Scribal Self-Representation and Archaeology

Franco D. Rossi (Austen-Stokes Postdoctoral Fellow, Johns Hopkins University)

'Sabios' in Situ: Art Making and Self Representation at an Ancient Maya School

This paper explores ancient Maya scribal identity through one civil-religious order's self-representations and practices of knowledge production during the Classic period (AD 550–950). Focusing on the mural imagery (including self-portraits), burial goods and inscribed 'rough drafts' of an institutional scribal order, it presents original archaeological research about the Los Sabios group, an ancient institute of Maya learning found at the site of Xultun, Guatemala (dated to 750–800 CE). The school’s interior mural scene depicts a uniformed and ranked order of students and teachers, who labeled themselves as 'obsidians'. This mural also served as a working palimpsest for 'rough drafts' of political, scientific and astronomically themed microtexts and calendrical glyphs, which were painted over and around the figures of the scene. These microtexts were inscribed haphazardly across the room and record complex Indigenous mathematics and systematic observations about the natural world, with different handwritings evident on the mural room walls showing a multiplicity of variably skilled authors and artists. The nature of these microtexts alongside the papermaking tools found throughout Los Sabios suggest this order recorded the finished versions of these rough drafts in bark-paper books. Archaeology revealed that at least one such 'obsidian' lived and worked in the mural room and likely had a hand in creating the mural. Intriguingly, bookmaking tools were also found buried with a woman at the institute—showing her role in creating books alongside the men depicted in the mural, despite her omission from the mural’s narrative scene. In all, this context raises key questions about agency, identity gender roles, the organization of niche educational systems, and how ecological and scientific knowledge figured into sustaining systems of sacred authority and sovereignty in the Maya area, and it reflects on the implications of such alternative constellations of science and statecraft in the Americas.


Armin Selbitschka (Professor für alte chinesische Geschichte und Archäologie, LMU Munich)

Scribes, Literacy, and Identity in Early China: the Archaeological Evidence

Chinese archaeologists have unearthed an incredible volume of manuscripts that were written on wood, bamboo, and rarely silk from some settlement sites and numerous tombs (ca. 4th–1st c. BCE) over the past four decades. Given that tombs, in particular, regularly yielded (alternate) versions of texts from the transmitted canon, it is no wonder that Early China (ca. 13th c. BCE–early 3rd c. CE) scholars have latched onto such kinds of writing with a vengeance. More recently, though, hemerological, administrative, and legal documents also have garnered a significant amount of attention. There is no denying the fact that the crucial allure of excavated manuscripts has been the contents of their inscriptions. So far, scholars have cared little about the archaeological contexts from which especially the latter have come, nor have they expressed a deeper interest in the scribes, who once had brushed such texts. In contrast, I have been interested in finally putting scribes and manuscripts together, so to speak. Inspired by the claim that 'texts can be used as tools for enacting identities in social settings' that has been made in Reading Research Quarterly [44.4 (2009): 416], I have comprehensively analyzed early Chinese manuscripts in their mortuary settings. Considering the vast numbers of texts yielded by tombs, what did it say about the self-concept of tomb occupants whose ability to write and read assumed a crucial role in funerary rituals? Correlating hemerological, legal, and administrative manuscripts with writing paraphernalia such as brushes, ink, and ink stones has presented a convincing answer; I will argue that literacy not only was key to presenting oneself as a shǐ 史 ('scribe') in life as well as death, but that literacy was the defining feature of scribes as a social group.