Discovering Ancient Near Eastern Texts in Japan

Research Update

Kerry Hull and Lincoln H. Blumell
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Kerry Hull ( ) and Lincoln H. Blumell ( ) are professors of ancient scripture at BYU.

While teaching in Japan over the space of about eleven years, I (Kerry) often visited museums throughout the country. I saw many remarkable objects from the ancient Near East and often wondered if they had received proper scholarly attention. After I came to Brigham Young University, Dr. Lincoln Blumell (a Greek and Coptic specialist) and I began discussing this topic and whether it might be productive to study which ancient Near Eastern texts had made their way to Japanese museums or private collections. That was the genesis of our research in Japan—a project that contained more twists and turns of fate, and moments of serendipity and disappointment, than we could have imagined. The result was a trove of previously unknown texts.

The principal goal of this effort was to find unpublished texts in ancient languages that we had abilities to translate (Greek, Coptic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Aramaic, Latin, Mayan hieroglyphs, and a few others). The immediate challenge was to find out which museums had objects from the ancient Near East on display or in storage. Therefore, in 2017, we began the arduous process of trying to locate archaeological relics with textual data in Japan. This consisted of various approaches. First, we contacted several dozen Japanese scholars we knew and asked if they had any information on texts in the languages in which we had interest. This provided some leads. The second, and without a doubt the most time-consuming, was to compile a list of all known museums in Japan, principally art and archaeological museums but also others that one would never expect to have such items, and to contact each of them by email or phone to inquire about their collections. For our first project in April 2018, we spent about seven months searching out new museums, contacting them, arranging permissions for visits with curators, and viewing their artifacts. We eventually worked out a two-week research plan that would have us visiting two to three locations most days. We highlight in this article just a few of the most exciting moments during the trip.

Our first visit was to a small, private museum in Chiba Prefecture that had two Egyptian mummy cloths bearing an identical Greek text that we were particularly excited to see (figs. 1a-b). The text was easy to decipher, except for a few peculiarities—the very thing that makes epigraphic research such an adventure. After a careful analysis, however, we came to the decision that both were most likely clever forgeries. But the story certainly did not end there. After returning to BYU, we were later able to find the exact same text on an unpublished Egyptian piece of cloth (likely from the Fayum) housed in the Schøyen Collection, which was authentic and had at some point served as the source for the two forgeries sold to that museum in Japan. We were able to reconstruct some of the backstory of that process and presented our findings at a papyrological conference in Italy. We eventually published an article on all three texts in Italian in the journal Analecta Paprylogica with a student at BYU, Chiara Aliberti.[1]

Our travels next took us to the Aichi Prefectural University in Nagoya, where we found a small collection of unpublished ancient texts in Greek, hieratic Egyptian, and Coptic (fig. 2), as well as an unpublished Maya ceramic with pseudoglyphs. We published two of the Greek fragments in Japanese, together with the curator of that collection.[2]

We were eager to board the bullet train to our next destination, Okayama, to visit the Okayama Prefectural Museum. Through our previous discussions with the curator, we knew this museum had several Greek and Aramaic texts. We were warmly greeted by the curator and spent a full day closely examining and photographing each of the monuments. In many ways, this museum experience nicely encapsulated many others during our research—excitement followed by disappointment! For example, after translating the longest Greek text in the museum, a beautiful mosaic that once filled the niche of a basilica, we were able to quickly determine that it had been documented back in the late nineteenth century as it went through the antiquities market. Similarly, an Aramaic loculus bust from Palmyra, Syria, with an Aramaic inscription had also been documented once in the distant past. At one point, the curator took us into the back room and showed us a photo of a long and elegant Greek text from the private collection of a man he knew there in Okayama. Our excitement was soon tempered after transcribing and translating it and looking through databases to find that it too had been noted nearly a hundred years earlier as it passed through the antiquities market. However, three other monuments in the museum were unpublished. One was a funeral stele of a woman named Fortuna who died in AD 102/103 (fig. 3) and another of a man named Loukas who died in AD 131, according to epigraphic data. By raking light on the third monument, we translated some of the more damaged portions of the text, yielding Ἀπόλλων ἄλυπε [χ]α[ῖρε], “Apollon, free from sorrow, farewell!” We published an article of our findings in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.[3]

One of the more interesting experiences was our visit to the Tenri Sankōkan Museum in Tenri, just outside of Kyoto. The town serves as the heart of the religious movement known as Tenrikyō, the largest and most successful of the modern Shintō sects in Japan, founded in the nineteenth century by Nakayama Miki (1798–1887). We had been in contact with Akinori Umetani, the curator of the large museum operated by Tenrikyō, and were aware of a Greek inscription in their collection. The monument is in the shape of a tabula ansata and contains a fascinating text that reads, “Terentius Arountios, priest of the gods, together with his wife Quintilia, daughter of Gorgon, set up (an image of) the goat” (fig. 4). This monument, likely from Asia Minor and possibly Pergamon, described setting up an image of a goat as an offering to a deity, such as Pan. It was likely that this inscription at one time accompanied an actual votive image of a goat. Together with a BYU student, Zakarias D. Gram, we published our findings on this monument in the Journal of Epigraphic Studies in German.[4] We additionally found several unpublished Maya polychrome vessels in storage at this museum and several unpublished Egyptian texts that we are currently working on.

Returning to Tokyo, we went to the Middle Eastern Cultural Center in Mitaka, Tokyo, where we found two unpublished Greek epitaphs in their collection, both of which were mislabeled as coming from Palmyra. Based on iconographic and stylistic features, we identified Zeugma as their likely provenance. One of the monuments display two women in a mourning pose with an accompanying text that reads,“Charis daughter of Isidorus (and) Marthas daughter of Artemidorus, who did not cause any pain, farewell!” (figs. 5a-b). We published our findings on these two monuments in the Journal of Epigraphic Studies.[5]

In 130 BC the Silk Road opened trade between the Far East and Europe. In 2004 the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum in the Yamanashi Prefecture of Japan was established to display objects from thirty-seven countries related to the Silk Road. The museum, nestled in a quiet mountainous town, was founded by a Japanese painter, Hirayama Ikuo. We arrived during the cherry blossom season, which punctuated the beauty of this tiny Japanese city of Hokuto. We had been in contact with some of Hirayama Ikuo’s children and grandchildren and arranged for a visit to the museum and also the inspection of items not on display. We were delighted to find three loculi busts from Palmyra with Aramaic inscriptions. We were able to later determine that one of them had been published, one was unpublished (which we are currently writing an article about), and one had been documented in the past but then lost to the scholarly world (fig. 6). We contacted the Palmyra Portrait Project, the largest database of Palmyrene sculpture, and provided the current location of these monuments and contributed photos to the database.[6]

Some of our most pleasantly surprising moments came at the end of our first trip to Japan, when we visited the Shonan Campus of Tokai University at the base of Mount Fuji. We met with Egyptologist Kyoko Yamahana, whose help and support for our project can hardly be overstated. She escorted us to a secured room where they store many of the ancient artifacts in the university’s possession. We spent an afternoon looking at demotic, hieratic, and Greek papyri in their collection. We eventually coauthored with Dr. Yamahana an article on a few of their unpublished fragments from the Roman period.[7] It was just as we were packing up and moving toward the door that Dr. Yamahana offhandedly remarked, “Oh, there are some old stones with writing on them in those [plastic] tubs. Would you like to see those?” That was one of the easiest questions to answer for a pair of linguists! She then pulled out a large tub containing nine alabaster monuments and fragments. Upon investigating them, we realized they all bore texts in Sabaic, the language of the ancient kingdom of Saba.[8] Over the next few weeks, we translated all the texts, one of which was a longer, votive inscription from Ṣirwāḥ (fig. 7).

Together with Dr. Alessia Prioletta of the National Center for Scientific Research, we later published our discussion of these Sabaic and Qatanabanic texts in Semitica et Classica.[9] But the surprises were not over for the day. After we returned to Dr. Yamahana’s office, she happened to mention that she had once seen a collection of Egyptian papyri fragments in a small museum in southern Japan. We asked her if she would give us the contact information for that curator, which she did. After returning to BYU, we contacted this museum, and we decided a second trip to Japan was absolutely needed.

As a result, in 2019, after spending another year contacting museums and individuals in Japan, we set off again for two more weeks of research (and sushi!). We ended up going back to Tokai University and met with Dr. Yamahana, this time to photograph a lead lamella, a tiny metal plate, with an inscription containing a spell written in Mandaic, which was in their collection. That same week we also located two other Mandaic lamellae in a private collection in Tokyo, both of which we are still currently working on (fig. 10). We then traveled to southern Japan to visit a small but impressive private art museum in Fukuoka Prefecture to see the Egyptian papyri Dr. Yamahana had informed us about. We were delighted to find a collection of over fifty Egyptian papyri fragments from a mummy cartonnage that had been assembled haphazardly in a frame and glass (fig. 8). We spent three full days separating the papyri and organizing them based on language (demotic, hieratic, and Greek) as well as by periods based on epigraphic styles (fig. 9). We had brought with us conservation materials to preserve the fragments in smaller, related groups between glass (fig. 12). We presented those organized and preserved groupings to the curators at the end of our stay (fig. 12). Among the papyri were some exciting details, such as a rare mention of an “Egyptian Jew,” which we had just presented on at the 2021 Society of Biblical Literature conference. We will be working for many years to come on these fragments.

This museum in Fukuoka Prefecture had other important texts, one of which was an unpublished loculus bust from Palmyra (fig. 11). The Aramaic inscription identifies the woman as “L’wmt, daughter of Kîtôt,” which is the first attestation of the name L’wmt in the entire Palmyrene corpus. Based on iconographic clues, we date the monument to the middle of the third century AD. We recently published this monument and a discussion of the inscription.[10]

As a further example of the ups and downs of this type of research, we also found in Fukuoka a bronze Etruscan mirror with an inscription around its rim (fig. 12). There are more than three thousand known bronze Etruscan mirrors. What made this artifact significant was the length of the inscription, which, after careful analysis of the full corpus of mirror texts, turned out to be one of the longer known mirror texts in existence. About half of the known Etruscan bronze mirrors have an engraved scene on the back, usually depicting a scene from Greek mythology. This mirror was no different, with a finely executed scene, possibly depicting Troilus riding to the well with Achilles hiding behind it. After more hours than we would like to admit studying all other known Etruscan bronze mirrors and all known Etruscan inscriptions, we concluded that the mirror—or at least the inscription—was likely a forgery. Once we deciphered the text (as well as is currently possible with scholars’ still limited understanding of the Etruscan language), we realized that a portion of this mirror text was precisely the same as an inscription on the front side of the Cippus Perusinus monument, a boundary maker discussing the Velthina and Afuna families’ property disputes—a very unlikely message for an elite mirror. Another disappointment to be sure, but the whole process did force us to become much more familiar with Etruscan texts, so it was time well spent after all.

During both of our research trips in Japan, we found a significant number of Egyptian texts (demotic, hieratic, and hieroglyphic) throughout Japan, and based on our research since returning, many appear to be unpublished (fig. 13). One Egyptian hieratic cloth fragment contains an interesting version of chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead that we hope to publish in the next year. In addition, we discovered an unpublished offering table made of dark granite that mentions Amenirdis II, who was the daughter of Taharqa, and daughter of the king (likely Piankhy, but the name has been purposely defaced with his cartouche). The monument seems to date to around the 25th dynasty (747 BC–656 BC).[11] The sheer number of Egyptian texts we documented ensures much more pleasurable research and analysis.

One of the more impressionable experiences we had on our second trip was to find a museum in a small town in Japan that had a handful of Egyptian and Mesoamerican artifacts. We arranged to go see them. We honestly could not have been more shocked when they led us to the basement storage area of the museum, where they had brought out over thirty beautiful Maya polychrome vessels, none of which are known to the scholarly world. We quickly took copious photos and measurements of each because they had given us only an hour to exam the artifacts (fig. 14). Importantly, about half of the ceramics, most dating to the Late Classic period (AD 600–900), had Maya hieroglyphic texts (fig. 15). They also had a series of limestone blocks with hieroglyphic texts that stylistically are clearly from the northern Yucatan. As we hurriedly read the inscriptions of all the ceramics and monuments, we realized that some were personal drinking cups of famous kings, such as one from the site of Tikal. Finding this cache of undocumented Maya texts in a city in the mountains of Japan was startling, but not more than the shape of the museum itself, which was a nearly full-scale replica of a famous pyramid in Mexico, made with limestone imported from France! It was surreal but marvelous to see the influence of the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica extending that far across the globe.

So far, our research has resulted in nine publications based on some of the texts we found, and we hope many more will result. In addition to the items noted above, we also discovered a great deal of other undocumented material, such as large collections of unstudied Coptic textiles. There is still much more to do, so once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, we have a third trip planned to seek out other texts from the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica that have not received their due analysis and publication. The success of such a far-reaching project as this one can succeed only with the help of dozens of individuals and organizations in Japan, and we want to gratefully acknowledge their kindness and support in our efforts as well as the BYU Religious Studies Center and the Department of Ancient Scripture, who most generously funded these research projects.


[1] Lincoln H. Blumell, Kerry Hull, and Chiara Aliberti, “Un’inscrizione Funeraria in Greco in Triplice Copia?,” Analecta Papyrologica 32 (2020): 201–12.

[2] Lincoln H. Blumell, Kerry Hull, and Yoshi Ike, 愛知県立大学の古代ギリシャのパピルス (“The Ancient Greek Papyri of Aichi Prefectural University”), Kotonoha, 第187号 (2018): 1–5.

[3] Lincoln H. Blumell, and Kerry Hull, “Greek Inscriptions in the Okayama Orient Museum, Japan.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 209 (2019): 152–58.

[4] Lincoln H. Blumell, Kerry Hull, and Zakaias D. Gram, “Eine griechische Votivinschrift aus dem römischen Kleinasien im Sankōkan Museum der Tenri Universität,” Journal of Epigraphic Studies 4 (2021): 91–98.

[5] Lincoln H. Blumell and Kerry Hull, “Two Greek Epitaphs in the Middle Eastern Cultural Center in Tokyo, Japan,” Journal of Epigraphic Studies 2 (2019): 77–84.

[6] We are grateful to Dr. Rubina Raja, codirector of the Palmyra Portrait Project, for her considerable help in ascertaining which of these monuments had been published. For more information about the Palmyra Portrait Project, see Andreas J. M. Kropp and Rubina Raja, “The Palmyra Portrait Project,” Syria: Archéologie, art et histoire 91 (2014): 393–408.

[7] Lincoln H. Blumell, Kerry Hull, and Kyoko Yamahana, “Two Greek Papyri from the Early Roman Period in the Tokai University Collection,” Bunmei Kenkyu (Tokai Society for the Study of Civilization) 37 (2018): 183–92.

[8] After further examination and analysis, we later realized some of them were in written in the related language of Qatanabanic.

[9] Alessia Prioletta, Kerry Hull, and Lincoln H. Blumell, “The Ancient South Arabian Collection at Tokai University (Japan), and a Miscellaneous Item,” Semitica et Classica: International Journal of Oriental and Mediterranean Studies 12 (2020): 245–58.

[10] Kerry Hull and Lincoln H. Blumell, “Assessing the Roles of Women in New Syrian Funerary Reliefs in Japanese Collections,” in Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, ed. Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor, and Carolyn Osiek (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021).

[11] See Harold M. Hays, “A New Offering Table for Shepenwepet,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 40 (2003): 89–102.