Jigsaw puzzle of past realities

In her research paper 'A Stranger in the House: Situating Deviance in an ‘Alterity’ Research Approach" Melanie Wasmuth sketches out a research tool to help in collecting a wider understanding of ancient social realities.

January saw the publication of the inaugural volume of Avar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Life and Society in the Ancient Near East 1/1. ANEE member Melanie Wasmuth was invited to contribute to this special issue on Deviance in the Near East. Here she introduces the rationale for her paper and some of its key results.

A major challenge in ancient world studies is to access the complexity of ancient social realities. Two main reasons for this are the inherent loss of the majority of sources due to preservation issues, and the socio-cultural distance between the modern researcher and the ancient context of study.

A long-established means of overcoming these challenges is to integrate theoretical and source-oriented approaches, usually by applying theories as explanatory models to the ancient data. In my paper, I present a different approach. To quote from the paper’s conclusions:

"This contribution, in contrast, suggests using modern concepts and terms not as explicatory models or to narrow down the most likely interpretation, but to enhance the scope of envisioned ancient realities. The key idea behind the sketched-out approach or research tool is to test how different assumptions transform the reading of evidence, and thus to help in collecting a much wider scope of circumstantial evidence. Metaphorically speaking, the aim is not to find the next joining piece of blue sky, but to consider where else a blue piece might fit into the mosaic or jigsaw puzzle, e.g., as a reflection of the sky in water, as a floor tile of a house, or as a piece of sky in a picture hanging on the wall; and whether differently coloured pieces, like grey or purple or orange, could also belong to the sky. Though this does not necessarily help enlarging the part of the mosaic or jigsaw already joined together, it significantly enhances the bigger picture of what might have been, how to look for further joints, and how to place the remaining gaps."

“The paper has the format of a double note. The first part highlights some general methodological questions and sketches out the research tool via sets of characteristic key questions. The second part provides an application example for illustrating how the different questions change the scope of interpretation of ancient sources.” (cited from the abstract)

In practice, I have taken the modern semantic field of “strange/r” as defined in modern English (according to www.dictionary.com) and turned the six primary meanings into investigation lines. These showcase that – at least in modern English – the concept of “strange/r” has a spatial, a temporal, and an emotional or valuation dimension. For each of these I developed a set of basic questions and research angles characterising these dimensions. The systematic reflection of these different dimensions highlight that family members can equally fall under the category of ‘stranger’ as known or unknown, expected or unexpected, wanted or unwanted ‘visitors’, whether these are assigned guests, friends, or, e.g., tax-collectors or thieves.

The first part of the paper is deliberately kept on a conceptual level in order to allow easier transfer to other topics and historical contexts. The second part provides an exemplary case study, in which I apply the sketched-out tool. Though substantial in-depth information on the context of the case study is given, the aim is not a comprehensive interpretation of the chosen document, but an intellectual exercise: what can the research tool do for opening up contextual evidence and alternative angles for interpreting the source?

The chosen case study is a private document from 7th c. BCE Assur, a major urban centre that had long been the imperial capital of Assyria and was still hosting some key royal functions including the burial of the kings. The cuneiform tablet records the summons of the host of a group of Egyptian merchants to the local magnates because of misdoings towards his charges by a group of ‘criminals.’

The devised research tool brings to the fore that each of the persons involved in the incident can be understood as a stranger, even the host himself. Furthermore, the host function may have been either providing accommodation or hosting a business meeting. The vaguely referred-to attack could be against the persons of the Egyptians, their professional role, or their merchandise; or it may only indirectly concern them and be directed primarily against their host. Depending on the identity of the witnesses of the document, who might be either local persons or potentially equated with higher-ranking personalities from the surrounding urban centres, also the ‘criminals’ can have been from any echelon of society, from petty pre-convicted local criminals to high-ranking business representatives from the wider court circle.

Thus, as hoped for, the research tool opens up a wide scope of micro and macro perspectives of the case at hand, many of which are only marginally studied so far.

Bibliographical reference:

Wasmuth, Melanie (2022). “A Stranger in the House: Situating Deviance in an ‘Alterity’ Research Approach.” Avar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Life and Society in the Ancient Near East, 1(1), 139–183. https://doi.org/10.33182/aijls.v1i1.1646.

Dr. Melanie Wasmuth is vice-leader of ANEE Team 2 and docent in Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Helsinki. She currently works as the principal investigator of "MIGREIA – Cross-Regional Migration in the Ancient World: Egyptians in Assur” (research scholarship after Habilitation, Gerda Henkel Stiftung).