From lost archives to digital databases

Jen Hicks (UCL)

Digital Classicist London & Institute of Classical Studies seminar 2015

Friday June 5th at 16:30, in Room G21A, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Livecast at Digital Classicist London YouTube channel.

Evidence for the administration of the Seleukid empire (ca. 312–63 BC) is extremely partial and diverse. Some Greek inscriptions, incorporating letters from Seleukid royalty and officials, are known from Asia Minor and Syria, and a few cuneiform texts survive from Mesopotamia, mostly concerning the urban elite associated with the temples. The daily records of the Seleukid administration and the court archives, written on leather and papyrus, have not survived the intervening centuries. This makes assessing the typicality of what has survived and understanding the everyday functioning of the imperial bureaucracy very problematic. And yet it is on this level of routine administration that we must hope to understand the larger structures, the failures and successes of governing an empire.

One source that has been under-used, paradoxically because of the sheer volume of the material, are the tens of thousands of clay bullae that sealed certain such leather documents, which survive from Mesopotamia and the Levant. On these are impressed seals, some of which (those bearing diverse images such as gods, portraits and animals) appear to belong to individuals, while others seem to represent the Seleukid administration, since they bear dynastic motifs or have legends referring to taxes and officials. Despite the contents of the associated documents being irretrievably lost, the fact that multiple seals are impressed on many bullae means that it is possible to identify networks and hierarchies of individuals who interacted with each other in the creation of these documents, and to recognise, for example, changes in administrative practice and archival norms. Thus the daily realities of Seleukid control for those who participated in their administration, and those who lived within their empire can begin to be reconstructed. The evidence of the bullae will never result in an understanding of fiscal and administrative structures on the ground comparable in detail to that which can be gained from the papyrological evidence of Ptolemaic Egypt. Nonetheless, such study enables parallels to be drawn with the Egyptian evidence, thus placing Seleukid and Ptolemaic practice within their wider geographical and historical contexts, and revealing possible cross-fertilization between the administrative structures of the two states.

Digital tools are essential in working with such a large, but fragmentary, body of data. In this paper I will discuss the practicalities of creating and utilising databases of the bullae and the impressed seals and undertaking statistical analysis, exploring the information that can be gained from such an approach and also the limitations that exist. I will additionally consider the challenges and possibilities of conducting research in the digital age, for example through the use of museums’ online databases and the information on cuneiform tablets offered by the Online Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (ORACC) website.

Livecast at Digital Classicist London YouTube channel.


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.