On the Spot: Eleanor Robson

We ask 20 questions of leading historians on why their research matters, one book everyone should read and their views on historical drama …

One of the Hatra Halls at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Image: Wiki Commons/Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin.

Why are you a historian of the ancient Middle East?

I wanted to start at the beginning of the history of mathematics and numeracy. Thirty years later, I’m still not done with cuneiform culture.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

That ‘the past is now’. 

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

E.H. Carr’s What is History?

What book in your field should everyone read?

Karen Radner’s A Short History of Babylon.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

To late 1990, to persuade George Bush Sr to find another way to get rid of Saddam Hussein, one which didn’t lead to war, ISIS and decades of poverty, oppression, chaos and terror for Iraqis.

Which historians have had the greatest influence on you?

Jim Secord and Simon Schaffer.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

The Iraqi archaeologist and historian Taha Baqir (1912-84).

How many languages do you have?

Akkadian, Sumerian, Hurrian, Old Persian; French, German, Arabic, Italian and Spanish.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

What haven’t I? 

Which genre of history do you like least?

‘Ancient’ history that pretends Greece and Rome are all that matter can get in the bin. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

The revival of local history, antiquity and heritage in Iraq.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

Almost all of the Western canon, but I try to keep on top of my own field.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That cuneiform script is impossibly difficult to read and that ‘the Ancient Near East’ is a useful category.

What’s your favourite archive? 

The 150 cuneiform tablets that I’m deciphering, excavated by the Ur Regional Archaeology Project at Tell Khaiber, Iraq.

What’s the best museum?

The Iraq Museum in Baghdad, but it needs support.

What technology has changed the world the most?

For the better: writing.
For the worse: oil.

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?


Historical drama or documentary?

Drama, every time!

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Letting a privileged few destroy our planet for short-term greed.