CRC 933Exhibition: What Text and Materials of Premodern Artefacts Tell Us

Press Release No. 49/2023
2 May 2023

Collaborative Research Centre 933 “Material Text Cultures” offers insights into twelve years of research work

In the last twelve years, over 160 researchers from many humanities disciplines of Heidelberg University and the Heidelberg Center for Jewish Studies have been studying texts and inscriptions found on premodern artefacts, i.e. human-made objects. The scholars were working together in the Collaborative Research Centre “Material Text Cultures” (CRC 933), which will conclude its successful work in June 2023 and, for this reason, has invited the public to the final exhibition “SchriftArteFakt”. The exhibition shows selected objects such as an ancient Egyptian Horus stele, which was believed to give magical protection from dangerous animals, or an alabaster shard from the time of the Achaemenid King Xerxes (519 to 465 BCE), which bears witness to the extent of his large empire. The CRC is presenting its fields of inquiry and its findings on the example of these artefacts. The exhibition, which is also addressed to young visitors, will be opened on Saturday 6 May and can be viewed until 14 October in the University Museum.

In ancient Egypt, Horus stelae were attributed magical protective powers against dangerous and poisonous animals. The central motif of such stelae is the god Horus, who is always portrayed frontally as a boy with a “youth lock” on his clean-shaven head.

The CRC 933 research projects focused on objects from societies in which there were – or are – no widespread processes whereby texts could be mass produced. They included, for instance, ink-inscribed bamboo slips from ancient China, graffiti on antique gold coins from the Roman Empire or clay tablets from Mesopotamia inscribed in cuneiform script. The researchers were concerned to develop a new interpretative approach to what was written there. By looking beyond the textual content to the spatial and action context of the artefacts they succeeded in elucidating the relations between materials, text and cultural practices of premodern cultures. The studies were funded for twelve years – the maximum period – by the German Research Foundation.

The exhibition “SchriftArteFakt” on show in the University Museum, which arose in cooperation with the Material Archive in Zurich (Switzerland), presents thirty artefacts on the central questions raised by the CRC, for instance, how and under what conditions the objects were made, in what actions they were involved, and what that means in terms of understanding the transmitted texts and their cultural setting. Informative descriptions of the objects and a booklet available at the exhibition give more in-depth insights into the researchers’ findings. Since a special focus of CRC research was examining the materiality of the artefacts, the exhibition also offers information on various materials like clay and parchment, which can be handled in their raw form. This also applies to two special replicas, representing a “clay mushroom” from the 19th century BCE and a pivot stone from the 21st century BCE, as well as to the original figure of an ancient Egyptian scribe. Particularly for younger visitors, the exhibition provides short soundtracks in which the objects themselves speak up and – by telling their story – bring the past to life. Using QR codes attached to the glass cases, visitors can access and play the audio files with a mobile device.

The exhibition “SchriftArteFakt” will be opened on Saturday 6 May. The event will take place in the University Museum, Grabengasse 1, beginning at 5.30 pm. There is a side programme in addition to the exhibition, which is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10.30 am to 4 pm. On offer are regular guided visits by members of the “Material Text Cultures” CRC, as well as various workshops demonstrating, among other things, writing techniques on different materials such as clay and metal.

The denarius is a unit of (nominal) value, which was the most important silver nominal of Roman antiquity from, at the latest, 211 BCE until into the 3rd century CE. This coin was produced by mintmaster Marcus Herennius, whose name can be read on the back face. The value sign XVI (= 16) was scratched into the free surface, to the right of the Pietas portrayed on the front face. That was apparently meant to establish the coin’s exact value or exchange rate (16:1).