BMCR 2004.03.42

Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions. Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World. Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents

, Ancient archives and archival traditions : concepts of record-keeping in the ancient world. Oxford studies in ancient documents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xx, 362 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199252459 $65.00.

The project behind this collective volume is an ambitious one. The dust-jacket blurb proudly announces that “this interdisciplinary volume offers a systematic approach to archival documents and to the societies which created them, addressing questions of creating, writing, and storing ancient documents, and showing how archival systems were copied and adapted across a wide geographical area and an extensive period of time”. Does the collection deliver this promise? The archives and societies examined span a wide geographical and chronological range: from the third millennium BC tablets of Ebla to the papyri of fourth century AD Graeco-Roman Egypt. There are, however, some notable omissions: in particular, not only a mainstream classicist might be surprised to discover that the volume has nothing to say on Roman archive-keeping, and that it limits the discussion of the material on Greek archives to one paper only. Thus, a more appropriate (if more modest) subtitle might have been “… in the Ancient Near Eastern and Aegean Worlds”. More important, the overall effect of the volume is not so much that of an interdisciplinary reflection on specific issues, as that of a collection of good, at times even excellent pieces, which are largely self-contained. The detailed thematic index at the end of the volume is only a partial remedy.

Up to a point, this was to be expected in the case of an edited volume (the collection is the result of a workshop held in Oxford in 1998). But the editor might have tried harder to integrate the individual pieces into a larger whole by bridging the gaps and highlighting common concerns. True, in her introduction, planned as an essay in its own right, Brosius tries to foreground and clarify general issues of methodology and terminology, as well as to bring together some of the themes touched upon by the contributors. But her own prose is frequently confused, unstructured and repetitive, so that the questions at stake do not emerge sharply enough.1 What is also missing is any attempt to link the material assembled here to current research on cultural memory, by exploring the larger significance of record-keeping, in the different shapes it took, for the societies in question.2

As for the papers, Archi leads the way with an excellent contribution on “Archival Record-Keeping at Ebla 2400-2350”. Besides giving an overview of the local system of record-keeping, Archi shows that the central archive of the royal palace functioned in a sophisticated way, presupposing the existence of preliminary documents which were only temporarily kept and soon discarded. He also manages to highlight similarities with Ugarit and Mari, both in the layout of the archive and in the manner of record-keeping, while at the same time stressing the independence of the Eblaite system: in Ebla, the scribes responsible for the documentation systematically employed tablets of three different shapes to record the monthly distribution of textiles, the annual distribution of precious metals, and the annual accounts concerning deliveries.

In “Archival practices at Babylonia in the Third Millennium” Steinkeller, after a short overview of Mesopotamian archival practices, highlights the correlation between the kind of institution and the types of documents that predominate in their archives. In smaller institutions, delivery tablets are almost completely lacking, while ‘receipts’ (records of expenditure) are predominant; delivery tablets appear much more frequently in big institutions. A detailed analysis of three groups of records from the Ur III archives of Umma (those concerning the use of labour forces, the forest sector, and merchants’ activities) deftly illustrates the general thesis. The Umma records function “as a closely interconnected system, consisting of a chain of receipt tablets, linked to one another by balanced accounts” (42); in Umma, delivery tablets are comparatively infrequent.

An archive of 2000 tablets from a private house in Tell ed-Der (Iraq, c. 1660-30), the archive of Ur-Utu, chief lamentation priest of the goddess Annunitum, allows Van Lerberghe (“Private and public: the Ur-Utu archive at Sippar-Ammanum”) to show that even when, as here, we have a well-excavated archaeological context, the interpretation of the material may be difficult. A case in point is the question of whether the archive as we have it was still ‘active’ when the house in which it was stored fell prey to fire, or whether the archive had already been excerpted and abandoned. Besides a large number of documents concerning the family of Ur-Utu (leases, land-ownerships, copies of letters sent by Ur-Utu himself and documenting litigations among the members of the family), the archive also contained administrative documents relating to the affairs of the temple. Van Lerberghe takes this mixture as his point of departure for some reflections on the distinction between public and private documents. Not surprisingly, he concludes that this distinction does not always hold.3

The following two contributions deal with Old Assyrian and Middle Assyrian archives. Veenhof’s paper (“Archives of Old Assyrian Traders”), one of the longest in the volume, gives a detailed and fascinating picture of the archives of the Assyrian traders found in the houses of level II (c.1945-c.1835) of karum Kanish (Kültepe in central Anatolia); among the issues which he explores are the types of archival texts (letters, legal documents, and lists or memoranda), their storage, the organization of the archives, and their ‘completeness’. Postgate (“Documents in Government under the Middle Assyrian Kingdom”) addresses the question of the Assyrian terminology for the different types of documents and its implications and then goes on to give evidence (both from the archaeology and from the texts themselves) on storage practices, which show the continuity with Old Assyrian archives. He also points to the use of wooden writing-boards in Mesopotamian administration after 1500. This habit is also attested in Babylonia, Hattusas, Ugarit, and seems to be specific to government administration. Particularly interesting are the final reflections on the relationship of public and private and on the dominance in Assyria of the private transaction as a model for public administration. The comparison with neighbouring Nuzi, which may have borrowed from Babylonian and Assyrian scribal practice while remaining uninfluenced by the private transaction model, leads Postgate to suggest that the administrative ethos of Nuzi might have been different from that of Assyria.

The Aegean world moves to the center in the next two contributions. Both Uchitel on Minoan linear A documents and Palaima on Mycenaean Linear B records underline one feature that sets these documents apart from the archival material previously presented: these documents (usually called ‘administrative’) are in fact connected to non-market economic systems, being comprised of records of taxation, conscription, ration lists, and storage inventories. Thus Uchitel (“Local Differences in Arrangements of Ration Lists on Minoan Crete”) identifies ration lists in some Linear A texts from Hagia Triada, Khania, and Petras; this means that the mechanism of a redistributive economy was at work in all three palatial centres of Crete, even though the scribal conventions used at Hagia Triada differed from those of Khania and Petras. In the course of an extremely rich paper, Palaima (“‘Archives’ and ‘Scribes’ and Information Hierarchy in Mycenaean Greek Linear B Records”) raises central questions, such as the appropriateness of giving the name ‘archives’ to records which were not supposed to be kept for more than two to five months,4 the significance of the Archive Complex as ‘system-dominant’ for the administrative use of writing in Pylos, and the status of Mycenaean scribes (functionaries? members of the élite? or ‘back-stage’ staff?).

We enter firmly into the first millennium with the following papers. In a thoughtful contribution, Fales (“Reflections on Neo-Assyrian Archives”) questions many of the assumptions lying behind the use of the term ‘archive’. He basically distinguishes two modes of document-collecting: the assemblage of private business transactions, stored over the span of a career, or even for more than one generation;5 and official documents of general scope, the textual storage of which does not seem to carry over from one king to the next (the absence of absolute chronological indications on the tablets speaks for their ephemeral character as well). The former type of documents would betray truly ‘archival’ policies. As for the latter, their use as a transitory ‘fonds d’archives’ contrasts with the long-term preservation of literary and scientific documents in the libraries of the very same public buildings. This raises the question of understanding the rules and priorities according to which this society organized its memories.

Baker (“Record-Keeping Practices as Revealed by the Neo-Babylonian Private Archival Documents”) subjects the terminology relating to record-keeping practice to a formal analysis. She shows that (unsurprisingly?) there was a well-established set of terms ready to use for specific cases. Of interest are the gestures she makes (however rare and mostly buried in the footnotes) towards comparing both the archival practices and the terminology of the Neo-Babylonian documents with the evidence of Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian texts. In another attempt at systematization, Brosius concerns herself with both the format and the scribal conventions of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets. Through a close analysis of these tablets, which, following David Lewis, she takes as coming from one specific administrative office and not as discarded documents, she succeeds in teasing out interesting inferences about the functioning of the archive and the bureaucratic stages involved in the process of record-keeping.

Millard (“Aramaic Documents of the Assyrian and Achaemenid Periods”) surveys the evidence for Aramaic archives. It is rather scarce, due to the fact that most writing was done on perishable materials: leather, papyrus, and wooden tablets covered with wax. Still, the survey of clay tablets, ostraka, and Egyptian papyri (in particular, the Achaemenid Aramaic archives on papyri from Elephantine), besides the references to archives in the book of Ezra, are sufficient to show the importance of what once must have existed.6

The same preoccupation with what has been there but is now lost is at the center of Invernizzi’s contribution (“They did not write on Clay: Non-Cuneiform Documents and Archives in Seleucid Mesopotamia”), a masterful study of what can be said on the basis of the clay seals which sealed (now lost) documentary papyri or parchments. As it turns out: quite a lot. His paper also manages to show that while the archives of Seleucia are a case of continuity with the Mesopotamian tradition, they also feature something radically new, namely the existence of great public archives not connected with the royal palace or with a temple. This Invernizzi connects “with the more radical changes in the administration which the Seleucid age brought about” (314). But cuneiform writing on clay tablets went on: in Uruk, according to the excavation reports, almost 1000 sealed bullae were found in the same contexts as cuneiform documents on clay tablets. This means that the same persons who wrote on clay tablets also used leather, parchment, or even papyrus for writing documents. The cuneiform tablets of Hellenistic and Arsacid Babylonia are the subject of Oelsner’s contribution (“Cuneiform Archives in Hellenistic Babylonia: Aspects of Content and Form”). Oelsner emphasizes the continuity with the cuneiform practice of earlier periods and the role of the temples in the preservation of the cuneiform script. He suggests that the end of cuneiform writing (as late as the first century AD, possibly later) should be linked to the final abandonment of the Babylonian temples. Unfortunately, in most cases it is impossible to reconstruct the original contexts of the tablets: besides the temples, there may also have been archives in private houses.

Davies (“Greek Archives: from Record to Monument”) begins by stating that in the Greek world the term ‘archive’ has significantly different connotations from its use in a Near Eastern context. What exactly these differences are, or what may account for them, is not discussed; rather, we are offered an overview of some central aspects of Greek record-keeping, focussed not so much on archival practices as on the relationship between the processes of decision-making, recording, transferring the record to writing, and, occasionally, making a monumental display of the record. The emphasis is clearly on public documents; but Davies manages to give also some examples of the practice of public registration of private documents.7

Clarysse closes the collection with a paper on “Tomoi Sunkollesimoi”, rolls formed by pasting together independent documents (in most cases, documents of the same type, arranged in chronological order; but also documents made by one office, or received by it). Here too a distinction between private and public applies, but at a formal level: this kind of procedure seems to have been used for official documents, while private copies are usually found on single sheets. This method of filing information started in the Hellenistic period, but systematically developed during the first three centuries of Roman domination in Egypt.

It is not clear what kind of public the editor had in mind: while some papers give good overviews, many of them are quite specialised, focussing as they do on highly technical issues or problems: the average classicist might experience difficulties.8 The claim of offering an interdisciplinary and systematic approach to archival concepts and practices of the ancient world is not fulfilled; on the positive side, the detail and richness of many of the papers open up new avenues for reflection. Otherwise, the volume is well produced, and typos are few. There is a general map locating the sites of the archives discussed in the volume; some of the papers are lavishly illustrated, and, in keeping with the quality of the papers, most contributors give a bibliography updated to 2001 or even later.


1. Thus, the terms ‘systematic approach’, ‘archival concepts’, ‘archival traditions’ keep recurring, but at the level of abstract notions, which are rarely given a specific content.

2. Thus, no references at all are made to the studies of Jan Assmann: see, for instance, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1992.

3. The distinction between private and public, mentioned in Brosius’ introduction as one of the common concerns of the volume (4, 9-11), is generally treated in a very unsophisticated way: we get a few intimations of the problems involved, but no real discussion. In light of the interdisciplinary aims of the collection, it is regrettable that nothing from the relatively ample bibliography on public and private in the Greek world is taken into account, here or anywhere else in the volume. See, for instance, F. Polignac and P. Schmitt-Pantel (ed.), Public et privé en Grèce ancienne: lieux, conduites, pratiques, Ktema 23, 1998, who in their introduction (5-13) offer a good discussion of the difficulties posed by the application of these modern categories to the ancient world.

4. A connected issue, amply discussed by Palaima, who chooses in the end to leave the question open, is the possibility of a further, as yet unattested, stage in which the information from the clay-tablets would have been transferred, in a prima facie counterintuitive move, onto perishable materials for longer-term preservation.

5. Typically — but not exclusively — in archival clay pots. From the point of view of the functioning of the archive and of the conceptualizing of the documents, the remark that clay pots are used in Assur only for the storage of private documents is important, since it points to functional distinctions in the way of archivization, and so to ‘archival concepts’. See 216 and n. 64, where Fales cites O. Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the City of Assur, Uppsala 1986, 33.

6. A minor quibble: I would not define the trilingual stele of Xanthos a monument ‘contemporary’ (237) with the letter of Artaxerxes I — but it is true that it stems from the same cultural background and can thus be used as evidence.

7. Due to the approach chosen, the impression he gives is that there was no private record-keeping by individuals; a reference to the Corcyra lead tablets or to a recently published letter mentioning ‘registers’ ( διφθέρας) in a context of mercantile exchanges might have helped redress the balance — while providing another opportunity for comparison with the Near Eastern material. Cf. J.-P. Wilson, “The ‘illiterate trader’?”, BICS 1997-98, 29-53 ( SEG 48, n. 1012), to which evidence one may add the tablet SEG 48, n. 604. In the same vein, a reference to the archives in Delos or Cyrene, archives whose existence is attested by the remaining seals, might have helped in bridging the gap between Greek archives and the Near Eastern ones. See M.-F. Boussac, A. Invernizzi (ed.), Archives et sceaux du monde hellénistiques/Archivi e sigilli nel mondo ellenistico, BCH suppl. 29, 1996, and, mainly on the hellenistic archive of Athens, but with a wealth of references to other Greek archives, P. Valavanis, “Thoughts on the Public Archive in the Hellenistic Metroon of the Athenian agora”, MDAIA 117, 2002, 221-255 (on Delos, 235).

8. The non-specialist reader would be well advised to start with some general survey of Near Eastern archival material, such as O. Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 BC, Bethesda (Maryland) 1998 (cited more than once), or, even better, the short but very informative article by K. Veenhof, s.v. “libraries and archives”, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East III, 1997, 351-357.