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(Re-)Appropriation of Epigraphic Texts Across Cultures


Cruciform Monument. Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum
Epigraphy fascinates modern scholars by its capacity to preserve undisturbed messages from cultures that disappeared hundreds and thousands of years ago. However, is is seldom acknowledged that epigraphic texts held the same amount of fascination, even if not for exactly the same reasons, already for textual communities in antiquity.

The goal of the seminar is to develop a methodological approach to identify and examine the influences between epigraphy and literacy. Each session will focus on a particular case of appropriation of epigraphic texts in ancient and medieval cultures when the differences of time or cultural context led to substantially new interpretations of epigraphic materials.

The Reading Group will convene at Mure Room, Merton College, OX1 4JD. No registration required.
  • 17 May (Wednesday Week 4), 17:00
    The Re-invention of Early Ritual Bronzes as "Time Capsules" of Sage Kings in Ancient China
    (Yegor Grebnev, Merton)

    Around the fifth century BC, the textual communities of ancient China came up with a novel interpretation of epigraphic texts on ritual vessels coming from the foundational period of the Western Zhou (ca. 1045-771 BC). Instead of viewing them as messages directed at the ancestors, the new literary elites seeking to re-establish the contact with the foundational era came to see them as future-projected textual "bequests" communicating the kingly wisdom to future rulers. This new understanding had profound influence on the literary culture of the time and led to the emergence of epigraphic objects that were initially conceived as "time capsules" and thus were markedly different from early epigraphic artefacts.

  • 24 May (Wednesday Week 5), 17:00
    Neo-Babylonian 'Forgeries': Attempts to Deceive or an Epigraphic Interaction with the Past?
    (Adam Howe, Wolfson)

    The kings of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty (626-539 BC) show in their inscriptions a profound interest in other Mesopotamian rulers of the past. The authors of the Neo-Bablyonian inscriptions include what purport to be quotations from the inscriptions of earlier rulers discovered during excavations of temple foundations. In one particularly interesting case, that of the Cruciform Monument, a whole new text object was created which claimed to be the foundation desposit of an earlier king. It has been suggested that this object, which describes donations made to a temple in Sippar by the Akkadian king Maništušu (2270-2255 BC), was created by the temple administration to trick the then king, Nabonidus (556-539 BC), into increasing his own donations. While some features of this text make clear that the scribes involved had access to ancient models, it was undoubtedly written in the Neo-Babylonian period. Modern literature frequently describes such texts as 'forgeries', but I will argue, through an exploration of the purpose and process of their composition, that this modern term is entirely inappropiate for describing these texts.

  • 30 May (Tuesday Week 6), 17:00
    The Abgar-Story in Greek Inscriptional Traditions
    (Ida Toth, Wolfson)

    An interest in the Abgar-Story hardly needs defending: describing an episode from the life Jesus of Nazareth, this text provides one of the earliest testimonies to a lively oral and written exchange between diverse Christian traditions; it belongs to the realms of ecclesiastical history, apocryphal literature, religious controversies, iconography, popular beliefs, imperial ideology, diplomacy – to name but a few; its uninterrupted, if meandering, history can be traced through an impressively wide circulation in the Syriac, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, Latin, Persian, Arabic, and Slavonic linguistic areas. As un-codified (and un-canonical), the Abgar-Story was frequently repeated in different contexts, and modified, both in form and content. The modifications themselves were meaningful, and their meaning was often confirmed (and enhanced) through text, object, and image. The Abgar-Story fills many gaps in our understanding of epigraphic culture in general, and especially of the levels of formality, legitimacy, authority, and identity. The impressively diverse landscape of verbal, material, iconographic and symbolic features of the Abgar-Story provides a unique insight into continuities and changes in late antique and Byzantine epigraphic habits – too significant and revealing for any textual scholar with an interest in inscriptional culture to miss!

  • 14 June (Wednesday Week 8), 17:00
    Title TBC (Latin epigraphy)
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