Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.44

Markus Hilgert (ed.), Understanding Material Text Cultures: A Multidisciplinary View. Materiale Textkulturen, 9.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. 287.  ISBN 9783110417852.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Natalia Elvira Astoreca, University of Cambridge (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The present volume is a collection of studies produced in the Collaborative Research Center 933 “Material Text Cultures. Materiality and Presence of Writing in Non-Typographic Societies” based at Heidelberg University and funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The great variety of topics, disciplines and approaches found in this book shows the multidisciplinary nature of the CRC 933. In this first chapter, which serves as a preface for this publication, Hilgert summarises the purposes of the CRC 933, the volume itself and each of the papers included in it. The intention behind this research centre is to give a home to research projects from different disciplines of the Humanities united by their investigations on “how writing was conceptualized, materialized and contextualized in societies without widespread means of mass-producing inscribed objects” (p.1), and this book includes six contributions made by members of the CRC 933 that serve as a sample of the work that is being done in the research centre.

The first study in the volume, by Agnès Garcia-Ventura, is a reanalysis of the administrative records of the workers in the textile industry sector in the Third Dynasty of Ur through feminist epistemologies and postfeminist approaches. After establishing this theoretical framework, the author states the methodology for her reanalysis, which is based on solidarity and kinship networks rather than the biological and sexual divisions that followed previous interpretations. In this manner, she is able to question the nature of the Harem as a women’s collective and reinterpret the records of groups of textile workers. Her conclusion and contribution is that, as the author herself puts it, “shifting the emphasis from marital status or affiliation to non-family contexts allows us to see that the people who registered the workforce applied certain criteria in order to group workers, criteria which were not related to biological kinship” (p.25).

After her, Nathan Morello presents a study with the title “GIŠ on a Tree”, where he shows instances of interaction between inscriptions and the images with which these are embedded. More specifically, he analyses the reliefs and inscriptions in Assurnarsipal II’s North-West Palace in Nimrud, where he has identified three different kinds of image-inscription interactions as part of the decorative project of the palace. After analysing the examples one by one, Morello brings out two important issues: were these interactions meant to be seen and identified by the public? And who would be part of this public? He notes that the palace and its rooms can only be accessed by a very limited group of people and that sometimes even the disposition of the inscriptions complicates their visibility. Furthermore, the identification of these interactions is even more difficult, as these are not simple tags, but they play with different interpretations that include ideological readings, mainly propaganda and celebration of the king and his bond with the gods. Despite the difficulties of identifying and interpreting these interactions, Morello concludes that these were actually meant to be seen by the court of the palace, the king himself and the gods.

The third contributor is Antonio J. Morales, who offers a study of the development of the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom from their oral stage to the monumentalisation of the texts. There are two basic terms for this study: Verschriftung or entextualisation and Verschriftlichung or textualisation. He identifies two different phases of entextualisation, first the fixation of the recitations—made by the sacerdotal class in the context of the funerary ritual—into the scriptural media (i.e. papyri) as a means of aide-mémoire of those recitations; and a second phase which is the transfer of these texts from papyrus to the walls of the royal pyramids. This second stage also entails the textualisation of the texts, i.e. their edition and adaptation to take the text into the literary realm. This implies a recontextualisation of the text, as it detaches from the recitations and becomes part of the monument.

Taking these concepts as a base, Morales analyses the Pyramid Texts, trying to recognise both the process of entextualisation and canonisation of the texts and the oral elements still distinguishable that prove the texts’ antiquity and oral composition prior to their monumentalisation during the reign of Wenis. One piece of evidence for the entextualisation process is the change from a first-person pronoun referring to the ritualist or beneficiary to the second or third person, thus making the addressee a passive character. On the other hand, the oral and ancient nature of these texts can be seen in the presence of archaisms, repetitive patterns and formulaic language, among other literary devices.

Sara Campanelli presents here an extensive paper in which she analyses three inscriptions related to the foundation of family cults in different Greek settlements of the Hellenistic Age: the foundation of Diomedon from Cos,1 of Poseidonios of Halicarnassus2 and the “Testament of Epikteta.”3 From the analysis of the texts, she reconstructs the different aspects and regulations of the cult, e.g. the gods related to the family cult, who is to administer the funds of the cult, who should be involved, and thus conform the community of the cult.

A large part of the study is focused on how the spaces related to the family cult should be used and exploited. The sacred spaces were arranged inside the temenos and the hieron, where banquet halls (xenones and lesches), storehouses (oikemata) and residential buildings (oikia) were found. But profane activities for these spaces were contemplated as well. The garden (kapos) could be rented for agricultural purposes and in general the complex of the cult spaces could be exploited as assets and source of economic resources by the community of the cult. In the end, the cult spaces are part of the real state demarcated not only by the foundation of the cult, but also physically by the disposition of horoi.

It would have been useful, however, to have the complete texts of the inscriptions as an appendix or embedded in the text.

The following section consists of the study by Flavia Manservigi and Melania Mezzetti of the so-called Didyma inscription, which bears a rescript of Justinian I, an act of the prefect of the Orient and an act of the governor of Caria. This inscription is very interesting from a palaeographic point of view as it gives epigraphic evidence for the shift to minuscule writing in the Roman world. The authors start by explaining the law passed by Valentinian and Valens that regulates the use of minuscule writing and how previous scholarship has addressed this shift. After summarizing Feissel’s study of the Didyma inscription,4 they move on to lines 36-37 which are the main focus of their study. They providea palaeographic commentary of the letters and their shapes. Although there seem to be some inconsistencies in the script used, they solve this problem by comparisons with other epigraphic and also papyrological sources. According to them, the existence of an original version of the text on papyrus is vital to understanding the shapes of some letters and the inconsistencies not only in the shapes, but also in the grammar between the different texts in the inscription. In the end, they conclude that the script in the lines studied in this paper is influenced by both majuscule and minuscule writing in the transition from the Ancient Latin cursive script to the Late Latin cursive. The importance of this special script, very difficult to incise in stone, comes from its value as a guarantee of the authenticity of the document, providing legitimacy to it.

The last contribution, by Anastasia Grib, takes us to north and west Africa and examines the Qur’anic boards from the 19th and 20th centuries CE found in these regions. She analyses the three symbolic aspects present in the Qur’anic boards: the surface symbolism, which includes the decorative motifs of the board and the script used; the body symbolism, the shape of the board which marks its function; and the iconic symbolism, which involves the use of the representations of the boards as an iconographic symbol. Then, following the first two characteristics—the ornamental motifs and typologies of the boards—the author reviews some examples of boards from different museums and collections and catalogues them according to these two principles. When making this classification, following what is called the “dialect approach” in Islamic art, she sees clear patterns that depend on the area where the boards are found and that can sometimes be identified in the Qur’an manuscripts as well.

These six studies are a sample of the broad range of disciplines, approaches and geographic and chronological frameworks involved in the CRC 933. This kind of cooperation is stimulating and shows the current reality of many research projects in the humanities, which are increasingly collaborative and gather researchers from very different fields. Nevertheless, this also implies that the present volume lacks unity, as there is no thematic or methodological bond between the different sections, beyond the fact that they aim to show examples of how studies in materiality of writing can contribute to many different disciplines. This means that the book is not aimed at a single area of research, but rather that each of the contributions may be of use on their own for a specific researcher.

The backbone of these studies are the innovative approaches and methodologies applied to them that are based in materiality of writing, which is still an emerging field. This volume shows not only how this approach can take us closer to a better understanding of the use of writing in these cultures, but also how it can be applied to different disciplines. However, the contributions by Garcia-Ventura and Campanelli do not quite fit this theme, as they are presenting interpretations of the texts rather than engaging other aspects such as the physicality of the texts. Still, all the studies in the book provide new clues that broaden our understanding of material text cultures and show that much and new research can still be produced in relation to them.

Authors and Titles

1. A Multidisciplinary View on Material Text Cultures, Markus Hilgert (pp.1-4)
2. Defining Collectives: Materialising and Recording the Sumerian Workforce in the third Dynasty of Ur, Agnès Garcia-Ventura (pp.5-30)
3. A GIŠ on a Tree: Interactions between Images and Inscriptions on Neo-Assyrian Monuments, Nathan Morello (pp.31-68)
4.From Voice to Papyrus to Wall: Verschriftung and Verschriftlichung in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, Antonio J. Morales (pp.69-130)
5. Family Cult Foundations in the Hellenistic Age: Family and Sacred Space in a Private Religious Context, Sara Campanelli (pp.131-202)
6. The Didyma Inscription: Between Legislation and Palaeography, Flavia Manservigi and Melania Mezzetti (pp.203-242)
7. The Symbolic Repertoire of the Qur’anic Board in Islamic Africa, Anastasia Grib (pp.243-278)


1.   IG XII 4.1.348.
2.   Carbon, Jan-Mathieu and Pirenne-Delforge, Vinciane (2013), “Priests and Cult Personnel in Three Hellenistic Families”, in Marietta Horster and Anja Klöckner (eds.), Cities and Priests. Cult Personnel in Asia Minor and the Aegean Islands from the Hellenistic to the Imperial Period (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 64), Berlin; Boston, 99-114.
3.   Wittenburg, Andreas (1990), Il testamento di Epikteta (Pubblicazioni del Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità 4), Trieste, 22-37.
4.   Feissel, Denis (2004), “Un rescrit de Justinien découvert à Didymes (1er abril 533)”, Chiron 34, 285-365.

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