History of Historical Writing/Archaic Historians

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< Table of Contents Introduction | Archaic Historians | Ancient Historians | Medieval Historians | Early Modern Historians | Enlightenment & Professionalization | Academic Historians

Archaic Historians[edit]

Introduction[edit]

In this chapter we will concern ourselves with historical documents where the personality of the writer is not a contributing factor to the document, and is often not mentioned. This situation is typical for the early great civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, where professional scribes acted as executors of the intentions of their patrons, and not as contributors, partners or even as the leads in the determination of the historical interest of the documents they produced.

Role of the Historian[edit]

Much of the historical writing we will consider in this section is either biographical or serves the purpose of propaganda in some form of another. The patrons of these texts intended for their actions, their life, their deeds to be glorified and remembered by future generations.

A very large number of the texts that we know about from this area are monumental inscriptions. Here, the historian only had the task of drafting the text, which was then transferred to the representational material by the stone workers or painters. (Often, the inscriptions did not survive, we only have the copies of the inscriptions into more portable formats.) It is unfortunately unclear what an impact this writing process had on the textual content.

While it may seem weird for people to strive to produce massive inscriptions that 99% of the population could not read, the form of the message was still understood by all: The sponsor of the writing was wealthy and powerful enough to afford the expenditure of the monument. Of course, not all stone inscriptions were massive; see for example the Palermo Stone or the Narmer Palette.

The other main category of text types are those that employ writing formats optimized for day to day usage such as the cuneiform tablets of the Mesopotamian civilizations. In Ancient Egypt, Papyrus was also in use to record historical texts and communication.

Social Status of the Historian[edit]

The (anonymous) writers of the texts we will consider in this section belonged to the middle levels of the social strata. Their work required extensive and expensive training and tied them closely into the bureaucratic machinery of either the palace or the temple, the only social entities who could afford to pay for their upkeep.

Since vassal states often did not have the economic infrastructure to maintain the necessary scribal schools, the imperial courts would loan scribes to their allies. These not only facilitated the bureaucratic correspondence, but also were convenient ambassadors, spies and "supervisors" of the vassals, acting as constant reminders of the superiority of the imperial culture.

Categories of Texts[edit]

The main alternative textual form is the chronicle or the list, simply enumerating office holders, events or similar items of interest for the stately or priestly bureaucracies. Such enumerations are usually composed without much of an attempt to form an overarching narrative.

Both of these categories of genre share the characteristic that they recount very recent history. As a result, the professional scribes who lent their skill to these productions did not have to perform any historical research, that is, employ any historical techniques for discovering the ways in which the past was different from their present.

In this sense we can consider their historiographical work as being in its infancy. Of course, the availability of such historical records like chronicles and lists is an important prerequisite for developing such a skill.

Chapters[edit]

  1. Archaic Historians of Egypt
  2. Archaic Historians of Mesopotamia
  3. Archaic Historians of Palaestine
  4. Hittite Archaic Historians
  5. Where there Indian Archaic Historians?
  6. Where there Chinese Archaic Historians?

Bibliography[edit]

James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, 5 vols, University of Illinois Press (Urbana — Chicago), 2001 (reprint from 1906).
James B. Pritchard (ed), Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3rd edition, Princeton University Press (Princeton) 1969.