Lab #2: Museum of Fine Arts Visit


In the MFA’s Art of the Ancient World Collections, you can find examples of ancient writing from many cultures across thousands of years: Babylonian, Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Nubian, and Roman. Because this is an art museum and not a library, this writing can primarily be found on objects rather than in books (don’t worry, we will see some ancient books at the BPL later this semester). But of course, writing then as now was a diverse practice, and books were only one of many textual media.

Today’s lab will be an exercise in discovery, observation, and comparison. We want to get beyond simple tourism, in which we would look at the objects with some awe and then move on, and toward analysis. I expect that few of you will be able to read the ancient media we’re looking at—though you can of course read the summaries and translations provided in the various exhibits—so we will attend primarily to the relationships between material and meaning.

For this lab, you must choose 3 distinct textual artifacts from 3 different ancient cultures and compare them. How are they similar? How are they distinct? Keep in mind the central question of our class: how do these objects make their meaning? Side note: even if you don’t choose to investigate the cuneiform tablet, you should take a look at it, as it’s an example of the oldest known form of writing.

To answer these broad questions, look very closely at your chosen artifacts. We can’t hold them, as we will some of the books later this semester, but get as close as you possibly can. Pay attention to questions such as:

  • What is the medium, and what are its materials? How was each artifact created?
  • How do the material facts of your artifacts’ creation affect their textuality? Can you discern a relationship between the materials and the way people wrote with or on those materials?
  • What can you say about the mode of writing on each artifact? How is language represented? How do you imagine these different modes of representation would shape reading and writing processes?
  • What is the relationship between text and other kinds of representation (images, etc.) on your chosen artifacts?
  • If there is a translation or summary of a text available, how does that message relate to its medium?
  • How do you think this textual object was used, or intended to be used? How does its form signal those uses?
  • How do your artifacts signal the relationship of texts to issues of class, education, etc.?

In your analysis, you should not simply list similarities and differences: e.g. the cuneiform tablet was small, but the hieroglyphic tomb wall was big. A comparative analysis should interpret those similarities and differences, thinking through what they might tell us about the audience(s), purpose(s), and meaning(s) of writing in these different media, cultures, and time periods.