The Editorial’s Perspective on Archaeology and Writing: The Impact of Minor Ideas on World-Building
For the typical museum visitor, the allure of archaeology lies in the opulent exhibitions of authority and wealth: the lavish tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, the remarkable Terracotta Warriors of China, and the precious gold and jewels of ancient Rome. In the archaeological realm, it is the traces of grand fortifications and luxurious palaces, as well as evidence of catastrophic events, that draw people from all over the world to explore.
Many visitors to Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman fort of Vindolanda may not be aware of two significant artifacts on display at the British Museum. One is a birthday invitation from the fort commander’s wife to a friend, with greetings from her husband and their young son. The other is a letter to a soldier promising him socks, sandals, and underpants to protect him from the cold weather in Northumberland. These messages provide valuable insights into the daily life of a colonial outpost nearly 2,000 years ago. Excavations are ongoing as archaeologists race against the impacts of climate change to uncover more tablets.
As objects, these two scraps of text on wood fall into the area of archaeology defined by the American anthropologist James Deetz in 1977 as “small things forgotten”. Among the examples he cited in his groundbreaking study of early American life were records of estate auctions which showed that many households in colonial America contained only a single chair. What better evidence of a patriarchal system could there be, he argued, than the fact that everyone except the man of the house was expected to sit on stools or the floor.
Professor Deetz used records to study objects, but this also brings attention to the paradox of written texts: they often end up being mundane statements or legal documents rather than literary masterpieces. Take the Rosetta Stone for example. Its significance lies not in its content, but in its ability to help Egyptologists decipher hieroglyphics by recording a relatively uninteresting decree from a 13-year-old king. However, the dullness of many texts can actually hold hidden meanings and insights into societal values and priorities. It is not surprising that texts related to civic control, such as laws and accounts, are just as prevalent as religious scriptures. In certain cases, all three elements – laws, accounts, and religious texts – come together to provide enlightening discoveries, as seen in the excavation of Hattusa (now Boğazköy), the ancient capital of the Hittite empire in north-central Turkey.
In the fall of last year, researchers at the excavation site revealed the finding of a tablet with cuneiform writing in a language that was previously unknown. This tablet is among the 30,000 clay documents that have been uncovered over many years. While most of these documents were written in the Hittite script, a small percentage were written in languages of minority ethnic groups. These findings suggest that the Hittites, who controlled the region from 1650 to 1200BC, did not oppress their conquered peoples. In fact, they had a group of scribes who were devoted to studying and documenting their customs and beliefs.
The translation of the recently found language will require some time, as access to historic texts is typically limited to scholars. However, the fact that it has survived for over 3,000 years since its creation serves as a reminder of how much there is to discover about civilization from seemingly insignificant details.