Unearthed Clay Seals Shed Light on Ancient Roman Archiving Practices

At the Ancient Roman site of Doliche in modern Turkey, archaeologists have uncovered over 2,000 seal impressions used to fasten ancient documents. The Asia Minor Research Centre at the University of Münster announced the discovery, found inside an archive likely burned by the Sassanid emperor Shapur I, who reigned from 240 until 270 or 272 CE. The findings point not only to the meticulous local archiving practices in the Roman Mediterranean but also to the conflicts between Rome and the Sassanid Empire to the east during the tumultuous 3rd century CE.

Archaeologists Michael Blömer and Engelbert Winter from the University of Münster uncovered the seals in a building used as an archive known in Roman Latin as a tabularium. While we have many literary mentions of these sites, the physical uncovering of one is rare, especially outside of Italy and Egypt. A large archive in Rome at the foot of the Capitoline Hill housed thousands of documents; however, such buildings also existed in Rome’s provinces for the storage of local governmental papers in municipal archives, and temples often housed archives as well. 

Doliche was an important religious city within the province of Roman Syria associated with the religious cult that worshiped Jupiter Dolichenus. The sanctuary dedicated to the god was outside the city, but glimpses of his significance can be found in the imagery of the recovered seals, which depict the god as part of the official iconography of the city.

Seal impressions from the Doliche archive

The documents enclosed by these small ceramic seals were burned in a large fire, possibly in the year 253 CE. In an inscription from modern Iran by the Sassanid emperor Shapur I, carved into the Cube of Zoroaster in Middle Persian, Parthian, and Greek, he boasts that Doliche was one of the many Roman cities he destroyed. At this time, Rome was greatly at odds with the Sassanid Empire, which ruled large swaths of Iran, Iraq, and beyond during the period often called the “Crisis of the Third Century” and remained a powerhouse until the 7th century CE. Shapur I is perhaps best known for taking the Roman Emperor Valerian captive near Edessa in 260 CE. As Sassanid scholar Touraj Daryaee has written, new research on this important Persian empire is uncovering its imperialism, religion, and culture in its own right — not simply in relation to Rome.

The excavations at Doliche are but one piece of a much larger puzzle concerned with the organizing and destruction of knowledge in the ancient world. Although stories like the fire of the famed Library of Alexandria are more well-known, we can look to other archives to tell us how local populations preserved important documents. Archaeologists and historians are still investigating the use of such materials in the Ancient Mediterranean and cataloging the seals used on them. Today, library scientists continue to work to understand the materiality of the archive and the need for their physical and digital preservation, but such issues were also present for ancient peoples.

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View of the excavations in the uncovered city archive of Doliche

The discovery of such a large number of document seals is a window into the rather bureaucratic daily life in a Roman city, even if the incinerated documents they once were attached to may indicate the frequency of confrontations in certain Roman regions. Understanding the trauma, but also the resilience, of peoples living in the conflict zones in the Roman provinces of Syria, Armenia, and Mesopotamia in the late Roman Empire is just one salient, striking link between the past and the present. Doliche continued to function and to exist well into the Byzantine period, and to house clerics like the local bishop from the 4th century. It was just one town of hundreds which had archives, but it is a physical example of the myriad ways in which local people preserved records, worshiped their gods, and got caught in the middle between two dueling empires.

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