Ancient Text

letter by Aziru, leader of Amurru, (stating his case to pharaoh), one of the Amarna letters in cuneiform writing on a clay tablet. Circa 1400 BC

Making sense of it.

Ancient texts and inscriptions can be something of a minefield when it comes to understanding it. To start with, is the basic problem of translation; not every translator will necessarily derive exactly the same words from any given text that they work on, especially where the ancient language includes characters or symbols that can have dual, or even multiple possible translations depending on the context. Once translated, will two people find the same meaning in the translated text? Maybe there is the potential to read a translation’s meaning in a particular way if something specific is being looked for to begin with, a bias if you will, which might not be found by a translator for whom the translation is an end in itself.

Careful consideration would have to be given to who the author was of a text and what might be the agenda of the writer. Was the writer working independently or commissioned and if commissioned, who by? Was the writer also the composer or merely a scribe or stone cutter putting down someone else’s words ,or were they also the composer. If the writing was on stone, like the Amarna letters or Sennacherib’s prism, can we be confident that there were no mistakes and that all the marks are what was originally intended and had not been corrected after a mistake giving a potential shift of emphasis?

It is said that,  history is written by the victor. Assuming for the moment that this is so, is the record complete, or, might there be a tendency to leave out the bits where the ‘winner’ actually wasn’t. And where he was, there might well be an element of bragging, boasting or exaggeration. Text from the losers side might be equally unreliable by minimising their losses and perhaps, in modern political language, an exercise in damage limitation and justification. And, having brought up politics, does any text have a political agenda? The possibility must be considered since whoever commissions it is likely to be someone of influence and authority.

I suppose at some stage we must also consider the potential for forgery or deliberately misleading prose: could it have been designed to fall into an enemy’s hands? Possible after the start of writing on softer materials but I think unlikely when cut into stone. That last point also raises the question of what the text was written on and can the material be sufficiently analysed to narrow down it’s origin and by doing so provide further clues to its likely authenticity. For writing on the softer materials that do not need to be cut into, what is the composition of the pigment used to write?

Who might any given text be meant to be read by, what is the intended audience? How formal is the style of writing and what is its context. Many ancient people would not have been able to read and write, particularly the lower classes more used to passing of information and history in the oral tradition. Those lower classes that could might well be the scribes, employed by the higher strata of society.

Is there the possibility that some early text might have been a kind of propaganda? I can personally point to specific evidence that might support this idea but neither do I think it should be dismissed out of hand, it is at least a possibility in some instances.

As for authentication of text, having direct evidence of who commissioned or wrote any particular piece would go a long way to establishing it as authentic. Essentially I guess we need to look for corroborative evidence or cross references, perhaps in the form of other texts or other artefacts in locations and forms that might support a text.

Adapted from an article I wrote for a course on the Bible’s prehistory.


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