Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading Other People's Garbage

One line I use on my students when I talk about ancient manuscripts is that archaeologists love other people's garbage. It's true. The stuff that one society throws away is the treasure trove of later generations.

A recently published book provides a good illustration of this maxim. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have provided us the story of the discovery and significance of the Cairo Geniza in their new book Sacred Trash:The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (Schocken, 2011).

A Geniza is a sort of storage room attached to a synagogue where Jews would store their worn out or disused sacred documents. The Cairo Geniza was discovered in 1896 by two Scottish sisters. It is important because it contained 280,000 biblical and personal documents that extend back 1000 years. The sisters reported their discovery to Solomon Schechter who began the long and ongoing process of sorting, identifying and translating those documents (see picture above). The find has been as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In my own recent work on Cain and Abel, targums from the Geniza were an important link in Jewish and Christian interpretations of the story.

Below is an excerpt from a short review of the book and a short video in which the authors discuss the importance of the find.

Chance encounters on street corners. Secret trips abroad. Whispered hints of buried treasure. To those of us steeped in the writings of John le CarrĂ© and Alan Furst, all this smacks of business as usual within the world of espionage. But, as Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s new book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, reveals, such goings-on were once as much the province of scholars as spies. In the telling of how, against all odds, a “pestiferous wrack” of papers, as one Cambridge professor put it, became one of the most important finds of the late 19th- and early 20th century, Sacred Trashtransforms life within the dusty, dry, and often desiccated groves of academe into something akin to a giant romp, a thrilling adventure yarn—hijinks among the highbrow.

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