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Memories for Life Project

In early Near Eastern cities, people sought to establish a presence before gods, believed to reside in their temples, to ensure divine favour. The combined strengths of material objects and inscriptions lent permanence to the symbolic act of gift-giving, establishing lasting ties between humans and the divine.

In October 2017, the “Memories for Life” project was initiated at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr Christina Tsouparopoulou, in collaboration with PI Dr Jakob Andersson of Uppsala University, to study these objects as a cohesive corpus. Found in temples and other contexts, such commemorative objects embody a series of choices such as material, object shape, language and content that convey information about the social identities of the person who commissioned it.

Inscribed Bull’s Head made from Copper, Mother-of-Pearl, Lapis Lazuli, Girsu (Tello), c. 2500 BCE

“Memories for Life” seeks to treat commemorative objects holistically, analysing material and inscription together in the study of the commemoration of the individual from the Early Dynastic period through the first millennium BCE. This study is the first of its kind to encompass the material width and temporal depth of three millennia of ancient Near Eastern inscribed objects with a particular focus on objects commissioned by private individuals.

Commemorative objects, as social actors themselves, helped to forge, negotiate, and perpetuate various facets of human identity including gender, status, profession, and of course, religious belief. Through an exploration of the materiality of these objects—how human and material agents mutually create and reinforce social landscapes—we can better understand how ancient people bridged the gap between the everyday act of preserving individual memory and constructing a cultural collective memory. 

Inscribed Bead made from Agate, c. 2050 BCE

The project is currently building a database which includes all known information about the commemorative objects including relevant data concerning their inscription, material and manufacturing processes, artistic and iconographic features, and archaeological contexts. This searchable database will be available online for all researchers at the end of 2020 and will prove invaluable to those working in Assyriology, ancient Near Eastern archaeology and art history, religion and material religion, and scholars interested in the social identities of ancient peoples.

In June 2019, the project received generous funding from the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences) to host a mini-conference in Uppsala. “Crafting memories and identities in Antiquity: Inscribed dedicatory and commemorative objects” will take place 13-14 September 2019.

This conference will bring together leading scholars working across regional and diachronic spectrums in antiquity in order to develop theoretical models and methodologies for analysing and interpreting inscribed objects across time and space. Structured as a dialogue, we will consider the ritual underpinnings of inscribed objects, their role as active agents in memory construction, and the very ways we define a “dedicatory” or “commemorative” object. Speakers will include scholars in Classics, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Egyptology, Biblical Studies and Comparative religion, drawing upon ideas generated in fields such as anthropology, material religion, and communication studies. This collaboration will situate inscribed objects within a nexus of theoretical and methodological approaches that speaks to them as complex agents of communication and identity formation.

Programme to follow soon.