Project description

Epigraphy & Identity in the Early Byzantine Middle East (Epigrafika a tożsamość na wczesnobizantyjskim Bliskim Wschodzie) is a three-year team project funded by a Sonata 15 grant (grant agreement number 2019/35/D/HS3/01872) awarded by the Polish National Science Centre (NCN). The project is run from the University of Warsaw, Faculty of History.

1. Research objectives

The project aims at examining the reasons as well as possible social, religious, and political impact of the choice of language in the process of epigraphical commemoration of religious building programmes in the early Byzantine Diocese of the East (excluding Egypt and Libya). In Late Antiquity, a period of dynamic religious, political and social changes, linguistic distinctiveness could serve as an important identity marker and, at the same time identity factor, for Aramaic-speaking Christians, Jews, and Samaritans. Monumental epigraphy, which in that period is largely represented by religious building inscriptions on stone and mosaics, could be an efficient way of public asserting this distinctiveness, and could reciprocally impact the viewers, solidifying specific trends. The project will explore the validity of this hypothesis against other known identity markers and factors (religion, politics, social events), based on a broad survey of inscriptions in Greek, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, Hebrew, and Old Arabic.

2. Research methodology

The problem is tackled by a research group, in addition to the PI consisting of a doctoral candidate, a postdoctoral researcher, and an IT expert. The team refers to three main methods, the first and foremost being the comparative, cross-lingual analysis of monumental inscriptions on stone and mosaic. The researchers will also attempt to apply several concepts developed by sociolinguistics on the functioning of languages and dialects, checking if there are corresponding phenomena in ancient societies, and if they are helpful in explaining the importance of the choice of language in inscriptions. In particular, the spatial functioning of texts on public display will be explored, and spatial modelling of data from sites where inscriptions in more than one language have been found will also be pursued. Thirdly, the team will develop an advanced database of archaeological sites where non-Greek monumental inscriptions from the early Byzantine East have been found, allowing one to export the epigraphical data compliant with the EpiDoc standard.

3. Expected scientific and societal impact of the project

The project will offer a complex and innovative analysis of the epigraphical data, often published only within the last decade, which have not been yet broadly applied in historical research, and are totally absent from social studies. The results will contribute to developing our knowledge of factors and instruments of the processes shaping particular identities in groups using different languages, and publicly manifesting their linguistic diversity. Some of the preliminary hypotheses, if we find them compelling, may also be of primary importance for a revision of existing views on the status of the Greek language in the public space of the early Byzantine Middle East. General sociolinguistics will be impacted, since the discipline is still experimenting with applying their methods to the study of pre-modern societies. The scholarly community as well as a broader audience will get free access to an on-line database of sites with non-Greek monumental inscriptions from the early Byzantine East, and will be able to export data compatible with the EpiDoc standards (a variant of TEI XML), thus readily applicable on a number of other research projects.