It’s very hard to fix a date on most early Tibetan sources. Few of the manuscripts contain an explicit date, and there are often no clues implicit in the text either. Thus we end up placing these manuscripts in time spans that may be much wider than we would like. In the case of the Tibetan manuscripts from the sealed cave in Dunhuang, the range of possible dates begins with the Tibetan conquest of Dunhuang (786/7) and continuing to when the cave was sealed at the beginning of the eleventh century. Thus we have a span of, more or less, two centuries.
In an article in a new collection, I have developed a typology of writing styles practiced during the Tibetan empire, as we find them in the sources that we know come from the imperial period. The styles are (i) epigraphic, the style of the pillar inscriptions; (ii) square, a style used in copies of imperially sanctioned texts from Central Tibet; (iii) sutra, the style of the scriptoriums where hundreds of copies of sutras were made for the Tibetan empire; (iv) official, the style of official scribes, including a headed and headless form; (v) monastic, the informal style used by monks in their own activities of note-taking, commentary etc. There are of course general categories and there is a lot of variation within each style, but each is linked to a particular social context, and so has its own coherent identity.
Now, since there are (as Tsuguhito Takeuchi has previously pointed out) significant differences in style in the manuscripts written after the fall of the Tibetan empire, we should be able to use this typology to help decide whether an undated manuscript was written during the time of the Tibetan empire, or later. So the second part of the article looks at the post-imperial styles, which are much more varied, as one would expect when the imperially standardised systems of teaching writing had broken down. But I don’t want to overstate the usefulness of paleography for dating; some people do make great claims for it, and if they don’t show their methods this makes paleography look like a magic trick. So the article ends with a cautionary note:
While recommending that others put this typology to the test, I would also urge that paleography is best used in conjunction with the other tools available to us. Paleographical evidence should be supported wherever possible by other levels of analysis: on the one hand, analysis of the physical nature of the manuscript, such as paper composition and book format; and on the other, textual analysis, including orthographic and linguistic features of the text. If several of these tools are used together, the case for dating can be made with some confidence.
You can download the full article from the Author page or here.
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And there are lots of other good articles in this volume:
Mark Aldenderfer, Pre-Buddhist Era Phalliform Objects from Kyunglung, Far Western Tibet
Amy Heller, Preliminary Remarks on Painted Wooden Panels from Tibetan Tombs
Gertraud Taenzer, The ‘A zha Country under the Tibetans in the 8th and 9th Century: A Survey of Land Registration and Taxation Based on a Sequence of Three Manuscripts of the Stein Collection from Dunhuang
Zhu Lishuang, A Preliminary Survey of Administrative Divisions in Tibetan-Ruled Khotan
Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, Central Asian Mélange: Early Tibetan Medicine from Dunhuang
Brandon Dotson, The Princess and the Yak: The Hunt as Narrative Trope and Historical Reality in Early Tibet
Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, Neither The Same Nor Different: the Bon Ka ba Nag po in Relation to Rnying ma Phur pa Texts
Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Glegs tshas: Writing Boards of Chinese Scribes in Tibetan-Ruled Dunhuang
Kazushi Iwao, On the Roll-Type Tibetan Śatasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra from Dunhuang