Archaeology Odyssey 3:1, January/February 2000


Everyone has a different way of displaying books and keeping papers. These habits teach much about the people to whom these writings belong and the purposes the documents serve. Have you ever wondered how, in antiquity, people managed their libraries and kept their archives?

Students of the ancient Near East often become acquainted with its written remains through collections of translations, such as James B. Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (third ed.; Princeton University Press, 1969) or its eventual successor, the planned three-volume Contexts of Scripture (Brill), edited by William W. Hallo (volume 1, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, appeared in 1997). Scholars read ancient texts in journals or in tablet collections published by museums. Such texts are usually presented to the public after they have been classified by content or genre, and documents from many sites are generally lumped together. Unless they appear in a publication detailing the excavation of a single archaeological site, ancient writings are almost always removed from the contexts in which they were found. So we tend to think of them as disembodied texts rather than as “living” documents—monumental stelae, administrative tablets, liturgical scrolls and commercial seals with specific functions at specific times and places.

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