Archaeologies of Text (2010)


Hosted at Brown University on December 3 – 5, 2010

A symposium organized by

Matthew T. Rutz (Brown University)
Morag M. Kersel (DePaul University)

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Archaeology is not an isolated discipline: the scope of archaeology is as diverse as the fields that inform its methods and perspectives, among them anthropology, art history, and epigraphy. Archaeology’s data are richly varied, encompassing all material products of human action, from prehistory to more recent history. In contrast, the study of the premodern textual record is not a single discipline at all but rather an array of disciplines loosely allied around similar methods developed to achieve a common goal: to gain insight into human culture and history by understanding written text, a powerful if relatively recent technology for expressing natural language and encoding memory. Before the emergence of archaeology as a discipline, large bodies of early literature were carefully transmitted across space and time, and some of this literature even managed to survive down to the present. Bearing witness to this long historical process are the anthologies that constitute the core of the traditional canons of the world’s ancient literate cultures: classical works from Asia, Africa, the ancient Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica. However, the transmission process of ancient literatures was both inherently biased and highly selective, and until the relatively recent advent of archaeology as a mode of inquiry (Trigger 1989), vast bodies of text were lost and unknown, thus excluded from the historical record (Sanders 2006; Baines et al. 2008). Beginning in the 15th century, European proto-archaeologists began uncovering ancient inscriptions in the classical Mediterranean world, and since that time countless early inscriptions have been found across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and beyond.

Archaeology and the study of the premodern textual record may be thought of as approaches that are either interdependent and complementary or independent and contradictory. Perhaps surprisingly, both of these views have been viable, and the adoption of one or the other has largely depended on a given researcher’s training, questions, and preferred interpretive lens. From the 18th century on, archaeological discoveries led to the adaptation of existing methods (e.g., classical philology) as well as the creation of entirely new fields (e.g., Egyptology, Assyriology, Maya studies) devoted to recording and interpreting the epigraphic record, deciphering lost scripts, and reconstructing the previously unknown languages and language families encoded in those scripts. For much of the 20th century archaeological and epigraphic research moved in different directions, sometimes parallel or complementary, sometimes at odds or mutually uninterested. This fragmentation of research programs raises serious theoretical questions and presents a number of practical problems, and thus the relationship between archaeology and textual study needs to be revisited (Moreland 2006). The interplay between text and archaeology is not only about a shared interest in the past, but also about what that common purpose entails: concern for the fundamental issues surrounding our access to and perceptions of the past. This symposium will examine critically the relationship between text and archaeology by moving beyond the tendency to treat text and archaeology simply as independent sources of information about the past. Central to the discussion is a concern with the ways in which the two discourses inform each other as well as the ways in which their results are disseminated for access.

Ancient texts bear witness to the multiple uses of writing, from mediating political and economic interactions to reproducing culture to both literate and non-literate audiences, both of whom would have encountered text albeit in powerfully unequal ways. The technology of writing should be viewed as a subset of the total repertoire of human communication technologies that are embedded literally as well as figuratively in frameworks of material culture and the built environment (Houston 2004). Above all it is inscriptions that are preserved in the archaeological record that prompt questions about how scholars access and produce knowledge about the past. However, research on any ancient written records must engage with the intellectual projects of archaeology, just as archaeology cannot avoid interacting with more than five millennia of writing: ancient inscriptions found in situ, manuscripts painstakingly or serendipitously handed down to the present, or contextless antiquities collected by museums or individuals all must be dealt with in some way.

The focus of this symposium, jointly sponsored by the Department of Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies, the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, the Program in Early Cultures, and The Colver Lectureship Fund, will be on examining the archaeology of text from multiple perspectives—hence archaeologies of text. Throughout the course of the symposium we will examine the approaches taken by different disciplines, illustrate the best in current practices of analysis and dissemination, and determine profitable future directions for interdisciplinary research. While interdisciplinarity may be an admirable goal, many still doubt its practical benefits. For the proposed symposium we will invite scholars who routinely engage with the archaeology of texts—archaeologists, classicists, epigraphers, papyrologists, philologists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, Mayanists, ancient historians—to discuss current theoretical and practical problems that have grown out of their work on early inscriptions and archaeology. We hope that both the variety and the specificity of methods will reinforce the importance of an approach that takes into account multiple disciplinary perspectives. We will ask that presenters illustrate their contributions with specific case studies drawn from their research in Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, and Mesoamerica. This symposium has three principal goals: (1) to confront the bifurcation of archaeology and the study of early inscriptions; (2) to rethink the fragmentation of the various specialized disciplines that ask questions about the interface between archaeology and the textual record; and (3) to discuss the best practices in archaeological and epigraphic methods, documentation and dissemination technologies, and ethical guidelines for dealing with early inscriptions.

The disconnect between ancient and modern societies is not easily overcome, but it is our contention that approaches that are at once focused, interdisciplinary, and collaborative are most likely to succeed in bridging this gap. Our symposium will bring together archaeologists and those who study early texts to showcase the importance of the symposium’s topic as well as stimulate discussion of such questions as: Do ancient documents speak for themselves or do they require the contextual information provided by archaeological recovery? What are the major archaeological and conservational problems confronting the study of ancient inscriptions? What technologies best preserve the information encoded in ancient inscriptions, and what are the technologies’ analytical benefits? What technologies do the least harm in documenting inscriptions? What are the most effective ways to publish and disseminate inscriptions for the benefit of researchers and other interested communities? Is (or why is) text particularly problematic as a means of accessing the past? Is text unique or privileged as a type of communication embedded in the archaeological record, or does text fall somewhere on a spectrum of symbolic, figural, and material data? How are forgeries, both ancient and modern, to be detected and dealt with, and how serious a threat do forgeries pose to the scholarly production of knowledge about the past? What are the major intellectual and ethical issues of either utilizing or ignoring unprovenanced inscriptions?

Because one of our primary obligations as academic researchers is to disseminate the results of our research, a central topic of this symposium will be how to best publish the past. In order to be consistent with our intellectual program, we plan to publish the proceedings of this symposium as an edited volume in the Joukowsky Institute Publications series.

Baines, John, John Bennet, and Stephen Houston, editors. 2008. The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication.  London: Equinox Publishing.

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. “The Archaeology of Communication Technologies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33:223 – 50.

Moreland, John. 2006. “Archaeology and Texts: Subservience or Enlightenment.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35:135 – 51.

Sanders, Seth L., editor. 2006. Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures. Oriental Institute Seminars 2. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of  the University of Chicago.

Trigger, Bruce G. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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