PreCirculated "Sacred History" and Ancient Near Eastern Antiquity

AHA Session 90
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Clarendon Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Steven J. Garfinkle, Western Washington University
Seth Richardson, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
Why Mesopotamia?
Jason Ur, Harvard University; Guillermo Algaze, University of California at San Diego
The Beginning of (Sacred) History in Egypt
Andréas Stauder, Swiss National Science Foundation and The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Sacred History and Empire in Assyria
Beate Pongratz-Leisten, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University

Session Abstract

This panel will examine historiographic problems of “sacred history” in Ancient Near Eastern antiquity. This part of world history no longer occupies the crucial place it once did in disciplinary conversations, but the 2011 conference theme offers a perfect opportunity to re-familiarize other historians with current specialist work and the state of our field. In 2005, the American Historical Review published an essay by Dan Smail critical of the exceptional place accorded the Ancient Near East in world-historical narratives (“In the Grip of Sacred History,” vol. 110 no. 5). “Every history curriculum in secondary schools and colleges that tacitly accepts a Near Eastern origin around 6,000 years ago,” Smail writes, “contains the unintended echo of the Judeo-Christian mythology of the special creation of man in the Garden of Eden.” Smail's interest in rescuing prehistory as categorically distinguished from the rest of the human narrative is laudable, if operationally problematic. Two other claims he makes, however, are unhelpful. Number one, the author sees the insistence on traditional dates for the historic (ca. 3000 B.C.) as a reproduction of “sacred [i.e., biblical] history” by Assyriologists and Egyptologists. Number two, by erasing any meaningful historical development in the advent of urbanism and writing, Smail discards the possibility of any significant epistemological development or break for the period. At the very least, these positions misunderstand how scholars of the Ancient Near East currently understand their research problems with the protohistoric and “the sacred.” The critique reveals more, in fact, about anxieties related to religion-in-the-disciplines and creating a comfortable distance between the early modern and contemporary academies. Mesopotamia and Egypt's own varieties of “sacred history” are a perfect point on which to open up the discussion about how scholars currently deal with the prehistory/history divide, as well as ancient notions of historical origins, change, and the sacred. Our questions include: how do text-readers and archaeologists grapple with continuity and innovation for this crucial period? Does the development of writing denote an historical paradigm shift, or does it primarily signify a historiographic change in having a different sort of “window on the past”? How did ancient literatures engage “the sacred” when it came to conceptions of historical narrative, and what roles do those “sacred histories” play in fashioning scholarly models? What can a conceptually autonomous approach for antiquity produce for the benefit of history curricula, world historians, and the popular audiences Smail hoped to reach? Panel members will focus on the revolutionary changes that occurred in Egypt and Mesopotamia at this time, the continuities with earlier physical evidence, and what induces us to see the time as revolutionary. Secondarily, they will also address the ways in which “the sacred” did – and did not - inform ancient historical conceptions of origins, change, and time. Our speakers include specialists on archaeology and texts of these early pristine states (Algaze and Stauder), and scholars working with later ancient corpora for which “the sacred” and historical change were deeply intertwined problematics.

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