Mandaean Artifacts in the British Museum

Via AWOL and Abnormal Interests, many of us had drawn to our attention the fact that the British Museum has made digital images of some of its collections available online.

I did what anyone would do (well, anyone with my particular interests): I typed in “Mandaean.”

It came up with a few incantation bowls – and one object that made me catch my breath.

The object pictured on the right is a flask dated to the first century, and when I saw the snippet of the catalog entry indicating that this is a flask dated to the first century with a Mandaic inscription, I wondered whether this was a mistake, or a find the importance of which had somehow been overlooked.

As it turns out, the full entry suggests that the flask is from the first century but the writing on it from the fifth.

It would still be worth looking into how the object and the writing on it were dated. But at the very least, hopefully this illustrates the sort of interesting thing you might find if you take a look at what the British Library has made available!

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  • Robert

    The mere fact of an inscription being written on a pot which was already 4-500 years old is fascinating. I wonder why it was still around, and presumably in use?

  • James F. McGrath

    That’s one of the many sorts of questions I have. I wonder how they dated the artifact and the inscription. Did they have some clear evidence that the writing is later, or was it an inference based on the usual date range for artifacts bearing Mandaean script? If the latter, then might the writing on it be closer to the time of the creation of the flask? If so, then this could be a particularly important find. But even so, why would someone write on such an old object? Does this suggest that perhaps they had kept this object as precious? If so, I wonder why.

    I’ve asked for a higher resolution image. I won’t be able to reproduce it, but I can certainly share any thoughts I have once I’ve seen it!


    James, that is excellent thanks for sharing. When I visited Cambridge many many year ago and spoke to Dr Erica Hunter she told me about a program to digitise Mandaic Texts.

    Using my engineering hat, rather than my Mandaic one, is it possible that the flask was made in the same fashion that it was once made centuries before and therefore was dated on that basis (materials, shape, quality)? With respect to the Mandaic text could that be dated based on the script and the language employed? The 5th century, by my understanding, fits in with the known Mandaic language, where as the 1st Century does not.

    Given how quickly our current society modernises and disposes of consumables it is hard to imagine that the same type of flask survived for 4-5 hundred years unchanged. It is equally difficult to assume that there was a mass storage system of such items in a warehouse type of environment. Is this typical of products of that era? My instinct would suggest otherwise as innovation and progress and learning always change and improve.

    This product may have been passed down generations, and that too appears unlikely given that the product appears to be in good condition. Likewise, it may be totally coincidental and unrelated, this flask was purchased from a bazaar or a trader and is totally unrelated in its origin to the writer.

    Do you have any knowledge on where this flask was found? Could that also be a clue.

    What does the text indicate? Is it an incantation to perhaps improve health or ward off evil or encourage pregnancy ? Is any of this known? I know that Dr Matthew Morgenstern has done amazing research on the magic bowls and the like.

    My interest in the text itself is stronger – I am very keen on identifying when and where the Mandaic adapated from an occult heretical society into a mainstream religious society that is devoted to God. The undertones of the occult society permeate throughout Mandaic literature and customs.

    Many thanks and I look forward to any follow up information that you may have on this.
    Brian Mubaraki

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Brian! The museum sent me an image but it isn’t really any clearer than the one on the web site. All the information it gives is that it was purchased from a Mr. Boeman. The writing on the flask sides is only partially intact. 

    If one types in “Mandaic” one gets an even larger number of objects, including what appears to be a photo of the base of the same flask, which is far more legible. We’ll have to see if we can decipher it…