Lab #2: Textual Artifacts at the MFA


Funerary Relief of the Publius Gessius family (Roman, late Republican period, 50-20 BC)

Funerary Relief of the Publius Gessius family (Roman, late Republican period, 50-20 BC)

 

The three textual artifacts that I examined were a foundation deposit brick (Iraq, 1834-1832 BC), a family shrine (Egypt, 1293-1185 BC), and a funerary relief (Rome, 50-20 BC). One of the most obvious similarities between these artifacts is that they are all made of stone—the family shrine and deposit brick of limestone and the funerary relief of marble. Overall, each has a fairly rectangular shape, implying that they began in similar fashion: as a slab of stone that was carved into, with a stylus or similar object, to create text and relief images (if any). The material used suggests that it was commonly available at that time and place, and the durability of the material indicates that these artifacts were built to last. Although all three inevitably show signs of wear, they have stood the test of time, commemorating the individuals involved in their making. According to the placards and translations provided by the MFA, the foundation brick was set in the foundation of a temple so that “future generations…would find [it] and remember who had ordered the original work.” The family shrine was placed in a holy site “in the hope that the family would share in the offerings and prayers to the gods.” An inscription on the funerary relief states that it was made at the request of the deceased, under the command of his mother. Each artifact is an extension of its creator (or commissioner), meant to keep their legacy alive and/or aid their spirit.

Foundation deposit brick (Iraq, Isin-Larsa Period, reign of Warad-Sin, 1834-1832 BC)

Foundation deposit brick (Iraq, Isin-Larsa Period, reign of Warad-Sin, 1834-1832 BC)

Family shrine (Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, 1293-1185 BC)

Family shrine (Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, 1293-1185 BC)

The mode of writing differs on each of these pieces. The oldest of the set, the foundation brick is covered entirely in writing. The language, which appears fairly dense and seems to be laid out horizontally on the brick, is represented by pictographic symbols consisting predominately of lines and triangles. From a first look at the brick, it appears as though as much information as possible was crammed onto it. The lengthy translation of the inscription suggests this may be the case. While it’s reasonable to consider that maybe the block had been cut after the text was inscribed, the sign under the artifact implies that the brick existed beforehand: Plano-convex bricks, like this one, were no longer used after 2400 BC. Therefore, the form of this medium commemorates an age long gone and represents the perpetuation of an age or ruler’s legacy. Also, it’s fitting that there aren’t any relief images on the brick, as in the other two artifacts: It has to retain a practical shape in order to serve a functional purpose in the foundation of a building. Such lack of pictures puts great faith in the power of text to transcend time.

To summarize the provided translation, ruler Warad-Sin writes (or more likely, had his scribe write) to the goddess Nininsinna. He says that he has rebuilt her fallen temple, and he asks her to grant him a long life and reign. This inscription seems to give the brick two purposes, one immediate and the other long term. Since the brick was originally set in the foundation of the temple, where no one was able to read it, it’s fitting that Warad-Sin addresses the goddess directly. The brick has a spiritual purpose as a material—it’s literally the foundation of the bond between king and deity—and the text reinforces this message. Yet the temple would eventually collapse, as the one before it, hence the brick’s long-term purpose: to preserve Warad-Sin’s legacy and sanctity. It even appears small enough for transportation, allowing Warad-Sin’s name to transcend time and space. Thus the medium has an elitist meaning. Warad-Sin most likely didn’t lay the bricks of the temple himself—such work was done by the laboring class—yet he receives credit through the preservation of this textual artifact.

The family shrine has a spiritual, commemorative purpose as well. Unlike the foundation brick, however, it was placed in a sacred site with the aim of immediate visibility. The placard under the shrine states that priest Menmaatre-emheb and his wife dedicated this shrine at Abydos, the deity Osiris’s burial spot, in order for their family to benefit from prayers made to the gods. Hieroglyphics frame the relief sculpture of a hand-in-hand husband and wife, who appear to be standing in a threshold. This threshold shape could have been intentional, representing the passage from earth to the afterworld.

The shrine offers more visual details than the foundation brick, likely because the family wanted people to notice it. The pictograph quality of the text means that it can be arranged in a variety of ways (unlike, say, the Latin on the funerary relief). On the front of the shrine, the symbols run vertically on the left and right columns, yet appear to run horizontally at the base of the shrine. On the sides of the shrine, lines etched into the stone prompt one to read the hieroglyphics in columns, further suggesting freedom in the layout. (There’s no translation of the inscriptions, but I would assume they praise Osiris and mention the family.) The sides also contain basic outlines of people, other family members as the placard says. Since the creator of this piece was a priest, one can assume that writing wasn’t a universal skill at this time in Egypt, but this artifact doesn’t send a strong elitist message as the foundation brick does.

The funerary relief serves to preserve the memory of a different class of citizen, though it does so in a family unit like the shrine. The artifact consists of three relief portraits, supplemented by Latin text. The individuals are identified in the text engraved at the base. Translated, it reads: Gessia Fausta, freedwoman of Publius/Publius Gessius, son of Publius of the Romilian tribe/Publius Gessius Primus, freedman of Publius. Single letters are used to abbreviate some of the Latin (for example, P L for public liberta), suggesting a concern about space on the sculpture. The text on the foundation brick and hieroglyphics on the shrine may have been arranged to fit those materials, but here language has been altered, not merely text arranged, to fit the structure. Certainly, the text’s purpose is to enhance the relief portraits: to give specific identities to the faces carved in stone. The text flanking the portraits states that Primus left money in his will for the relief to be crafted, and that his mother oversaw its creation. As with the other artifacts, this inscription conveys the commissioner’s desire to be remembered. In this case, the desire is actualized not by the elite, but by average citizens—in fact, Primus and his mother were former slaves. In the context of Rome at this time, literacy seems to transcend boundaries of class.

While all three artifacts serve to honor their creator or commissioner, they commemorate individuals of different social standing. Although each work comes from different civilizations with their own class structures, viewing the artifacts chronologically reveals a general shift in writing from elitist to universal. Each also represents a different relationship between text and image, providing insight into how different modes of writing functioned. Ultimately these artifacts survived, as their makers intended, and express the power of text in fulfilling one’s desire to be remembered.

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