Yale professor collaborates with Centre on amulet research
Danville isn’t often considered a hotspot for linguistic or textual studies. However, for the past three days, Centre College has been host to the research of ancient artifacts that will contribute significantly to the study of an entire culture.
Aaron Butts, lector in Semitics at Yale University, has spent the past three days at Centre editing a Mandaic amulet from Late Antique Mesopotamia — the area now known as Iraq and Iran. The editing process consists of deciphering the letters of the text, translating it and providing notes. The end result will be a published edition to make the amulet available to a larger audience.
Butts’ edition is only part of the study, which is funded through five grants awarded to Centre earlier this year from the Associated Colleges of the South Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Renewal Program. Included in these grants is a stipend of $8,000 going towards this collaborative project, “Unrolling, Drawing, Translating and Analyzing Amulets.”
Centre faculty contributing to the study include Tom McCollough, Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor of Religion; Beth Glazier-McDonald, H.W. Stodghill Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Religion and associate dean; and Jeff Fieberg, associate professor of chemistry and Centre Scholar.
The broad purpose of any ACS/Mellon Grant is to give faculty members the opportunity to explore and conduct research in ways that might not otherwise have been possible.
This particular project aims to study Mandaean culture and language, as well as to utilize the science of artifact preservation, by looking at three particular amulets purchased from an antiquities collector in 2008 using funds from Glazier-McDonald’s endowed chair.
Butts has been editing an amulet that was already unrolled, but the other two amulets are currently undergoing the process of being unrolled as well as treated for corrosion and damage.
The amulets contain incantations for healing and protection against various evils in a language called Mandaic, which is a dialect of Aramaic. Jesus is thought to have spoken Aramaic, which is related to other Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew.
“Mandaic amulets in general — including this particular amulet — were usually written on lead, rolled up, placed within a casing, often copper, and presumably worn around the client’s neck for protection,” Butts says.
Mandaic amulets are thought to be from Late Antiquity — roughly third century to mid-seventh century — but as Butts explains, a more exact dating is more difficult than it might first appear.
“The dates are really up in the air. These amulets are dated anywhere from the second century to the seventh century, with most people placing them at around 400 BCE,” Butts says. “The dating is especially difficult since many Mandaic amulets were not found in modern, controlled excavations, and thus they are lacking archeological context.”
Only a handful of Mandaic amulets have been fully edited and published, in part because deciphering them is such a painstakingly difficult task. The editing process is even more difficult because the amulets have been damaged over the centuries.
“With the amulets, the difficult part is not the translating, per se, but the script. They’re not made to be read, necessarily. They’re not literature, they’re not books — it’s much more like looking at a hand-written note,” Butts says. “Therefore, deciphering the actual letters is very difficult.
“If the amulet was written in a nice Mandaic book-hand, we could translate it in a matter of fifteen to twenty minutes, but this is not what we have,” Butts continues. “It takes a day and a half to get around fifty letters.”
Butts compares deciphering the Mandaic incantations on the amulets to reading another person’s handwriting.
“It’s much more like handwriting than printing — that’s the easiest way to think of it. It’s like having to read somebody else’s cursive handwriting, except in a language that’s not your native language,” Butts explains.
The amulet Butts is currently editing is lengthy, at more than fifty lines on each side of the amulet. It will take him more than his three days at Centre to complete his edition. When he does, though, the amulet will be an important addition to what is known about Mandaic culture.
“It is an interesting text,” Butts says. “There are less than a dozen published, so having another one available will be great.”