Ancient textual artifacts @ the MFA


For this lab, I chose to examine the following textual artifacts from the MFA’s Art of the Ancient World Collection: a Assyrian relief, a fragment of an inscribed mummy bandage from ancient Egypt, and a Sumerian cuneiform tablet. Though these objects are very different in terms of medium and usage, certain similarities can be found, as well.

The first artifact, a relief of a winged genius, is a large – more than 7 ½ feet in height and 4 feet in width – gypsum slab from Nimrud (modern-day Iraq). The relief was one of many that lined the walls of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, King of Assyria from 883 to 859 BC. The etching of the winged genius, a protector sort of figure popular in ancient Assyria, takes up most of the slab, but many lines of Assyrian cuneiform run across the lower half. This text is considered the standard inscription of Ashurnasirpal, detailing his magnificence: the King is “the Strong one of the great gods, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurta, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world.” In other words, make no mistake about it: Ashurnasirpal was a great and powerful ruler. The inscription goes on to speak of the King’s conquests and threatens with descriptions of his rule, reading, “The King who subjects the unruly…who treads on the necks of his foes, who crushes all his enemies.” This relief, both in terms of its physical presence and the content of the text, is certainly imposing and makes a statement, reading rather like a warning to potentially unruly subjects. However, considering it lined the walls of the King’s own palace, the relief was unlikely to be viewed by many of the King’s subjects (though surely the standard inscription was on display throughout his empire). Thus, the relief is rather like when one hangs a large, elaborate self-portrait in their bedroom – it comes off as rather pompous and superfluous. But, then again, this is a king we’re talking about, so it’s fitting.

Quite unlike a wealthy and powerful king is the person who was wrapped in the second textual artifact I examined, a fragment of an inscribed mummy bandage. The linen bandage, from ancient Egypt’s Ptolemaic Period (332-31 BC), is certainly one of less noticeable artifacts within the museum’s Ancient World Collection, but is interesting nonetheless. Below a few pictures (which very likely depict the journey of the deceased into the afterlife), the linen is inked with five lines of hieratic text from The Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text that contained a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld and into the afterlife. Apparently, a copy of the scrolls was usually placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased; the fact that some of the text was written on the bandages instead of expensive papyrus scrolls suggests that the mummy they covered was not a wealthy or particularly notable figure. Regardless, it is interesting to consider that the ancient Egyptians deemed the spells important enough to be written and enclosed with the deceased rather than just recited, and this in turn elevates the linen bandage – a seemingly insignificant and common item – into a noteworthy spiritual (and textual) artifact.

The third artifact I chose to examine, a cuneiform tablet, seems to serve more of a useful purpose than the latter two. The small (1/2 inch lengthwise) clay tablet, from the Third Dynasty of Ur (Neo-Sumerian Empire: 2112-2004 BC), is essentially a receipt. An etching of a seated deity with his right hand raised, facing a figure – likely to depict an honest transaction – is surrounded by lines of Sumerian cuneiform, which translates into a list of quantities of various grains, wine and beer and other commodities. A scribe sealed the tablet with a cylinder seal to prove the authenticity of the transaction. The purpose of this artifact and its text signal the emergence of basic legal documents and economic records.

The obvious dissimilarities between these three textual artifacts also give way to a few commonalities. All three artifacts signal something about their users in terms of class and education. The relief is quite obviously the result of intense, careful labor – particularly impressive considering it was probably one of many slabs lining Ashurnasirpal’s walls – and it is made of gypsum, a mineral that, though common, surely was not utilized for giant sculptures by the common populace. The physical composition of the relief, coupled with the text, makes it clear that this was an artifact worthy of a king. On the other hand, the bandage and the receipt are composed of basic, accessible materials – linen and clay, respectively – and were meant to be utilized by the common populace. While the relief is just decorative more than anything else, the other two artifacts – the linen bandage and the receipt – serve incredibly useful purposes, though for the bandage, the text doesn’t impact that utility (ancient Egyptians may beg to differ). Regardless, all three of the artifacts and the text found on them provide basic clues as to who used the objects and for what purpose.

 

Relief of a winged genius

Relief of a winged genius

Inscribed mummy bandage

Inscribed mummy bandage

Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform tablet

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