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"Object Lessons" Lessons

Andrew Hogan (The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley)

From Fall of 2019 through Spring of 2020, the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley) in conjunction with the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology collaborated on an exhibit comprising the papyrological documents housed in Bancroft together with physical artifacts from the site of Tebtunis, which currently reside in the Hearst Museum. “Object Lessons: The Egyptian Collections at the University of California Berkeley” consciously reunited the two sets of objects, which had been separated for cataloguing and study at an early stage of their acquisition in the first half of the twentieth century by scholars and administrators at UC Berkeley. This was done to highlight the positive and negative effects of such a schism on the objects themselves and on the study thereof; to contextualize the objects together within the physical milieu of their discovery; and to situate the objects next to the contemporary internal correspondence from the field and from UC Berkeley that demonstrates the thought processes that influenced their separation and sequestration into cordoned study units. Rather than employing an overarching diachronic framework, the exhibit was structured around thematic sections that invited visitors to use experience from their own daily lives to consider how the Egyptians simultaneously interacted with texts and objects (e.g., in the practice of personal religion or the oral nature of interacting with written material) and even what it meant to be Egyptian at this time. From the opening didactic panel in English, Arabic, and Modern Greek, the installation also set the stakes of this discussion as not just ancient but modern as well: who in today’s world has a claim to these documents, and what does such a claim mean? How does this inform the understanding, for instance, of a Greek tax document written in the Fayyum on papyrus, sold to embalmers, used as mummy wrapping, and eventually excavated millennia later by British archaeologists in the employ of an American university? 

This paper employs “Object Lessons” as a case study for the relative success of presenting papyri texts and excavated artifacts as integrated “objects” of study and suggests practical steps for how this might be applied to scholarship. Illustrative examples demonstrate specific lessons that various objects can offer when situated within broader intellectual contexts and subjected to these new valences of scrutiny. For instance, several of the Berkeley papyri were found in disassembled human and crocodile mummy cartonnage; by highlighting the dismantling, we were able to engage visitors beyond the voyeuristic level and push them to question how values have been reassessed in the ensuing 100 years (and contrast when they notoriously have been ignored), furthering the understanding of the papyri as objects beyond sigla on a page of a P.Tebt. volume. Ultimately, the paper proposes that Berkeley’s “object lessons” can and should be applied to future studies of texts as objects and offers firsthand insight into how such an approach could contribute within the field

Session/Panel Title

Literary Texts as Objects

Session/Paper Number

18.3

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