Filing cabinets of the pharaohs

Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions
October 10, 2003

John Ray pays tribute to the underpaid bureaucrats of antiquity who kept the first written records of stores, land deeds, disputes and all aspects of everyday life

One of the more trying sides to being an archaeologist working in Egypt is the need, from time to time, to renew one's residence visa.

This entails a visit to the Stalinist-designed ministry of the interior in Cairo, where records on all visitors to Egypt are kept. After half a day being referred from one queue to another, frustration regularly gives way to depression: how pointless it all seems and how distracting from greater things of the mind. It never occurs to the excavator that he would count it as one of the greatest days of his life if he found the Pharaonic equivalent of the same ministry, with its shelves of yellowing papyrus-rolls intact, lying where the underpaid bureaucrats of antiquity had left them.

Writing was invented in the Near East towards the end of the 4th millennium BC. Traditionally, the place of its birth is believed to be Sumer in southern Iraq, and it is true that we can trace the gradual development of pictorial writing in this area. In Egypt, writing appears to be born fully formed, although recent discoveries at the site of Abydos have added a couple of centuries to the age of the earliest hieroglyphs.

Wherever the exact point of origin, the point of the invention was clearly to record. Third parties would now have access to information, such as the details of commercial transactions or the identity of particular officials.

Since these records were held to be important, a problem immediately arose: how does one store complex information and keep it accessible?

An ancient Egyptian case illustrates this well. In the legal text known as the Inscription of Mose , which dates from 1250BC, there is a longstanding dispute over some fields. Two branches of a family were claiming ownership of these fields, and at one point a delegation of judges travelled to the central archives in Piramesse, the capital at that time, in the Delta.

Here, duplicate and sealed copies of every land transaction were kept, partly as an official record but also to settle such questions of ownership. In the event, one of the parties succeeded in forging a document that backed his own version of the case, but the underlying point is clear, even if the old Adam proved to be more resourceful. Records were valuable and needed to be kept safe.

Egyptian records were mostly written on papyrus, a medium that is easy to use but perishes in damp conditions or as a result of insects. Poignant examples of this are the discoveries in the Jerusalem area and in Daskyleion in Asia Minor of large numbers of seals or bullae . These would have been attached to documents, written either on papyrus or leather. The seals are all that remains. The rest of the Near East tended to use clay tablets, which are ungainly to store or transport but can be baked until they are close to indestructible. Even fires, which are a common feature of urban sites and will happily consume roomfuls of papyrus, are incapable of destroying most tablets and can even help to preserve them.

Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions is the result of a colloquium held at Oxford in September 1998. Its roll-call of contributors is a distinguished one. The range is equally impressive, covering most areas of the Near East as well as the Aegean world.The chapters devoted to Assyriology form a significant contribution in their own right.

Graeco-Roman Egypt is represented in a detailed chapter by Willy Clarysse of the Catholic University of Leuven, but there is no equivalent for dynastic Egypt, although enough fragile papyri remain from the Pharaonic period for deductions to be made here as well. The majority of the book's pages cover the cuneiform evidence from Syria and Iraq: there are no less than ten studies devoted to cuneiform archives from Sumer, Ebla (the 3rd-millennium city in northern Syria that has been excavated by an Italian team and has added a new Semitic language to our knowledge), the Old Babylonian period, the documents from the Old Assyrian trading centre at Kanesh in eastern Anatolia, the Assyrian empire, the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar and the rest of his dynasty, and the Aramaic and Akkadian documents surviving from Hellenistic Mesopotamia. This is a rich harvest, and one that is not yet complete: the mounds of Syria in particular are likely to bring more sensational discoveries on the lines of the Ebla records, and the discovery of an important diplomatic archive from the site of Qatna on the Orontes has recently been announced by a German team ofexcavators.

These chapters raise a number of questions. What distinguishes a public record system from a private collection of documents? How were administrative texts classified and what were the criteria that led to a text being preserved rather than rejected? Were they shelved or kept in containers, and what does this tell us? How long were collections of documents thought to be relevant to the present, and how and why did they come to be relegated to historic status? What were the terms used for different classes of documents and what legal status did the various kinds of documents possess? What were the principles on which summaries and abstracts were prepared, and who was trusted to prepare them? Would it have been possible to do archival research in the ancient Near East in the way that modern historians are free to do?

The answers vary, depending on the time and place of the archives, the conditions of excavation and the perceptiveness of the excavators, and the linguistic and cultural traditions that lay behind a particular text or body of texts. Answers to several of these questions emerge on close reading. But some issues remain unresolved. For example, to one contributor a "dead" archive is one that was found in its original place but had been disturbed in antiquity, whereas another writer, more understandably to this reviewer, reserves the same term for archives that had been stored away in a separate place because they were no longer felt to be current and were less likely to be consulted. There is a source of ambiguity here.

Archives written on clay are also characteristic of Crete, and a few examples of the same medium have also been found in one of the oases west of the Nile Valley. The Minoans seem to have acquired the habit from their near-eastern neighbours, and one of the most interesting chapters in the book comes from Alexander Uchitel, who studies the comparatively small number of documents that survive in Linear A. Minoan (Linear A) is undeciphered, although the majority view among scholars is that the individual signs can be read since they resemble those used in the successor script, Linear B. Uchitel gives us a study of the headings used by Minoan scribes, together with other terms thatseem to be categories of people or produce. Analyses of this sort may go some way towards identifying the family to which Minoan belongs, or to proving that thelanguage is truly an isolate, as some have argued. This study is complemented by Thomas Palaima's chapter on the more numerous Mycenean records in Linear B. Compared with the cuneiform evidence from Syria, Anatolia and, above all, Mesopotamia, the Cretan tablets are jejune, being almost entirely inventories or short lists. One would like to hear more from the culture that lay behind Homer, but we are not in a position to dictate to the past how it chooses to reveal itself. We must make do with what we have, while continuing to hope that diligence will one day be rewarded with something more picturesque.

The state of affairs for classical Greece and Rome is different again.

Here, most private documents have perished, and what we have is what the authorities judged important enough to preserve on stone or other lasting media. Even material that begins as private, such as Cicero's correspondence or the forensic speeches of some of the Attic orators, has been filtered through official censorship or a process of "improvement".

John Davies gives a very useful survey of the Greek evidence, distinguishing between what we know, what we can deduce and where our knowledge fails us.

This book makes few concessions to the general reader, but that is not its intention. It is a book for specialists with detailed knowledge of their own fields who wish to understand the problems faced by colleagues in related disciplines and to learn from them. It is more likely to be purchased by academic libraries than by individuals, but Oxford University Press is to be congratulated for agreeing to publish it. Here we have an up-to-date and highly detailed survey of a field that will continue to grow and to challenge our understanding of the past.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.

Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions: Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World

Editor - Maria Brosius
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 362
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 19 925245 9

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments