Materia III: New Approaches to Material Text in the Ancient World

This article by first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 24, Spring 2019.

Conference organized by Joseph Howley (Columbia University), Stephanie Frampton (MIT), and David M. Ratzan (ISAW).

ISAW and the ISAW Library were pleased to co-host with Columbia University the third meeting of the MATERIA workshop in April. MATERIA is a series of workshops showcasing new research on books and other media in antiquity. These events bring together speakers from a variety of disciplines—history, literature, epigraphy, papyrology, archeology, manuscript studies, etc.—to explore the intersections of classical texts and material culture. David Ratzan (ISAW) presented at the first workshop (Columbia University, 2016), attended the second (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2017) and extended this running conversation about approaches to material text in Greco-Roman antiquity to a wider cultural scope and beyond the category of “the book” at ISAW.

ISAW’s Alexander Jones delivered a compelling history and scholarly sociology of the inscription and monumentalization of complex scientific texts in the ancient Mediterranean. Alexandra Schultz (Harvard) argued for a new interpretation of the Hellenistic phenomenon of inscribing book lists on the walls of libraries, suggesting that it was a way of signaling commitment to local authors, histories, and so identities. Michele Faraguna (Milan) presented a cogent case for reimagining the relationship of ephemeral media and monumental inscriptions in Classical Athens, effectively challenging classicists and historians to redraw the porous boundaries between what is often considered two different modes of writing and reading, as well as the genres of “book” and “document.” Heng Du (University of Arizona) presented a highly stimulating deconstructionist approach to ancient Chinese books, revealing the necessity of learning to read canonical Chinese texts as genealogies, since for much of their early lives their constituent texts were constantly reodered, recombined, reframed, and even reattributed to different authors. Grant Parker (Stanford) revisited his earlier work on the inscription and reading of obelisks and AnneMarie Luijendijk (Princeton) investigated the figurative—and literal—scatological reuse of books.

It was an engaging day of discussion and the MATERIA steering committee is now considering editing a volume of contributions based on the last three meetings, a volume that will bear some imprint of ISAW’s ecumenical approach to antiquity.