsseldorf and University College London, and got her PhD in Sociology and Biblical Studies at the University of Derby with a project on utopian literature and images of the promised land as found in the Hebrew Bible. Her talk in the seminar focused on the use of the literary techniques from science fiction and fanfiction in the use of Biblical texts. Uhlenbruch hoped to demonstrate how science fiction and fan fiction can be abstracted and used as hermeneutic/heuristic tools when studying an ancient text in modern times. According to her, tracing appearances of the Hebrew Bible in modern science fiction is reception history but she also posed the question of whether we could view the concepts the other way around, as a kind of "Inception" history. It is clear that looking for science fiction in the Hebrew Bible is anachronistic, but she argued that science fiction and its attitude toward the future, reality, and agency may yield interesting insights, especially when placed next to an ancient text and the questions modern readers seek to answer about it. 

Uhlenbruch has also chaired the unit "Science Fiction and the Bible" and co-chaired the units "Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Cultures" and "Social Sciences and the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures" at EABS and SBL. She is also on the editorial board of "AcademFic", which is a journal for academics writing fiction.

Join us for the next interesting AMME seminar on 25th of November when Body modification in the ancient world will be discussed!