Posner’s Archives in the Ancient World Revisited: A New Look at Some Old Records

This paper will conclude the conference by looking at recordmaking and recordkeeping practices in the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Ernst Posner’s Archives in the Ancient World is still the only published work that offers a full synoptic account of recordkeeping across these ancient civilizations, but it is now more than forty years old. This paper will consider how far Posner’s account remains relevant and useful in the light of recent scholarship. It will examine some episodes from Posner’s account of Egyptian and Greek archives and consider how new discoveries of records and new understandings of ancient societies may require us to revise or reject some of Posner’s perceptions.

Posner claimed that ‘the archives of the ancient world seem to have much in common with those of our own times’ and that he could identify ‘constants in record creation’ that held good across different periods of history. This paper will discuss whether it is appropriate for us to look for commonalties or constants when we examine records created and used in the distant past. Can modern archival theory offer suitable conceptual frameworks for understanding recordmaking and recordkeeping in ancient civilizations? Can we, for example, meaningfully interpret arrangement practices in the ancient world through the lens of the principle of provenance and respect des fonds? How far can it be helpful to investigate ancient records retention practices from the perspective of the ‘records lifecycle’, or appraisal theory, or contemporary ideas about evidence and memory? Can we – or should we – attempt to distinguish personal from official records in the ancient world? What might we be able to learn from a study of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Greco-Roman recordmaking and recordkeeping practices that could enhance modern archival science and our understandings of records and archives in other eras, including our own?

Geoffrey Yeo is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Information Studies at University College London, UK. His research interests include perceptions of the nature of records and recordkeeping; records classification, arrangement, and description; and relationships between records and the actions of individuals and organizations. His published work won the Society of American Archivists Fellows’ Ernst Posner Award in 2009 and the Hugh A. Taylor Prize in 2013.