The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.


Questions during Natalia’s paper.

For me one of the most (happily!) surprising things was that I could take so much from papers that focused on completely different disciplines and/or geographical areas and time periods from what I work on. Rather than pigeonholing any one researcher as an archaeologist or epigraphist or anthropologist or linguist or historian, as we often do, what this highlighted was that the phenomenon of writing can’t be studied from one point of view alone. To understand writing as a system, or a practice, or a concept, we have to take as wide an approach as possible, and we need a thorough understanding of the social and cultural context in which it was taking place.

So onwards, as promised, to some thoughts on recurring themes:


The relevance of more modern writing practices to our understanding of ancient ones

We had four papers that were focused on more modern writing in areas of the world that I was much less familar with: Aurélie Névot on psalmodic writing of Yunnan province, China; Cécile Guillaume-Pey on the sacred alphabet used by the Sora people of India; Alex West on the different scripts used in medieval Indonesia; and Piers Kelly on ’emergent scripts’ of the Pacific, east Asia, Africa and the Americas. Before hearing these papers I assumed they would provide interesting comparanda – but after hearing them I realised that they completely changed the way I think about writing by showing a range of possibilities I had never considered before.

Aurélie showing us a video of the psalmodic chanting that related closely to the writing traditions she studies.

Aurélie and Cécile especially highlighted how much more we might be able to know about ancient writing practices if we were able to observe them. Both are anthropologists, who had gone out to speak to the people whose writing they study, making it possible to learn about those people’s traditions, their attitudes to writing, the relationships between writing and identity or between writing and oral traditions. This is information we can never hope to access directly for the ancient world, but it gives us an important reminder that we should be open-minded and even imaginative when we try to interpret social contexts of writing or features that may look odd or out-of-place because of the (often quite restricted) preconceptions we inevitably bring to our research.


Links between the context of writing and script structure

One aspect that I think was especially clear in Aurélie Névot’s paper is that the structure of a writing system is closely if not entirely dependant on its context of use. The bimos (‘masters of psalmody’) of Yunnan produce texts that have been considered completely untranslatable because of the obscurity of their script. But as she has shown, this is because they are the product of a deliberately secretive master-disciple tradition, with variation (e.g. changing the meaning attached to individual signs) that corresponds to each new master-disciple relationship. If she hadn’t been able to observe these traditions being practised it would have been an incredibly difficult task to decipher a system whose structure and sign values can change in relatively short periods of time.

Bimo writing, image from here.

Several papers touched on the linguistic structure of writing systems, but it was really refreshing to see these treatments embrace more rounded perspectives. Piers Kelly saw the frequency of alpha-syllabaries among emergent scripts as related to morphological analysis (i.e. the importance of breaking words into constituent units rather than purely sound-writing / phonography), while Alex West mentioned that a kind of structural awareness is embedded in the terms used for signs of the Javanese alpha-syllabary: aksara for each syllable sign, and sandhangan meaning “clothing” for each diacritic attached to modify the vowel of the syllable.

Cast of the Nikandre Kore, MoCA, Cambridge

Natalia Elvira Astoreca (our own Natalia from the CREWS project), meanwhile, showed that language awareness might just be one of a range of reasons behind particular types of script structure, while factors such as the cultural role of inscriptions and recording of personal names can also be important motivations (e.g. for developing vowel notation in the case of the Greek alphabet). While many studies of the development of the Greek alphabet from Phoenician have concentrated on structural features of the script, they have tended to overlook the nature of those earliests surviving inscriptions: a great number of them commemorate individuals in one way or another, e.g. in monumental statues like the Nikandre kore pictured to the right, or in personal dedications of vessels in sanctuary contexts. Natalia emphasised the ways in which these uses of writing interacted with the the development of the writing system itself.

Ogham inscription, 5th C AD. Image from here.

Even the order of signs in a script can respond to social, cultural and material concerns, as we saw for northern European scripts of the 1st millennium BC. The order of signs in the Runic Futhark (f, u, þ, a, r, k…), which was the subject of Sophie Heier’s paper, is a bit of a mystery given the script’s apparent relationship to Mediterranean alphabets. Does the non-ABC order represent distance or an assertion of identity? The non-ABC order of the Ogham alphabet, on the other hand, could be due to both practical and linguistic concerns as Katherine Forsyth showed us. This is clearly a writing system driven by a close relationship with the materiality of documents inscribed with it – it works on the basis of the object providing a suitable writing area, as the script’s signs are designed to be placed on either side, across or on the edge of a corner. We know quite a lot about how the script worked because Irish writers described the system in detail, in works including one commonly known as the ‘Ogham Tract‘. Katherine’s paper included a most elucidating analysis of the relationship between the order of signs and the syllabification and occurrence of consonant clusters in the underlying language, relying on minimising confusability between similar-looking signs. The way Ogham script is arranged on an object makes such avoidance of confusion important if it is to be easily decoded by the reader.


Multi-cultural and multi-lingual contexts, and local responses to writing

Inscription in the local alphabet of Padua, 5th C BC.

We had several papers touching on aspects of writing that relate to multiple groups of people (often speaking different languages) being involved in the transmission and adaptation of writing practices. Katherine McDonald, for instance, showed how local communities in ancient Italy used distinctiveness in their local alphabets as markers of local identity that also interact with other social customs. The nearby Venetic cities of Padua and Este had alphabets with different sign/value repertoires as well as very different customs as to the shape and iconography of (especially funerary) inscriptions. This sort of local distinctiveness also featured strongly in Valentina Mignosa and Olga Tribulato’s paper on the ‘arrow-shaped alpha’ used in Greek-alphabetic Sicel inscriptions from Sicily. They revisited long-standing assumptions about its significance, but from a much more integrated and interdisciplinary point of view that considered language, epigraphy and historical context. (We were very sad that Olga was not able to join us in the end but we know she was with us in spirit.)

mayan mat.jpg
Stela J from Copán.

Also with us in spirit (but sadly not in person due to a cancelled flight) were Kathryn Hudson and John Henderson, who were due to speak about writing in the southeastern lowlands on the fringes of the Mayan world. I had the pleasure of reading out their paper – I hope I didn’t do too badly with pronouncing Mayan names! They emphasised that people using Mayan writing in this peripheral area were making different and distinctive choices in writing practices, set against a diverse multilingual background – even though local elites had links with the more central Mayan Petén region and could use that to their advantage. The differences surfaced in a range of phenomena, from odd-looking date configurations to unusual integrations of script with imagery. Particularly striking is the complex of interlaced text fields in Stela J from Copán, dedicated in 702 AD by Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, and made to look like a woven mat – an image also common in Mesoamerican iconography and often related to legitimation of authority.

Several other papers showed ways in which linguistic and cultural contact made a difference to writing practices. For instance, Claus Jurman spoke about the multi-ethnic background to the appearance of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing in the 8th C BC stelae from Saqqara, which show a blend of influences from illiterate locals (including newer population groups arriving from Libya in the Third Intermediate Period) and literate priests, as well as from different techniques used to produce the inscribed monuments. He used the term ‘socio-graphematics’ for this relationship between writing and social context.

Statue of Osorkon I with added Phoenician inscription of Elibaal, 10-9th C BC. Image from here.

Multilingualism and multiculturalism can also play a role beyond the local level as groups of people come into contact across wider geographical distances. Christopher Rollston, whose paper looked at the writers behind inscriptions of the southern Levant in the later 2nd and earlier 1st millennia BC, showed some examples of inscribed objects where an earlier Egyptian hieroglyphic text gave a sort of ‘added value’ to later text added in Phoenician. The Phoenician inscription of Elibaal from Byblos in the Levant appears on a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Osorkon I that bears his Egyptian hieroglyphic cartouche; the Phoenician text is added in flowing, slanting lines around the Egyptian cartouche. In fact, repurposing objects and changing them by adding an inscription is not so unusual and can be observed in plenty of other cases. But there is a specific cultural context here, and one that involves the long-distance political relationship between Phoenicia and Egypt, as well as issues of elite behaviour and prestige objects. The eastern Mediterranean is an area that has long had very high levels of mobility and contact, which contribute significantly to the spread of writing – which is indeed one of the reasons why I chose case studies from the Levant to plays central roles in CREWS project research.

Cup from Kea bearing a Linear A ideogram of a cup.

Continuing with the theme of contact, Theo Nash’s paper on adaptations of writing in the Aegean (both Linear A>B and the Greek alphabet) gave a very nice illustration of the importance of long-distance contact to the spread of writing. Linear A is best attested on Crete, but inscriptions also turn up on the Greek mainland and across several Greek islands including Thera, Kea, Melos, Samothrace, etc. But the ways in which these outlying areas used Linear A differed considerably – they were not all buying the same whole package of writing complete with administrative documentation. So there are some inscriptions from these areas that show unusual or innovative features, such as this cup from the island of Thera, playfully incised with an ideogram for itself.

Sarah Finlayson also spoke about the development of Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B writing, and emphasised the role of local elite behaviour – a phenomenon that should be seen as more of a scale than a dichotomy. Writing could clearly be appropriated by powerful individuals and groups to legitimise their authority, but crucially this must have been done within a framework of ideas and objects already or newly associated with social value. There was even an interesting interaction between Theo and Sarah’s papers as Sarah borrowed and adapted one of Theo’s slides for her own presentation:



Colour (especially red!)

Marcia-Anne Dobres gave a paper approaching the technology (or techne) of writing from an anthropological point of view, and one of her points related to the community efforts that went into creating particular visual effects. Colour is important here, and in fact I realised that I had never really stopped to consider what sorts of pigments might be used in painted images or inscriptions, or how they were made and from what materials: they are the result of a deliberate harnessing of natural materials and human skills to create specific desired effects. The Mayan Battle Mural from Cacaxtla is an impressive example of the use of pigment mixes to individualise the winners and homogenise the losers in both its image elements and name glyphs.

battle mural.jpg
Mayan Battle Mural from Cacaxtla. Image from here.
Lingsberg runstone. Image from here.

In fact, already on the first day of the conference we were struck by the importance placed on colours by different societies, and especially a typological preference for red to highlight certain parts of inscriptions. Christian Prager first raised this in his paper looking at the visual aspects of Mayan writing, where glyphs denoting calendar dates were often ‘highlighted’ in red, visually separating them from other sequences. And sure enough, several other areas of the world turned out to use similar highlighting, including northern Europe as demonstrated in Sophie Heier’s paper on Runic inscriptions, which directly followed after Christian’s. The importance of colouring in Runestones also raised the question of maintenance and long-term engagement with inscriptions – the inscription had a life beyond the initial moment of creation (on which idea, see more below), with continued engagement as it played a prominent visual role in its landscape and required repainting to maintain its colour and appearance.


Lives of inscribed objects and places

This last example of the long-term maintenance of Runic inscriptions, like the re-used Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription also mentioned above, raises the issue of inscribed objects and their lives beyond the moment of inscription. This was specifically the focus of Nancy Highcock’s paper, as part of a project she is working on involving private objects with cuneiform inscriptions. One particularly nice example was from an Early Dynastic inscribed statue commissioned by a man named Urakkila, who was originally recorded as a barber but later had this changed to reflect his new role as a city elder. Remember that this is an inscription on stone, and must have been changed after the period of its initial deposition in a temple – which must have involved removing the statue, getting its inscription changed and putting it back later.

Inscribed plaque of Urakkila. Image from here.
Stele RS 6021.jpg
Stele of Dagan. Image from here.

Shifting the focus from inscriptions to inscribed objects in itself opens up new ways of thinking about writing. Philip Boyes’s paper (=Philip from the CREWS team, and organiser of the conference) began with an expansive view of social-archaeological theory and the ways in which it can be brought to the study of writing practices. His examples were drawn from Ugaritic cuneiform writing, with a specific focus on space and place, which exist as constructed features of society that can be inhabited, moved through and interacted with. When we think of someone writing a cuneiform tablet, we tend not to think about the space in which they do it, whether it is inside or outside, how visible or accessible the practice is to others. And visible writing in interactive spaces can then take on new dynamic properties: for instance, what does it tell us about the stele dedicated to the god Dagan (one of few examples of a monumental Ugaritic cuneiform inscription on stone) that it was erected on the site of a destroyed temple presumably once dedicated to Dagan, but never rebuilt? How (and why) did people continue to interact with that space and then with the inscribed stele?

Agora boundary stone. Image from here.

James Whitley’s paper on the Greek alphabet similarly took the wider social context of writing as an important part of its development. When thinking about the creation of inscribed objects, and the persons involved in producing them, in certain societies we may be better to think of ‘dividuals’ and the socially determined, group-based activities they were involved in. The entanglement of writing with objects has an interesting interaction with personhood, and in fact this may be reflected in the concept of the Greek Archaic ‘speaking object’ that addresses the reader in the first person. This is a phenomenon attested across a range of different object types, from drinking vessels to stone stelae. (The boundary stones from the Athenian agora are a nice example, stating “I am the boundary of the agora”, and even interplay with the concept of space and place-marking discussed in Philip’s paper). Natalia also considered the persons involved in producing early Greek alphabetic inscriptions, but from a different point of view that concentrated on their names and identity and the development of the script itself.

Cécile Guillaume-Pey’s paper on the modern writing system of the Sora people of India was extremely elucidating in thinking about the range of possible ways in which people might interact with writing in group cultural activities. The Sora script is strongly localised and holds a divine status in the community in which it is used, to such an extent that they participate in rituals where they ‘drink’ the script itself as embodied in a special potion. This is the sort of activity we could never reconstruct for the ancient world without documentary evidence describing it – but perhaps we should keep our options open when we try to understand what writing meant to the people using it.


Visual complexity and the definition of writing

Writing is a very visual phenomenon, which I hope is a factor that has already made an impression in this post. Scripts are made up of sets of signs that are made in some sort of visual medium, whether they are incised or chiselled or painted or written in ink. They also interact closely with the materials they are written on and the implements they are written with, as well as other visual aspects of the objects and landscapes they are associated with. For instance, the materials used can result in different visual aspects to writing, such as cursive variants: one good example is the flowing appearance of Javanese writing (as shown in Alex West’s paper) when written on the very common medium of the palm leaf – an object sadly unlikely to survive over time.

Palm with Javanese script. Image from here.

I was intrigued by Piers Kelly’s discussion of ways of measuring the visual complexity of signs over time. For some of the relatively recent ’emergent’ scripts he was looking at, the evidence was limited, but the Vai syllabary of west Africa is an intriguing exception – this was invented in the first half of the 19th C and quite good evidence survives of its development over time to the modern day.

west_africa_Vai document_lores1.jpg
Vai writing, c.1849. Image from here.
Development of two cuneiform signs over time. Image from here.

Piers, in collaboration with other scholars, had used various metrics to judge the visual complexity of signs, and observed a significant drop of visual complexity in Vai over time. In fact, this is a feature that can be observed in other scripts too – take cuneiform, which was one of the main examples used by Karenleigh Overmann in her paper on the cognitive developments and processes involved in writing. Beginning from pictorial representation, cuneiform developed into a series of more abstract signs created from the wedge-shaped impressions of a reed stylus. She saw this as a kind of standardisation process, as a result of the brain changing in response to the changing practice of writing – it both begins to recognise the more abstract signs as ‘objects’ in their own right (rather than direct visual referrents to things in the real world) and develops a strong sensitivity to their distinguishing features. All this goes hand-in-hand with learning processes, in training to recall large sets of signs and execute them correctly using the specific sets of materials and implements associated with the relevant writing tradition. Because writing is a complex activity, the brain is being stimulated in many different ways at once: motor skills and coordination, visual recognition and recall, not to mention language retrieval in order to make the right choices in both writing (e.g. how to ‘spell’ a given word) and reading (e.g. eliminating possible ambiguities and choosing the correct interpretation). But this depends strongly on the context of use too, for instance the presence of training and the functions for which writing was being used.

This highlights a major issue in the study of writing systems: every script is different, and there is clearly more to visual complexity than a simple one-way process of simplification. Indeed there are many writing systems that feature a very high degree of visual complexity and maintain it over hundreds or even thousands of years. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan provide good examples of systems whose visual complexity is actually key to their existence, and this related strongly to the ways in which they were used. Christian Prager described the Mayan ‘writing game’, a complex practice that involved integration of text with object or surface, deliberate choices of colour or method of writing (e.g. incised or intaglio signs) and even a deliberate avoidance of repetition (horror repetitionis!). These integral aspects of Mayan send a strong message that we cannot be too restrictive in the ways we think about writing.

ch 1
Cretan Hieroglyphic seals showing a person with a loom (top) and a set of signs including one representing cloth (bottom left). Images from here and here.
At one point the problem of what counts as a ‘proper’ writing system came up, but we were quick to move past this: in essence pretty much all definitions of writing are arbitrary and rely on false distinctions, for example between language representation and other forms of communication, or between writing and art. This was very clear in Marie-Louise Nosch and Agata Ulanowska’s paper on Cretan Hieroglyphic, with an eye-opening presentation of signs depicting elements of textile production. Some of the signs have previously been accepted as signs of the ‘writing system’ while others have been thought of as ‘only’ artistic elements – but what is clear is that there is a coherent system of reference to craft activity, which also indicates the social importance of textile production and its relationship with writing. Taking a more integrated and contextual approach to inscribed objects makes it all the more obvious that we should not be too quick to try to separate ‘writing’ from ‘art’.


Thanks and biscuits

I hope you have enjoyed this foray through my experiences of the conference. I want to add that huge thanks are owed to Philip for putting the conference together, from concept through to all the practical arrangements – as well as to everyone who took part, for turning it into such a success and above all such a pleasant experience full of happy-looking people having fascinating conversations. We were really delighted with all the positive feedback we’ve received, and I felt both proud and humbled when I read this comment from Katherine Forsyth (@morantango) about the gender and age balance of the conference and general atmosphere:

Of course, some of the happiness make have also related to the vast quantities of cake and biscuits we managed to consume, including some of Philip’s legendary Phaistos Discuits!

I also want to give my heartfelt thanks to our funding body, the European Research Council, for making this ambitious conference possible. This meeting has enriched our CREWS project research in so many ways we had not even envisaged, and we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to organise it.


I just want to finish by saying that we very much want to get as much content as we can out to the public, but we do have some obstacles. We were recording during the conference, but we still have to check through files (we are aware there were one or two technical hitches) and check on permissions before we can put anything up. We’ve been set back by a couple of weeks too because of another (and rather excellent) conference at the end of March. When it appears, our conference publication will also be open access, and completely free to read online – so that is something to look forward to next year. Please bear with us if this post has piqued your interest and you would like to hear more, and we will let you know as soon as any related content appears (follow us here and/or on Twitter for updates).

In the meantime you can see some livetweets from the conference via the hashtag #CREWSconf.


~ Pippa Steele (PI of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele


3 thoughts on “Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

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