Conference Abstracts

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Towards a Social Archaeology of Writing

Philip Boyes

University of Cambridge

Especially in the Near East, archaeology and epigraphy have traditionally been very separate disciplines. Archaeologists have not considered written material and epigraphers, philologists and palaeographers have often given little thought to archaeological context, materiality or the social agency of the actual human beings involved in producing the texts they study. This paper will explore what an integrated approach to studying the social context of ancient writing would look like, drawing on the case-study of Late Bronze Age Ugarit. Using a thematic framework drawn from social archaeology, it will identify key areas that must be considered, including agency, material culture, identity (gender, age, status, ethnic and so on), social structure and social change, and how writing is implicated in defining social space, both urban and rural, and people’s relationships with them.

Identifying these areas of interest is only a first step, however, and this paper will use the example of Ugarit to demonstrate some of the difficulties inherent in analysing them when primary archaeological and epigraphic work has not been carried out with them in mind. It will explore methods for overcoming the limitations of the available data and propose some first steps towards a social archaeology of writing in Ugarit.


An Outsider’s Musings on the Meaningful and Embodied Practice, Technology, and Social Agency of (Some) Early Writing Systems

Marcia-Anne Dobres

University of Southern Maine

Abstract TBC.


Scripts’ secondary purposes

Yves Duhoux

Université Catholique de Louvain

Every script, ancient or contemporaneous, implies doses of efficiency, viz. “success in accomplishing the purpose intended” (OED). All the scripts succeed in their basic purpose, writing a language. But secondary purposes do exist and may intervene in the life of the same script. Indeed, a script is a living entity: it comes into being, evolves and dies. And since it is rooted in our human diversity, it may involve many secondary purposes.

The problem with most of the scripts is that we ignore the context of their creation and transformations. It is then often just possible to list some candidates fora successful secondary purpose, without any certainty.

This paper will illustrate a selection of these complexities and limit itself to a few well-known scripts, ancient and more recent. Here is the list of the secondary purposes that shall be considered. Their order is largely arbitrary.

1) Easiness to learn and use: it is, of course, a major issue, but exceedingly difficult to prove for ancient scripts. Alphabets are the most efficient scripts in this respect (e.g. Ugarit’s cuneiform alphabet).

2) Prestige, viz. positive impression made by the very existence and/or the appearance of a script (e.g. Hieroglyphic Egyptian).

3) Expressing social identity (e.g. the Chinese women’s script Nüshu).

4) Economy, viz. the use of the smallest number of characters (e.g. the Lepontic alphabet). It is doubtful that any ancient script has been influenced by this secondary purpose.

5) Comprehensiveness, viz. encompassing the largest possible number of features of the language written (e.g. the IPA: International Phonetic Alphabet).

6) Secret, viz. the use of characters with values deliberately different from the usual ones (e.g. the Caesar cipher).

7) Large diffusion, viz. aiming at a wide transmission of texts (e.g. the Cyrillic alphabet).


Names and authorship in the beginnings of Greek alphabetic writing

Natalia Elvira Astoreca

University of Cambridge

Proper names are a recurrent factor in Greek epigraphic samples of different nature (graffiti, dipinti and stone inscriptions). They are so numerous during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, that it has been argued that this need to identify oneself was one of the motors for the spread of writing in ancient Greece. In fact, an important number of the earliest inscriptions in the archaic Greek alphabets have to do with personal identity or incorporate an identifying element. These include ownership and authorship statements, artisan signatures and dedications.

This paper will explore the formulae that accompany personal names in the earliest Greek alphabetic inscriptions and the materials on which these kinds of texts appear. These analyses aim to work as a methodology to explain the cultural practices behind these specific uses of writing and the meaning of having a basic level of literacy, such as being able to write down your own name, in those socio-cultural contexts. At the same time, we will look at the implications of these texts and their cultural contexts in the development of early Greek alphabetic writing.


Writing and elite status in the Bronze Age Aegean (title TBC)

Sarah Finlayson

University of Heidelberg

The idea that the practice of writing could be used as one component in the construction of elite identities has become well-established in the scholarly literature of the Bronze Age Aegean; it features, for example, in discussions of the significance of the geographical distribution of the Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A scripts in the First Palace Period on Crete (Schoep 2006), and in analyses of the possible motivations for the development of Linear B and how this might have played a part in the reshaping of a palatial elite identity (Bennet 2008).

In this paper, I unpick how this could work in practice; I examine, firstly, what evidence there is for who was making and consuming writing during this period and how they might have conceptualised what they were doing: secondly, how this might differ from the use of other contemporary forms of material culture or practice: and thirdly, the ways in which we have made use of these data in discussions of sociopolitical change. Comparative evidence, for example the use of literate slaves in Imperial Rome, or prestigious language forms in the Classic Maya courts, provides valuable reference points, particularly for considering how writing might potentially be used in different ways to other forms of elite self-expression or definition. Bringing these threads together, I discuss whether it is possible to construct a methodology for understanding how the use of writing might have been framed such that it could be regarded as a source of power or status, and the value of literacies and ‘official’ recording or memory-making.


Literacy beyond the limes: the social and cultural contexts of ogham and Pictish symbol writing

Katherine Forsyth

University of Glasgow

Celtic-speaking peoples of Ireland and Scotland first encountered the technology of writing through contact with the Roman world. A similar stimulus in the Germanic North led to the invention of the runic alphabet, but the result in the Celtic ‘Far West’ was two writing systems which reflect remarkable independence from their Mediterranean models. The ogham alphabet exhibits a number of distinctive characteristics: in its earliest forms it is a 3-D script, typically written across adjacent angled faces of an object. Traditionally, it is written vertically not horizontally with letters represented by bundles of identical parallel strokes, differing only in number (1-5) and relative position. The visual appearance of the graphemes reflects their sound value, with vowels in their own separate category. The perceived usefulness of the ogham script is reflected in the variety of media on which it is found (predominantly epigraphic but also to a limited extent, in manuscripts) and the wide extent of its attestations: it was in active use for over 500 years throughout Ireland and Scotland and in areas of Irish settlement and influence in western Britain. In addition to the roman and ogham alphabets, the inhabitants of early medieval Scotland used a unique pictographic writing system (‘Pictish symbols’) which has defied full understanding (Forsyth 1995). It occurs in a range of archaeological contexts which to a large extent mirror those of ogham in Ireland. The two are usefully studied alongside one another. Interdisciplinary examination of the physical and social context in which ogham and Pictish symbol inscriptions are found throws new light on the nature of literacy in the non-urbanized Celtic-speaking societies of the first millennium AD, and on the intellectual and cultural context of the invention of these unique writing systems, providing insight into their unusual form.


A Script ‘‘good to drink’’. Invention of an alphabet and Emergence of a Religious Movement among the Sora (central India)

Cécile Guillaume-Pey

Yale University

In colonized societies from the 18th century on, we find numerous cases of the appropriation of literacy, a symbol of power-knowledge associated with colonial administration, Christian missions, and the education given by the latter. For groups where literacy campaigns went hand in hand with religious conversion – learning how to read and write generally meant becoming Christian and vice-versa – the ritual uses of writing are consequently numerous. Among the tribal groups of India, populations also named Adivasi – a Sanskrit term that means “first dwellers’’ – we observe various forms of the appropriation of writing. In Central India, where Christian missionaries introduced the Roman alphabet in tribal villages in the 19th century, many graphic systems have been devised and diffused by charismatic leaders belonging to an educated elite to transcribe their language. These creations are generally conceptualized as ‘‘revelations’’ or ‘‘discoveries’’ of graphemes engraved on stones. As in numerous cases of script invention observed in colonized or dominated groups in Africa, in America, or elsewhere in Asia, script inventions in tribal India are often linked to the emergence of socio-religious movements in conflict with a dominant religion or an endogeneous rival institution. My paper will highlight the issues raised by the worship of an alphabet created by the Sora, a tribal group of central eastern India that speaks an Austroasiatic language. Nowadays, Sora are followers of Matharvanam, a religious movement born in the late 1930s and whose founder, Mangaya, designed an alphabet to transcribe his mother tongue. Each letter of this script embodies a deity which the devotees incorporate into themselves through an alphabetic potion drunk during rituals. While in some Adivasi groups the invention of a graphic system gave birth to a militant literature spread by various media, such as village theatre and newspapers, the Sora script is used in a ritual context and its circulation is strictly controlled by religious specialists. I will highlight how the Sora have reshaped writing through ritual, and how the creative appropriation of writing in return plays an important part in the redefinition of their religious practices and of their identity.


The visibility of runic writing and its relation to Viking Age society

Julia-Sophie Heier

Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich

The aim of this paper is to investigate by means of a combined philosophical and archaeological approach the role runic writing played in Viking Age society in Denmark.

The oldest artefacts attesting runic writing date back to the 2nd century AD. The runic script was the writing system of the Germanic people and as it was an epigraphic script, it was carved into objects of various material such as metal, wood or stone. Approximately at the beginning of Viking Age (ca. 800 AD) the system developed in the North, giving origin to a reduced runic-row of only 16 characters. The so-called Younger Futhark was used first and foremost to carve inscriptions into stone. Around 230 runestone monuments from the period 750-1050 can be found within the area of Viking Age Denmark. The inscriptions display a formulaic style, reading “N.N. raised this stone (this monument) in memory of N.N.”. The texts can occur in different reading directions and do not follow a normalized orthography. Additional to that, runestones always appear to be localised in exposed terrain such as bridges, borders or along streets for everybody to be visible.

The question about the role runic writing played in Viking Age society, i.e. who carved the runes and who could read them, is still unresolved. Previous research on runic inscriptions focused mainly on the linguistic and historic interpretation. In this paper writing is looked at from a different perspective, using the concept of visibility of script introduced by Strätling and Witte. They consider script in a dichotomy of visibility and invisibility calling it the paradox of “sichtbare Unsichtbarkeit” (roughly ‘visible invisibility’). Script has to be visible to be recognized as such, but simultaneously always carries the invisible information of the content of its text. Using that as a starting point this paper explores the particular role visibility of both script and archaeological artefact plays regarding the question about the effect runic writing had on society.

Bianchi, Marco 2010: Runor som resurs. Vikingatida skriftkultur i Uppland och Södermanland (Runrön. Runologiska bidrag utgivna av Institutionen för nordiska språk vid Uppsala universitet 20), Uppsala.

Klos, Lydia 2009: Runensteine in Schweden. Studien zu Aufstellungsort und Funktion (Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 64), Berlin/New York.

Strätling, Susanne/Witte, Georg 2006: Die Sichtbarkeit der Schrift zwischen Evidenz, Phänomenalität und Ikonizität. Zur Einführung in diesen Band, in: Susanne Strätling / Georg Witte (eds), Die Sichtbarkeit der Schrift, München. p. 7-18.


The Afterlives of Inscribed Commemorative Objects: the transformation of personal memory in Mesopotamian temple contexts

Nancy Highcock

University of Cambridge

Mesopotamia witnessed a long tradition of private individuals commissioning objects inscribed with dedicatory formulae and depositing them in temples and other sacred places. These objects, often made from materials prized for their longevity, could include the name of the individual, his or her profession, and familial relationships. The act of inscription and dedication thus materialized the individual’s social being and perpetuated the individual’s memory for time immemorial. There are however, instances in which this information, or the object itself, was edited or transformed after the initial act (Andersson 2016; Evans 2012, 2016). Though uncommon, this practice demonstrates how personal memory was not immutable or fixed but could be reformulated depending on who was responsible for altering the inscribed object and the ways in which it was altered. The phenomenon is, however, much better known for cylinder seals: objects that were also inexorably linked to individual identities and contained much of the same information as commemorative objects found in temples. A comparison between the two practices highlights a shared conceptual framework as well as fluid praxis.

By analyzing inscribed commemorative objects against a larger material backdrop of inscribed objects like cylinder seals, this paper will explore how personal memory was constructed, perpetuated, transformed, and sometimes, even disrupted. The combined act of inscription and dedication did not constitute the final relationship between human, object, and divine recipient, but rather formed one social/temporal dimension for an object that continued to “make memories” beyond that of the original act. With both commemorative objects and cylinder seals, the altering of the object and/or its inscription also highlights individual choice and demonstrates that multiple practices regarding these objects and their roles as markers of identity and personal memory could co-exist within greater fundamental conceptions about personhood in ancient Mesopotamia.

Andersson, Jakob (2016). “Private Commemorative Inscriptions of the Early Dynastic and Sargonic Periods: Some Considerations,” in Balke and Tsouparopoulou (eds), The Materiality of Writing in Early Mesopotamia, (Berlin: de Gruyter): 47-71.

Evans, Jean (2012). The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture: An Archaeology of the Early Dynastic Temple. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Jean (2016). “Materiality, Writing, and Context in the Inana Temple at Nippur: The Dedicatory Objects from Level VIIB,” in Balke and Tsouparopoulou (eds), The Materiality of Writing in Early Mesopotamia (Berlin: de Gruyter): 165-82.


Script, Image, and Elite Culture in the Maya World: A Southeastern Perspective

Kathryn M. Hudson, University at Buffalo

John S. Henderson, Cornell University

By examining Maya writing in the southeastern Maya lowlands, this paper explores the complex interrelationships between the degree to which the semantics of Maya writing combined linguistic elements and imagery and the degree of cultural and linguistic variability in the region where the system was deployed. The Maya script was used from the third to sixteenth centuries AD. During this period, it underwent major transformations and was used – and influenced – by societies with substantial cultural and linguistic differences. The issue of how Maya writing was embedded within the varied cultural systems of these societies is thus particularly complex. Maya writing corresponded to a distinct Maya culture: it was developed and used by the ruling aristocracies of lowland city-states, a group that represented an international Maya elite culture that cut across many Maya societies. However, it was distinct from local cultural – and, arguably, linguistic – systems.

A striking feature of Maya writing is the degree to which script and imagery are intertwined, forming a single system of signification tailored to the cultural understandings of a particular audience. This is partly a response to cultural and linguistic variability within the societies where it was used; texts at Copán and Quiriguá, near the southeastern edge of the Maya world, provide an ideal case for exploring the relationship between cultural variability and textual reliance on both script and imagery. Cultural variability in the region was extreme and included local Maya and non-Maya groups as well as foreign Cholan-speaking aristocrats from Guatemala’s Petén region and Teotihuacanos and/or Teotihuacanized Maya immigrants from the western Maya lowlands. This diverse mosaic in both local societies and elite culture motivated the region’s heavy reliance on imagery in texts and offers an ideal context in which to develop an archaeology of Maya writing.


Towards socio-graphematics: Learning and adopting lapidary script(s) in the multilingual/multi-ethnic environment of Egypt during the 8th century BCE

Claus Jurman

University of Birmingham

The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script is iconic in more than the literal sense. It provided the initial focus of scholarship conducted during the early 19th century and has come to be viewed as embodying the essence of Egyptian civilisation.

Despite its “iconicity”, however, the number of studies devoted to the diachronic, diatopic and diastratic developments of the hieroglyphic script varieties and associated practices – in contrast to studies on the stages of the Egyptian language itself – is surprisingly small.

Research on the graphematic and semiologic principles of Egyptian hieroglyphs has tended to treat the writing system as an abstract and rather static construct whose existence and functionality transcended the realm of common human agency and social interaction. Accordingly, the materiality of the hieroglyphic script and its nexus with societal practices (e.g. learning the script, producing its material manifestation, choosing sing forms, spellings, spacing etc.) are usually sidelined to the odd comment on text transmission, palaeography or artisanal hands.

While two new research projects investigating the cursive, primarily non-lapidary, scripts of hieratic and demotic respectively intend to incorporate questions of the social and pragmatic contexts of script development into their palaeographic approach, comparable studies of hieroglyphic inscriptions are still missing.

In my paper I would like to present a new approach to hieroglyphic monuments which probes the potential of enquiries informed by “socio-graphematics” and the cognitive sciences. As a test case I will be looking at a corpus of votive stelae from Saqqara which were created during the 8th century BCE in a social context defined by the interaction of literate priests, potentially illiterate or semiliterate “warlords” of Libyan descent and craftsmen employing different techniques and script varieties. If the pilot study proves to be successful, there are prospects of developing a larger project in cooperation with the Egyptian Department of the Louvre and other institutions.


Writing systems invented by non-literates and what they tell us

Piers Kelly

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Our understanding of the first writing systems in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica is drawn from a fragmentary archaeological record. In spite of this, palaeographers have managed to produce excellent decipherments, datings and classifications. Yet there is less certainty about how writing systems evolved from generation to generation at the hands of their first communities of users. Theorists including Tylor ([1865] 1878), Diringer ([1948] 1968) and Gelb ([1952] 1963), have suggested using better-documented modern inventions of writing by non-literates, such as the Cherokee, Vai and Bamum scripts, as models for reconstructing the evolutionary trajectories of writing systems. I argue that such ‘emergent’ scripts, created in colonial contexts, share certain common characteristics with one another in terms of their linguistic encoding strategies, the graphic evolution of their letter forms, and even the social dynamics of their production. Moreover, many of these features are prefigured in pristine inventions of writing in the ancient world. From the outset, both types of systems have a tendency to target linguistic morphology, are typified by visual complexity and are associated with highly circumscribed political institutions. Later renditions are visually simpler, increasingly phonetic, and more codified. The fact that non-literate reinventions of writing converge on similar sets of solutions suggests that they have important heuristic value for tracing the formative dynamics of early writing systems.


Connectivity and competition: alphabets as identities in Italy

Katherine McDonald

University of Exeter

It has long been recognised that written texts not only convey a verbal message to a reader, but also make visual statements about the writer’s community and identity. Salient features can include the layout, the context of display and the language of the inscription, but the script of the inscription itself may also communicate something meaningful to both serious readers and casual passers-by. Work by Nino Luraghi (Classical Antiquity 29.1, 2010) has hypothesised that differences of local script were amplified in neighbouring Greek cities whose dialects were similar. Is this conclusion plausible, and can this argument be applied to ancient Italy?

By looking at a selection of languages of pre-Roman Italy, including Venetic, Etruscan and Oscan, this paper considers the role of alphabets in presenting the collective identity of cities in the first millennium BC. It asks whether alphabets could, through official inscriptions and coins, be felt to represent a city to the outside world. It also examines whether it is valid to include personal inscriptions by members of the elite as expressions of a city’s collective identity.


Cultures of Writing: The Invention and Re-Invention of Greek Writing in Context

Theo Nash

University of Michigan

The Greek language was first recorded in writing during the Late Bronze Age, using a syllabary now called Linear B, developed from the earlier Linear A of “Minoan” Crete.  For 250 years, it was inscribed in the wet clay of administrative documents, but no broader literary culture appears to have developed, and the script disappeared with the collapse of the palatial system.  Perhaps 400 years later, Greek writing was developed afresh, this time from a Phoenician model, in the form of the alphabet which would, in time, encode everything from poetry to philosophy, law codes to letters.  This double invention of Greek writing offers a unique opportunity to explore how scripts can emerge in the same region, and encode the same language, yet take in each case a fundamentally different form and follow a different trajectory.  Medium, utility, and even what might be thought an essential, internal issue – the structure of the system and how the language is recorded – were all heavily influenced by the two scripts’ external contexts.  Emerging from this is the view that, though a new writing system designed for a specific language might seem intrinsic to, and embedded in, the society that developed it, cultures of writing are broader than any one script or language.  Though focusing on Mediterranean cultures of the second and first millennia B.C., I aim for broad applicability in approaching the idea of an “archaeology of writing systems” by creating a framework for the understanding of individual writing systems within broader cultural ecosystems.


How to decrypt the secret writings of the Masters of psalmody (Yunnan, China)? Words beyond writings

Aurélie Névot


The study of the ritual practices of the Yi-Sani shamans (Yunnan, China) called bimos, i.e. “Masters of Psalmody”, requires access to the writings they chant in order to communicate with their divinities. Their manuscripts are said to contain “secret words”. How can we access such “secrets”? By sharing my experience as an anthropologist, the intention is here to discuss the methodological approach I developed in the field in order to understand bimos’ texts, and the huge problem of translation I constantly have to face because of the specificity of the cultual context in which those writings are involved.

Indeed, if the apprenticeship I followed beside one bimo in particular allowed me to fully translate a ritual manuscript dedicated to a territorial cult, I understood later, by having to translate other manuscripts coming from other ritual lineages, that learning with one bimo doesn’t help to understand all the Yi-Sani corpus. I had then to refer to other Masters of psalmody. Little by little, I logically began to develop a kind of textual comparatism, and I put into perspective the different discourses of the bimos I met; the analysis of their comments on what their writing is gave finally access to their conception of secrecy: it is first connected to lineage transmission; writing refers to the blood transmitted from master-father to disciple-son. And because writing is (lineage) blood, each lineage has scriptural specificities. Bimos’ lineages reinforce the secret nature of their ritual speech by omitting to write certain characters which therefore remain invisible. Thirdly, a sign may have different meanings; it expresses a double discourse if not a meta-language. Hence, because bimo writing is encrypted, the presence of the owner of the manuscript is necessary to its translation. In other words, the latter implies transmission between individuals and the use of oral communication.


Materiality of the Cretan Hieroglyphic Script: Textile Production-related Forms of Hieroglyphic Signs on Seals and Sealings from Middle Bronze Age Crete

Marie-Louise Nosch, SAXO-Institute

Agata Ulanowska, University of Warsaw

The increasing understanding of textile technology and recent developments of textile studies have made it possible to recognise several references to the chaîne opératoire of textile making in the glyptic iconography from the Aegean Bronze Age. Textile production-related motifs already distinguished comprise references to raw materials (e.g., depictions of woolly animals and fibrous plants), weaving (e.g., loom weights and warp-weighted looms), as well as symbolic references, such as spiders. Textile production seems to be particularly well represented in the imagery of the Middle Bronze Age prismatic seals from Crete where at least every tenth seal (out of c. 600 examples preserved) bears a depiction of loom weights.

Inscriptions in the Cretan Hieroglyphic script were also engraved on this type of seal. The graphic form of several hieroglyphic syllabograms has already been recognised as a schematic depiction of physical objects (animals, plants, tools, etc.) that, furthermore, represented speech sounds. These included the syllabogram CHIC 041, representing a piece of textile with fringes. In this paper, we argue that more textile production-related motifs may have been encoded into the schematic form of the Cretan Hieroglyphic syllabograms. While presenting this new iconographic interpretation and our research methodology, we will compare the schematic forms of the signs with other motifs in glyptic dating to the same period and possibly representing the same physical objects. We also observe the visual similarity of some of the discussed motifs with motifs that were present in the Mesopotamian glyptic, though the dates of these are one millennium earlier than the prismatic seals from Crete.

The presented study has been undertaken within a research project ‘Textiles and Seals. Relations between Textile Production and Seals and Sealing Practices in Bronze Age Greece’ funded by the National Science Centre, Poland in the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw (UMO-2017/26/D/HS3/00145) and directed by A. Ulanowska.


A Cognitive Archaeology of Writing: Concepts, Models, Goals

Karenleigh A. Overmann

University of Colorado

Though words on a page may appear static, permanent to the degree that paper persists and ink is legible, writing is a material form that changed over millennia to become highly capable of eliciting specific behavioral and psychological responses in its users. In understanding how early societies became literate, it goes without saying that ancient brains cannot be studied directly. However, neuroscience provides insight into ontogenetic change in literacy, and the archaeological record provides material forms like writing that attest behaviors like handwriting and imply psychological processes like object-recognition and language. Change in material form then implies change in behaviors and brains. Such analysis requires a material record with sufficient duration and extent, as well as a cognitive state understood well enough that change in material form can suggest change in behaviors and brains. Initial analysis of Mesopotamian writing for language and numbers (Overmann, 2016, 2017) yields insight into how mundane use of writing by average people ultimately develops into cultural systems so complex they cannot be realized by single individuals or generations alone. It illuminates how distinct neurofunctional and behavioral pressures influence written forms for language and numbers, affecting how such forms change across languages and cultures (Overmann, 2018). It also has implications for current models of tool use, cognition, and creativity, which focus on individual, rather than group, tool use. Future applications might develop models with nominal timelines, critical changes in psychological processing and script form and function, temporal sequencing, functional interdependencies, and literacy-related social change.

Overmann, K. A. (2016). Beyond writing: The development of literacy in the Ancient Near East. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 26(2), 285–303.

Overmann, K. A. (2017). Thinking materially: Cognition as extended and enacted. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 17(3-4), 354–373.

Overmann, K. A. (2018). Writing system transmission and change: A neurofunctional perspective. 64th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, University of Innsbruck, Austria.


Visual-Iconographic Dimension of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: Meanings Beyond the Surface

Christian Prager

Universität Bonn

The subject of my talk is the written language of the Classic Maya. Maya hieroglyphic writing is a mixed logo-morphographic system that was used between 300 BC and 1600 AD. The sign inventory comprises around 800 elements depicting figurative and abstract objects from the natural environment and material culture, human and animal body parts, heads of humans and animals or portraits of supernaturals, among others. Texts, often associated with images and scenes, survived on more than 10,000 monuments, architectural elements or portable objects. To create a hieroglyphs text signs were “squeezed and stacked” into quadratic or rectangular blocks, the basic structural unit of a Classic Mayan text usually corresponding to the emic concept of a word. Blocks were arranged in double columns, read from left to right and from top to bottom. The elements within a block can be subdivided into main and small graphs, with the main graphs being spatially larger and approximately square in shape, and the small graphs being attached to the periphery of the main characters and oriented along their vertical or horizontal axis. These writing principles are consistent throughout the history of Maya writing, but texts and signs have a high degree of complexity and variation.

Today, we know a range of calligraphic principles, with which not only the individual grapheme, but also words of the Classical Maya have been realized in a variety of ways. The scribes aimed for a maximum of visual splendour and optical variation and possibly even a horror repetitionis existed besides a graphic and artistic horror vacui. This is probably due to the fact that, in addition to the text content, the high aesthetic quality of the overall work as well as the individual skills of its creator should catch the eye: Monotony, conformity and repetition, so it seems to today’s viewer of hieroglyphs, should be avoided, calligraphic variations determine the work of a scribe and his school.

For this purpose a wide range of graphetic and graphemic principles or strategies was available to the scribes and sculptors to generate calligraphic complexity: 1) Block transgression: discrete blocks comprising more or less three or four signs usually correspond to the idea of a word. However, a word spelled with syllables or morphographs can also overlap block boundaries and occupy two or more hieroglyphic blocks. 2) Spelling: Scribes had the option to write words entirely with syllabic signs or by simply using morphographs. Scribal complexity rose by combining morphographs and syllabographs to provide morpho-syllabic spellings of words. 3) Allography and variation: A higher level of calligraphic complexity was further achieved through allographic notation and by modifying the shape and size of graphs. This phenomenon allowed scribes to compose texts that were aesthetically ambitious without repeating signs. 4) Graphotaxis: Within a block, individual graphs could be arranged side-by-side or on top of each other (affixation). They could also amalgamate into one single graph (conflation). In addition, two or more graphs could be partially or completely overlapped (ligature), or one inserted into the other (infixation). Furthermore, the calligraphic principle of transposition and elision is also attested for Maya hieroglyphic texts. Whereas these graphemic and graphotactic strategies affected only the graphic realization of words in the Maya script, the principle of 5) underrepresenting specific word-endings, in contrast, impacted both visual form and pronunciation of the hieroglyphs. Omission through underrepresentation enabled scribes to further graphically vary individual words and texts.

The function and meaning of writing and texts goes beyond its phonographic and discursive property. Texts are visualized language on writing surfaces that extend in a two- and three dimensional space. Writing has thus a visual and communicative (and semotic) potential for which there are no correspondences in spoken language. This visual-iconographic dimension is best described as “notational iconicity” making writing and text “a hybrid construct in which the discursive and the iconic intersect” (Krämer 2003, Writing, Notational Iconicity, Calculus: On Writing as a Cultural Technique). Maya scribes made use of the hybrid property of writing when designing the texts: the bigness or tinyness of inscriptions, the shape of text fields, the play of text and character sizes, the three-dimensionality and “animation” of the graphs, colourful accentuations, the use of different sculpting styles within the same text carriers are some examples of notational iconicity use by by the Maya scribe to design hieroglyph texts in order and to provide them with a further level of communicative meaning. These are “stylistic devices” with semiotic functions that have so far been little researched and which I would like to present and discuss in the context of my presentation.


A family of script practices: deconstructing Mesopotamian cuneiform, reconstructing post-conflict Iraq

Eleanor Robson

University College London

Mesopotamian cuneiform is supposedly one of the most complex scripts of antiquity, and yet it endured for over 3000 years in its heartland of southern Iraq. At its most widespread, in the later second millennium BC, communities across the Middle East—from western Iran to Cyprus, via Egypt and Anatolia—wrote to each other, and for themselves, in cuneiform script. In endured, in some circles, for over a millennium after the widespread adoption of alphabetic literacies. It cannot, therefore, have been such a rebarbatively challenging communication tool as it first appears.

New analytical approaches, developed by UCL’s Research Software Development Group (RSDG) and the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (, easily enable one to generate much more specific vocabularies, grammars, and sign lists specific to particular times, places, and genres. In this light, it becomes an extended family of much more comprehensible, and therefore meaningful and engaging writing practices that are worthy of historical research in their own right.

If we accept the evidence that, in antiquity, cuneiform was more socially and geographically widespread than we thought, what are the implications for rethinking its accessibility to learners today? Barriers to learning remain high, especially in war-torn Syria and Iraq where cuneiform culture is local history. The Nahrein Network is helping local heritage experts, academic historians and history-lovers contribute meaningfully to the long-term social and economic development of post-conflict Iraq and its neighbours. An important component of this work is the development of viable methods and tools for teaching cuneiform script in Arabic, using analytical insights from this research, so that ancient Middle Eastern languages can become local languages once again.


Scribes, Government Bureaucrats, Masons, and the Military Brass: The Social Context of Writing in the Iron Age Southern Levant

Christopher Rollston

The George Washington University

During the Second Temple Period, the scribe and sage Ben Sira compared and contrasted the life of the scribe with that of artisans, namely, people such as the potter, the blacksmith, the farmer, and even the seal maker.  Ben Sira contended that people in such vocations do not have the leisure to acquire the sort of education that marks that of a scribe.  The First Temple Period arguably was much the same as the Second Temple Period in this regard.  Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that those functioning as scribes were not the only members of elite society with formal training in script, orthography, hieratic numerals, and epistolary formulae.  For example, military officers, monarchic officials, and stone masons responsible for lapidary inscriptions would have often also been capable of writing and reading.  This lecture will focus on this evidence, as a window into the social context of writing in the Iron Age Southern Levant.


A graphic sign of identity? History and meaning of an arrow-shaped alpha

Olga Tribulato

Valentina Mignosa

Università Ca’ Foscari

The scanty epigraphic corpus of the indigenous peoples of Sicily — who between the 6th and 5th century BC recorded their languages in the Greek alphabet — lacks distinctive extra-linguistic features that set it apart from Greek texts. One element, however, is often mentioned in the literature as peculiar to Sicel inscriptions: the arrow-shaped alpha. This sign has often been regarded as a conscious marker of Sicel ethnic and cultural identity. Interestingly, linguists have been the keenest to uphold such a theory.

In this paper, a linguist and a historian review past approaches to the ‘Sicel’ alpha in order to explore two separate but related issues: 1. Why have linguists chosen to assign cultural significance in the ‘Sicel’ alpha? 2. Do available Sicel inscriptions really support the above interpretation of this sign?

In the first part of the paper Olga Tribulato will review the theoretical tenets behind the cultural interpretation of the ‘Sicel’ alpha, discussing to what extent linguists have been willing to take archaeological data into account. In the second part of the paper Valentina Mignosa will approach the same issue from a historical perspective. Starting from an up-to-date overview of the distribution of the arrow-shaped alpha in the Sicilian epigraphic record, she will review the issue by looking at the epigraphic habit specific to Sicel contexts. The different distribution of epigraphic records throughout eastern Sicily will serve as a key-factor to assess whether there exists a connection between epigraphic habit and the socio-political relevance of Sicel villages (or areas).

By combining linguistic and historical perspectives, we aim to provide a better understanding of the epigraphic dimension of the ‘Sicel’ alpha in the context of both the history and the ‘archaeology’ of the Sicel writing system.


Why did people in medieval Java use so many different scripts?

Alex West

Leiden University

Medieval Java produced an extraordinary range of different scripts, all of them Brahmic alphasyllabaries. These scripts were used to write several languages, chiefly Sanskrit, Old Javanese, Old Malay, and Old Sundanese, from the fifth century CE on. As few manuscripts have survived from before the sixteenth century, nearly all of these scripts are known from inscriptions in andesite, copper, and bronze, many of them from only one or two texts. These inscriptions give glimpses into what must have been a fascinating and fertile scribal culture: One script is only found on bronze mirror handles; another, consisting of rectangular blocks with indentations, is known from a single thirteenth-century bronze slit-drum. Some scripts, like those from the fifteenth-century temples at Ceto and Sukuh, are monumental and protrude from the surfaces of the stones on which they were written, while others, like that of the Singosari inscription (1351 CE), are thin and elegant, perhaps attempting to replicate the look of manuscripts written with a brush pen. There is comparatively little continuity of form.

I will attempt to explain this variation with reference to the island’s hot and humid environment, which ensured that few palm-leaf manuscripts survived longer than a few decades, and to the Javanese concept of laṅö, or ‘aesthetic experience’. Changes in the forms of graphemes built up over time as copyists were forced to rely on recently produced manuscript exemplars, and such changes were encouraged in any case by a notion of beauty that stressed the peculiar and innovative. These Javan writing systems should perhaps best be seen as artforms in their own right, understood as expressions of a wider emphasis on aesthetic appreciation in elite life. In contrast to earlier scholarship, particularly Casparis’s Indonesian Palaeography (1975), typologies of these scripts should stress their diversity rather than their unity.


Why με? Personhood and agency in Greek inscriptions (800-550 BCE)

James Whitley

Cardiff University

One of the most striking features of many of the earliest Greek inscriptions is the frequent use of the first person, either in the nominative or the accusative. If we are no longer surprised by this usage (I am the cup of Nestor, I am the cup of Qorax) perhaps we should be, as it does not seem to be a feature of either Linear B or early Phoenician inscriptions. This paper argues that we should look at the usage in the light of debates about agency (sensu Gell 1998) and personhood (sensu Strathern 1988 or Fowler 2004) in early Greece, debates which affect literary (Dodds 1951; Snell 1975), historical, archaeological as well as strictly epigraphic studies (as discussed in Whitley 2018). This paper will first look at this usage in relation to four bodies of early (8th-7th Ct) Greek inscriptions (from Methone in Greek Macedonia, from the sanctuary of Apollo at Eretria [Janko 2015], from Mt Hymettos in Attica and from Kommos in Crete). It will argue that (regardless of letter forms) this convention – the use of ειμι or με – is common in the earlier period, but that patterns of literacy (or rather forms of human-thing entanglement involving writing [Whitley 2017]) in these regions diverge quite sharply in the 6th century BCE.  Another look will be taken at the use of the first person on Attic black-figure of the earlier part of the 6th century. Inferences about how this preference might relate to distinctively Archaic Greek forms of personhood will then be drawn.

Dodds, E.R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Fowler, C. 2004. The Archaeology of Personhood: An Anthropological Approach. London and New York: Routledge.

Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Janko, R. 2015. From Gabii and Gordion to Eretria and Methone: the rise of the Greek alphabet. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 58 (1), 1-32.

Snell, B. 1975. Die Entdeckung des Geistes: Studien zur Entstehung des europäischen Denkens bei den Griechen. 5th edition. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht.

Strathern, M. 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Whitley, J. 2017. The material entanglements of writing things down. In L.C. Nevett (ed.). Theory in Ancient Greek Archaeology: Manipulating Material Culture (Proceedings of the First Conference held at the University of Michigan), 71-103. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Whitley, J. 2018. Style and personhood: the case of the Amasis painter. Cambridge Classical Journal 64, 178-203.