Seeing the Forest but Missing the Trees

Nils H. Korsvoll on the magic of material culture

Philology and text-critical studies traditionally see manuscripts as repositories of traces and clues to discovering ancient texts. I argue here that this emphasis on text, as opposed to historical artifact, allows scholars to neglect questions concerning provenance.

That most of ancient literature is reconstructed from versions and excerpts in younger, typically medieval manuscripts is a well-known fact. The reconstructions, which have brought us Plato, Augustine and numerous other works, use manuscripts as witnesses to an original text, wherein scholars discover the original text through systematic study and comparison across different, and often differing, textual witnesses. However, since Stephen G. Nichols brought new philology into the academic mainstream in his 1990 issue of Speculum, there has been a growing emphasis on studying manuscripts in their own right and in the context of their historical situation, instead of seeing them primarily as sources for the assumed original text. Still, these efforts have yet to address another snare of traditional philology, namely that its disregard for manuscripts and their material qualities also allows scholars to ignore or avoid questions about the provenance of their sources.

The looting and destruction of antiquities and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq these past years, as well as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 and the attacks on mosques and libraries in Timbuktu in 2013, have prompted a growing awareness of both the extent and the damaging consequences of illegal trade in ancient artifacts. In response, the American Society of Papyrologists adopted a resolution against illegal trade in papyri in 2007, and in 2015 the American Schools of Oriental Research issued guidelines saying their members should not publish unprovenanced material. These guidelines have now also been adopted by the Society of Biblical Literature, and provenance is increasingly becoming a topic in many philological fields. Yet, despite this focus, there has been little discussion about how the very methods and approaches of the discipline have and still do accommodate a neglect of provenance. Taking the study of so-called incantation bowls from late antique Mesopotamia as an example, I show how the priority of text over artifact implicitly renders provenance irrelevant, turning our eyes away from the often problematic provenance of many of these bowls.

The bowls and provenance

Mesopotamian incantation bowls are ceramic bowls dated to the sixth and seventh centuries C.E., and are described by James A. Montgomery, the first to publish a systematic study of these artifacts, as being in “the size and shape of a modern porridge bowl.” The bowls have been found to compare with common household pottery from the period, with the notable exception that they have an incantation written on the inside of the bowl. Moreover, they were often buried upside down under thresholds or in the corners of houses. These bowls are remarkable for many reasons, one being that they are almost entirely absent from historical sources even though there are almost two thousand bowls in museums and collections around the world. The majority of the bowls appear to be Jewish, and a large number seems to hail from Mandeans. Then there are some bowls with incantations in Syriac and Middle Persian, as well as several containing simply scribbles or pseudo-script.

Being numerous, small, and mostly found on or near the surface, incantation bowls are easy to procure and transport, and there was a noted surge in bowls for sale following the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars. Neil Brodie has written numerous articles on this recently, where he traces several controversies concerning newly acquired incantation bowls and their provenance, yet most studies on the incantation bowls rarely raise the issue of provenance beyond a brief note. This, I argue, is at least partially due to philology’s conventional priority of text over artifact, whereby a text’s authenticity stands in place of an artifact’s provenance, and I also proceed to point out how the study of Mesopotamian incantation bowls prioritizes textual authenticity over provenance.

Unintended consequences

Facing a corpus with largely unknown provenance and little supporting information in other historical sources, scholars rely on comparisons and parallels between incantation bowls to interpret and understand them. Moreover, as the bowls are materially unremarkable and easy to reproduce for modern forgers, their authenticity is typically established by comparing their scripts and incantations with the few bowls that have been scientifically excavated, most from the University of Pennsylvania’s expedition to Nippur in central Iraq in the 1880s. Under the circumstances, this is a reasonable approach to assess the material at hand and to provide criteria for studying the bowls and judging their authenticity. However, this search for likeness (the bane of comparative study) in turn creates an impression of textual uniformity that draws attention from the sometimes diverging, but most often unknown provenance of the respective artifacts. By tracing parallels and similarities in the texts, scholars are able to situate individual, unprovenanced bowls within the larger corpus of incantation bowls: If the incantation in a bowl compares with incantations from other, known bowls, then it can be considered authentic and eligible for further study without addressing its lack of provenance.

In fact, this emphasis on textual parallels often also directs how studies of incantation bowls are organized. Whereas earlier publications of bowls were structured according to what collection they belong to or which Aramaic dialect they are written in, recent corpora are increasingly organizing the bowls according to their texts. Several of the bowls share extensive textual parallels, which has led scholars to propose they were produced in some form of serial production. Many scholars thus order their publications of larger groups of bowls according to these parallels, creating the impression that the different bowls are derivations of certain prototypes. For instance, Shaul Shaked, James Nathan Ford, and Siam Bhayro organized the first publication of incantation bowls from the Schøyen Collection by the themes of the incantations, and Christa Müller-Kessler matched the bowls at the university at Jena with bowls from a range of collections and dialects by textual parallels.

On the one hand, this choice reflects the undeniable presence of numerous parallels among the materials, and highlights important aspects concerning to the spread and transmission of bowl incantations. On the other hand, it again underlines the notion of a fairly uniform corpus and further divorces the text from the artifact it is found on. The notion is not incorrect or problematic in and of itself, but the impression of consistency and stability across the corpus makes the admitted lack of provenance less acute for scholars working with these artifacts. When the incantations on the bowls find a place within the corpus through textual parallels, it establishes the bowls’ authenticity and relevance for academic study. That is of course the point, but this verification through text simultaneously makes it less pressing for scholars to verify the relevance of the material bowls themselves, which is done through provenance.

In conclusion

I do not believe that philologists in general, nor scholars of the Mesopotamian incantation bowls in particular, consciously obscure the absence of or challenges connected with provenance in their work. Still, it is important to realize that certain choices in the field – choices which build on valid and frank reasons and judgments in pursuit of the answer to one set of questions – may have unintended consequences and raise another set of concerns. Text-critical studies work very well for locating the forest, but in this endeavor they may lose sight of the individual trees and where they come from – knowledge that will, in the end, teach us more about the forest and also help fight illegal trade in wood. Now, many would, and do, argue that restricting research to manuscripts and artifacts with a known provenance will dramatically limit the sources available to historical inquiry, and there is unfortunately some truth in this, but a feasible start would be to follow the American Society of Papyrologists’ resolution that all publications shall include “a frank and thorough discussion of the provenance of every item.”

Nils H. Korsvoll is an Assistant Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.