Q&A with Jacco Dieleman, 2016-17 Davis Center Fellow

May 09, 2016
Jacco Dieleman

Jacco Dieleman, Associate Professor of Egyptology at UCLA and one of the 2016-17 Shelby Cullom Davis Fellows, answered questions about the research he will conduct next spring under the Center’s Risk and Fortune theme. He studies ancient textual amulets that originated in pharaonic Egypt and then spread to places like Israel, Phoenicia, and Greece in the first millennium BCE. During his Davis Center fellowship, Dieleman will examine how these amulets “were used to protect against perceived dangers and how they encode notions of risk and fortune.”

How did you become interested in amulets and magic in ancient Egypt?

My main research interests are in how cultures change over time through encounters with other cultures, either through conquest, trade, displacement of people, or migration. I am interested in amulets because when you look at the material culture of ancient magic, you see that these objects and texts share a lot, irrespective of the language in which they are written, irrespective of time period or where they were found.

Up to now, scholars have primarily focused on the incantations and the magic words that you find on these objects, and they have come up with models to explain how these things might have originated and been disseminated. I have never really been satisfied with that. What do we really know about the motifs and incantations and the names of these ancient gods? They are just so fluid and so flexible. We do not know much about how these texts were transported, and if there were libraries, if people had these things in their homes, and how they read them.

So I became more interested in the material aspect of these objects. I decided to limit myself to the study of so-called textual amulets. These are protective prayers that people write, on either pieces of linen, papyrus, or metal, and then wear around their necks. People still wear such amulets today, in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

I am interested in how these things were produced, what materials were used, how these things were folded, how they were hung around the neck, etc. It is of course a very simple thing, but it has often been overlooked. Since most of these amulets are small, and somewhat insignificant, they are published in journal articles, but never collected. So I started to collect them, and then I was surprised at the number, and I was surprised to find correlations among the changes in the way they are produced, irrespective of language or the geographical region where the artifact has been found.

And that suggests to me that we are dealing here with scribes who learned how to make such objects from their master, through the master-apprentice relationship. There are things that you do not really think about, like how you fold a piece of papyrus. You just learn it from your master, and you never question it, because that is the way it has always been done.

That is what I am interested in: what we do not think about, like folding, layout, formatting, and choice of material. When that changes—because it does change—when that changes, I think that is significant. And usually those changes are correlated—the whole package changes, not just one thing. If you plot these changes on a map and on a timetable, you can see this traveling through time and space. My working hypothesis is that amulet production travels with merchants, mercenaries, and itinerant scribes.


Papyrus E 32308. ©Musée du Louvre/Christian Larrieu.
©Musée du Louvre/Christian Larrieu.


Originally, I had thought that it was priests who were creating these amulets, but it seems like that might not be the case. Who had the authority to create these objects?

That is the big question—that is what I am after. In Egypt, ritual manuscripts were used in the cult for the gods. These manuscripts are beautifully laid out, and the incantations are very long and very learned. Many of them have been preserved, and we can see that they were copied and copied for many generations. These priestly scribes were very, very learned.

But we see that in domestic contexts, people were also making use of ritual. In this context, ritual was used to protect the family, rather than to protect the country or the pharaoh. These incantations are clearly borrowing from those temple manuscripts, and the question is, how did that transfer take place? Did priests have side jobs, and were they using their expertise, indeed their authority, and their access to these official manuscripts, to make these incantations short and portable for amulets? That is one way of looking at it, and I think that is probably correct. My idea is that many of these official manuscripts were kept in homes, where these priests were living. Many priests were not employed full-time. They also had a family and fields to till. I think that these manuscripts were very much in the community.

But then amulets start to travel to other cultures, and that is when it gets interesting, because are these priests responsible for that process? And what happens when the custom is adopted by another culture? So the question is, when it moves out of Egypt, into the ancient Near East, like into the Levant, ancient Israel, Phoenicia, or into the Mediterranean—who is doing that? That is the big question.


What is it like working with these materials? It seems that you are working with a fairly limited number of amulets. How has this affected your research method? How do you get around these difficulties?

Whenever you deal with antiquity, you always have a shortage of material. I think I have about seventy Egyptian artifacts, and for Egyptologists, that is a lot. You have to fill in a lot of the gaps by reason and argumentation. But if I broadened the corpus a bit, and wanted to use the textual amulets that we have in Greek and Phoenician, then the corpus becomes a bit bigger already, especially the ones that are in Greek and Latin. Some historians might still not be satisfied with that number, but that is what we have to work with. I am always on the lookout for more material. For the longest time, scholars have privileged historical or literary texts over those that deal with daily life and its exigencies. So it is well possible that there are still quite a number of textual amulets lingering in museum basements and libraries.

The corpus is limited in number, but it means that you squeeze every bit of information out of it, by approaching it from a variety of angles, as a philologist, as a student of religion, as an archaeologist, or as someone who studies material culture. I try to look at all the aspects—material and textual—of a single artifact. It is important to me that I do not treat the inscriptions as disembodied texts.


Have you ever tried to create one of these amulets yourself, to see what difficulties there might be with producing them or inscribing spells on different types of materials?

Absolutely! I have photos of these amulets, and I print them out. Usually these amulets have been unfolded already, in the nineteenth century, and nobody wrote any notes in those days about how they were originally folded. I recreate the folding by looking at fold lines, splashes of ink, and the wear and tear in the manuscript. This has told me a lot about changes in folding patterns. And I always try to fold the amulets to scale. When the cord has been preserved, I look at whether the cord fits an adult or a child. In most cases, many of these amulets were for children, even if the incantation does not say so. And again, if you only study disembodied texts, you would never pose those questions.

I also visit the museums and the libraries where they are kept. The backside of the document, which is usually not inscribed, is very important if you want to recreate the folding. In journal articles, people never publish the backside, because they are only interested in the front, which has the inscription. That is a big obstacle when you are trying to study the artifact itself. It is also a little bit of an insult to the ancient scribe, because he was working with both sides of the papyrus, the linen strip, or the metal.

What I have not done, and would love to do, is the inscribing with ink. That would be very interesting to do. It would also be really interesting to make 3D scans of the metal amulets, because then of course you could see much better the folding, due to the properties of metal.


Do you think that the people who were making these amulets were scribes or artisans? You keep referring to them as ‘scribes.’

I think we should call them artisan-scribes. We know that in antiquity, scribes, potters, and metalworkers were all working in the same physical space. Today we have distinct categories, but that might not have made much sense in antiquity. I see these people as itinerant, literate artisans—because they also made drawings on these amulets.

However, I try to avoid the term ‘magician’ because it immediately creates, certainly in our Western minds, this image of wizards and cunning artists. That is a very wrong notion when we’re talking about these people. I do not believe in the power of magic, but I do believe that the people at the time had a sincere belief that it did work or did have an effect. That is what I take seriously: understanding the motivations of those people without dismissing it as nonsense or wizardry.


How common is it in your field to use relational databases? How did you decide to use this method, and how stable or changeable is the vocabulary?

I think it is quite common to make relational databases of artifacts, especially in archaeology and material culture.

The controlled vocabulary is still a big problem. I work with Greek, Phoenician, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian artifacts. These disciplines have different ways of referring to things, and so when you make a database, you have to make a decision. It is difficult to make the right decision, so I continue to change the vocabulary.

It is also challenging because disciplines have different ways of making editions. As an Egyptologist, sometimes I want to have certain types of information about an artifact, but the edition does not include it because the editor works in a different tradition and did not consider it relevant. This is also a challenging process because of the different ways that scholars refer to artifacts—by museum number or by corpus number. Corpora change through time. Every twenty years there is a new edition and a new corpus, and then you have a new numbering system. So you have to make all these concordances.


How does studying risk and fortune in the ancient world make you more aware of risk and fortune in the present world? What are some parallels and some differences?

The main difference is that in the ancient world, people located causation in the supernatural world. They came up with methods to access this supernatural world, to get assistance from it, to keep it out of their lives, or to access it through divination, amulets, and sometimes more aggressive rituals.

I think what we have in common is that we try to find ways to deal with and to foresee risk and fortune. I am very interested to hear from colleagues who study investment industries and how they deal with risk and fortune. I think there is going to be a fellow working on that next year.

But also, even today, there are still many people who try to interact with the supernatural. They pray or go to shrines or find other ways to deal with unforeseen events. As a student, I took seminars on modern-day western Africa, where things like that are still being done and are meaningful. They have amulets. So for me, there was never really a divide between the ancient and the modern. It is more that these things continue. An interesting question, of course, is how does it continue in a highly rationalized, almost secularized world, as it is today? There must still be outlets. I would be really interested to hear the other fellows’ perspectives on that.


If you could have an amulet, what would you want it to protect you against, or what would you want it to do for you? What material would you make it out of? What language or languages would you choose to put on it?

I would definitely have an amulet for good health, because in the end that is the most important thing in life, something that we forget, especially when we are healthy. Money or fame—that is all irrelevant when you are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease or are in an accident, so I would make an amulet for health. And it has to look pretty, so I would make it out of papyrus, and I would inscribe it with a Rammeside hieratic hand, which has beautiful, florid lines.


Would people in antiquity have had these same concerns? Would they also have wanted their amulets to be pretty and have a beautiful inscription?

Well, that is a very good question. Some of them are not very pretty. I think that is a product, in part, of the social and professional environment. The earliest amulets are folded and produced as ordinary business letters, which suggests that they were produced by hired scribes. Their hand was usually a little rushed; time was money. It is only on the temple manuscripts that you find the beautiful Rammeside hieratic writing I was talking about, so I think there is a need to distinguish between the learned scribes of the temple and the daily-life scribes, who were possibly sitting outside the temple and were available for hire.


Is there anything else you wanted to add?

I am very much looking forward to being part of the Center, and being part of the seminars, and learning from all the fellows and faculty here. I noticed that I always get very excited by people who are working in related but different fields. Of course, I love to go to Egyptology conferences, but I also get input, energy, and ideas from people working in other fields. I find it eye-opening. And I know it is challenging, because we come to the table with our own disciplinary jargon, even our own ways of phrasing research questions and collecting evidence, so it is always challenging to find this common ground, this common language. But I think it is part of the process, and that has usually been very productive for me. It is always a little bit like going back to graduate school. I have to go back to basics because now I have to explain it to someone who is not familiar with Egyptological materials and jargon, and I come out of it much better. So that is the kind of experience I hope to have here.