Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Michele Faraguna (ed.), Archives and Archival Documents in Ancient Societies: Trieste, 30 September - 1 October 2011. Legal documents in ancient societies, IV; Graeca tergestina, storia e civiltà, 1. Trieste: Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2013. Pp. 381. ISBN 9788883034602. €28.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Gaelle Coqueugniot, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site

Open access version

This volume, edited by Michele Faraguna, assembles papers from a conference on ancient archives that was held at Trieste in September-October 2011, as part of a series investigating legal documents and procedures in the ancient world. The volume is carefully presented, although several small mistakes and omissions appear in the bibliographical references of several articles (esp. p. 100-103).

The volume is arranged into four sections, following civilizational and temporal divisions: the ancient Near East, Classical Greece, the Persian tradition and the Hellenistic world, and the Roman Empire. Each section consists of three contributions in English, French, Italian or German, which are put into perspective by a short introductory (for the first and last sections) or concluding (for the two others) chapter.

The expressed aim of the book is to present selected cases reflecting recent research on the archival practices and documents of the ancient world. The is part of a revival of scholarship on this rich subject.1 Although the scope and methodology of the contributions differ significantly, the volume presents recurrent themes and difficulties in the study of ancient archival practices.

The papers in the first section, on the Ancient Near East, present case studies from three different civilizations of the second millennium BCE. A short introductory chapter by Sophie Démare-Lafont (p. 23-26) stresses the challenges of modern scholarship, often hindered by the dispersion of the archives, the large number of unpublished texts and the lack of context of many of them.

Klaas R. Veenhof (p. 27-61) summarizes what is known about the Old Assyrian private archives of Kanesh (nineteenth century BCE).2 He raises the question of the validity of legal documents over time and that of the organisation of the archives in the house and in relation with other collections of texts.

Antoine Jacquet's contribution (p. 63-85) presents private archives of the Old Babylonian period (eighteenth century BCE), which often record the ownership of valuable goods. Again, the most interesting perspectives of research concern the validity of the various documents and the organisation of the archives.

Susanne Paulus (p. 87-103) adopts a slightly different approach, emphasizing the gaps in our knowledge of the Middle Babylonian archival corpus (second half of the second millennium BCE). She uses epigraphic evidence to make up for the disappearance of archival records on land-ownership.

The second section focuses on public archives in Classical Greece, or rather in Classical Athens, as noted in Michele Faraguna's concluding chapter (163-171). The main difficulty for this period lies in the complete loss of the archival documents themselves, which can however be partially reconstructed from literary sources and inscriptions.

Christophe Pébarthe (p. 107-125) discusses the role of the demes in Athens' documentary practices, with the development of demes' registers in the late sixth century BCE, which may have served varied purposes, such as conscription and taxation. While Classical Athens lacked a developed bureaucracy, archives were already well attested in the Polis, both at the centre and in the periphery.

Shimon Epstein's paper on the Athenian building accounts (p. 127-141) is based on three sets of fifth century inscriptions, pertaining to the construction of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and Eleusis' sanctuary. He argues convincingly that the difference of content between these inscriptions is less related to a change in the practices of the magistrates' annual evaluation and the conservation of the information in a state archive than to the symbolic purposes of the inscriptions, which chose to advertise one aspect or another.

Edward M. Harris (p. 143-162) examines the place of the plaint in the legal procedure and the records of trials. The plaint was a complex written document, registering the full identity of the parties as well as all the evidence to be presented at trial. It was filed and kept in the public archives, even if the case did not go to trial.

The last two sections, "the Persian tradition and the Hellenistic world" and "the Roman Empire", are perhaps more interconnected with each other, and hint at a continuity of practice between Hellenistic and Roman times.3 Three communications deal with papyrological sources (Kottsieper, Criscuolo, and Kruse), while Boffo and Harter-Uibopuu both focus on inscriptions from Asia Minor and Greece. The problems raised are not exactly the same depending on the nature of the testimonia. While papyrologists have access to the original documents, they need often to reconstruct the original contents and organisation of archives that have been dispersed in ancient or modern times. In other regions of the East Mediterranean, scholars must deduce and reconstruct the lost documents themselves from indirect evidence in literary and epigraphic sources. In both cases, their work can be compared to that of an investigative detective, as Mark Depauw reminds the reader in the third section's concluding chapter (p. 259-266).

Ingo Kottsieper (p. 175-199) presents four sets of Aramean documents from Achaemenid Egypt and Palestine. The first two are family archives composed of still sealed documents pertaining to the properties and legal status of the owners. These documents, preserved as proofs, had a life span of over fifty years. A third archive collected letters linked to an office, and transmitted from one officer to his successor, while the fourth hints at the existence of larger, 'central' archives of legal documents in Judea.

Laura Boffo (p. 201-244) reviews the epigraphic evidence for the presence of Hellenistic kings in the cities' archives. This very dense paper includes documents showing direct and indirect intervention of the kings in the life of the cities, from diplomatic correspondence, royal taxation, and the appearance of kings in civic religious life to the adoption of different systems for dating the documents. The complex relationship between kings and cities made the registration and conservation of documents in public archives an absolute necessity.

Lucia Criscuolo (p. 245-257) questions the identification of some papyrological documents as rough drafts of letters and contracts, on the basis of their careless writing, erasures and spelling mistakes. She shows that many of them were in fact copies written by official secretaries and kept in public archives for administrative purposes.

Kaja Harter-Uibopuu's article (273-305) allows us to make the transition between the last two sections. Through three epigraphic studies, she shows the continuity of practices between the Late Hellenistic and Imperial periods in the Aegean. Two new first century BCE inscriptions from Kos inform us about the public archives' reform. Inscriptions from Delphi also show an evolution in the recording of manumission acts, in the sanctuary from the late third century BCE, then in a civic archive in the first century BCE. Imperial epitaphs from Asia Minor, finally, attest of the registration of testaments in civic archives.

Thomas Kruse (p. 307-332) studies the introduction of poll tax and census registration in Roman Egypt. Detailed census lists, registering the status of every individual in the Egyptian countryside, were kept for a very long time.

Rudolf Haensch (p. 333-349), finally, discusses the (limited) evidence for large central governors' archives in late antique Constantinople and in other provinces, as well as what can be inferred about their content.

The main limitation of the volume is the heterogeneity of the contributions, both in their scope and level of detail. While the first section seems to offer general overviews, the following chapters (and especially those on the Hellenistic and Roman East) address narrower case-studies, some of which may be hard for non-specialist scholars to follow.

The contributions all use the textual evidence exclusively. While the lack of archaeological context is mentioned as a limitation in several of them, no paper focuses on material data.4 The conference was part of a series dealing primarily with documents more than practices. More surprisingly, no contribution focuses on archival documents from Rome or the Western provinces.5 Italy is briefly evoked by Eva Jakab in the fourth section's introduction (p. 269-272) and Haensch mentions the cases of Numidia and Africa Proconsularis. All papers deal, however, primarily with the Eastern part of the Mediterranean.

To sum up, this volume is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on archival practices, especially for scholars working on the Hellenic world, and we must praise the editor for its quick publication, less than two years after the conference, simultaneously in paperback and in open access online.


1.   Research on archives in the ancient Near East follows a longer tradition, since the discovery of the first cuneiform tablets in the nineteenth century; see K.R. Veenhof (ed.), Cuneiform Archives and Libraries. Papers read at the XXXe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Leiden 1983, Leiden 1986 and O. Pedersen, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 B.C., Bethesda 1998. Extensive studies on Greek archives are more recent; see J.P. Sickinger, Public Records and Archives in Classical Athens, London 1999, Ch. Pébarthe, Cité, démocratie et écriture. Histoires de l'alphabétisation d'Athènes à l'époque classique, Paris 2006 (BMCR 2008.05.17), and L. Boffo, "Per una storia dell'archiviazione pubblica nel mondo Greco", Dike 6, 2003, p. 5-85. Like this volume, M. Brosius (ed.), Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions. Concepts of Record- Keeping in the Ancient World, Oxford 2003 (BMCR 2004.03.42) adopted a cross-civilizational approach of the topic including papers on both the ancient Near East and the Hellenistic world. It is worth noting that, aside K.R. Veenhof, all the contributors of Brosius' and Faraguna's books are different, and their studies are complementary rather than redundant.
2.   See already his previous contribution in Brosius 2003.
3.   In the online version of this volume, the title of the fourth section is missing from the table of contents.
4.   For discussions on the material data available in the Hellenic world: P. Valavanis, "Thoughts on the Public Archive in the Hellenistic Metroon of the Athenian Agora", MDAIA 117, p. 221-255 (from which the illustration on the cover of this volume originates), M.-F. Boussac and A. Invernizzi (ed.), Archives et sceaux du monde hellénistique (BCH suppl. 29), 1996, and, more recently, G. Coqueugniot, Archives et bibliothèques dans le monde grec. Edifices et organisation, Ve siècle avant notre ère - IIe siècle de notre ère (BAR 2536), Oxford 2013.
5.   For Roman archives, see the proceedings of two conferences: S. Demougin (ed.), La Mémoire perdue: à la recherche des archives oubliées, publiques et privées, de la Rome antiquee, Paris 1994 and C. Moatti (ed.), La mémoire perdue: recherches sur l'administration romaine (Collections de l'Ecole française de Rome 243), Rome 1998.

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