The death of scripts is something Pippa and I have been thinking about a fair bit recently. We gave a talk about it at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas back in the autumn, and presented a poster at a couple of recent conferences. Why do people stop writing in a particular script? It’s a simple question but one that’s received surprisingly little academic attention, perhaps because almost by definition, evidence for why something stops happening will be scarce. This is true with any tradition or cultural practice, and relates to a broader discussion of how we conceptualise and reconstruct ancient social change. But since writing is one of our key sources of evidence as well as the practice we’re investigating, the problem of evidence is particularly acute there.

The first thing we need to be sure of is that a script really has died out, rather than people merely changing what they use it for or the materials on which they write it. The ancient East Mediterranean offers a good example of this with the case of hieroglyphic Luwian. In the Late Bronze Age, this seemed like a script (and associated language) on the rise. It was widely spoken in Anatolia and seemed to be gaining ground, perhaps even among the Hittite royal elite by the end of the thirteenth century BC. The Hittites used Luwian writing alongside their usual cuneiform script, and it’s best preserved now in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, such as those from the capital, Hattuša. As CREWS Visiting Fellow Willemijn Waal has argued, it may also have been written on wooden tablets.

Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

But with the collapse of the Hittite Empire at the beginning of the twelfth century, Luwian inscriptions entirely vanish from the archaeological record. There are no attestations anywhere in the region. And yet, we know that people were still using the script because it reappears around two centuries later in the Iron Age Syrian successor states that arose out of the old empire. For the script to be preserved, it must have continued to be used during the intervening time on perishable materials. What we see at the end of the Late Bronze Age is not the death of Luwian hieroglyphs, but a change in how they were used that renders them invisible to us for around two hundred years.

In some cases, though, scripts really do seem to disappear completely. Such is the case with Linear B in the Aegean, or alphabetic cuneiform at Ugarit. In both these cases, the explanation initially looks clear: the scripts perished in the violent social, cultural and political upheavals of the end of the Late Bronze Age. The Mycenaean palaces where Linear B was mainly used were destroyed. So was the whole city of Ugarit. It seems natural that the ends of traditions like writing should go along with such destructions, but it’s worth prodding a bit more closely. What actually happens when a building or city is destroyed? Why should this lead to the loss of a script (or, for that matter, a language)?

Pippa’s Lego reconstruction of Mycenaean writing practices – discussed in further detail in the original post HERE.

In the Aegean, we know that it was just the Linear B script that was lost, while the language – Greek – of course continued to flourish. This speaks to the great difference that can exist between a script and language with regards to their degree and contexts of use. In the Aegean, surviving evidence suggests that Linear B was used almost exclusively for palace administration; there seems to have been very little interest in writing for any other purpose. You could argue that lost documents on perishable materials might have been used for other purposes, but if that were the case we would expect at least some traces of writing used outside of administration, such as graffiti or marks of ownership on personal items. We don’t get that. So when the palaces were destroyed and the administration activities the script supported came to an end, there was essentially no need to continue to pass it on and Linear B was lost. We do not know what happened to the Mycenaean administrative centres – only that they experienced destructions involving fire, and their loss was often accompanied by depopulation of surrounding areas and markers of significant social change.

Things were somewhat different at Ugarit, where writing was practised across a much wider range of genres and by a much wider segment of the population. While still overwhelmingly associated with the elite, the alphabetic cuneiform script was used for administration, letter-writing, rituals and magic, inscribing objects with dedications, writing down myths. Other scripts, such as logosyllabic cuneiform, supplemented this range with other genres such as decrees, treaties and international diplomatic missives. Ugarit’s writers weren’t just administrators but politicians, merchants, priests, diviners, exorcists, scholars and more. Ugarit was fully integrated into a Near Eastern world where literate intellectual and administrative traditions were well established, going back centuries. These traditions would survive in the region well beyond the destruction of Ugarit itself.

The ruins of Ugarit. Photo by Wikimedia commons user Feldstein. CC BY-SA

So was the end of writing in Ugarit and the death of the alphabetic cuneiform script just a matter of there being no more Ugaritians left to write? To answer this, we need to think about what actually happened when a Near Eastern city was destroyed. What happened to the people? When were cities rebuilt and when were they not? I was fortunate that as I was considering these issues, I was able to attend a seminar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research given by Dr Igor Kreimerman, who has worked extensively on the sacking of Near Eastern cities. He pointed out the complete destruction of a city wasn’t something that occurred incidentally as part of fighting – Near Eastern cities were made of stone and mud-brick as well as wood: they don’t burn especially easily. If a city was to be utterly destroyed, that would require special effort and would be for a specific purpose that would outweigh the potential benefits of letting it continue and provide tax revenues etc. Usually, a city would only be destroyed if you wanted to make a strong point or if you anticipated being unable to hold it easily long-term. Another thing Kreimerman highlighted, which I hadn’t realised beforehand, was the long delay that could exist between the conquest of a city and its destruction – long enough for it to be thoroughly looted and for survivors of the battle to leave.

So what did happen to survivors? Biblical and other evidence points to harsh treatment for the inhabitants of captured cities: deportation, enslavement or in some cases massacres. Even so, it’s clear that entire populations were not normally wiped out. People had time to leave before battles, and may have had other chances afterwards. There’s little archaeological evidence for mass killings associated with city destructions.

The Assyrian king Sennacherib surveys the captives and booty from the capture of Lachish. 7th C BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

This is borne out in Ugarit, where there are signs of fairly orderly evacuations from neighbouring sites like Ras Ibn Hani. The flight from the city of Ugarit itself looks to have been rather more sudden, but even so, it seems likely some people survived. Some of these people would have been literate, especially since writing wasn’t just limited to the capital. The kingdom of Ugarit shows continuity of small settlements and the swift rebuilding of secondary centres like Ras Ibn Hani. Only the capital was not reoccupied. It seems unlikely that alphabetic cuneiform died out because everyone who knew it was killed in the fall of Ugarit. Rather, those survivors who knew the script simply stopped using it, or else stopped passing it on to others. There are no records as to why this should be, but again it seemly likely that a large part was the end of the institutions which writing supported and the main contexts where it was used: the monarchy, the political entity of the kingdom which needed administering, the temples and their rituals. We can add to this the likely traumatic emotional and ideological resonances of a script that was very much associated with the kingdom of Ugarit, its identity and its attempt to carve a place for itself among the great powers of the day. With the city destroyed, it’s not hard to imagine the script feeling tainted or devalued, even if uses for it could still be found.

So, even in situations of violent crisis, the end of writing practices, like other traditions and customs, comes down to choices people made and their relevance in a changed world. Did people have a reason to write any more? Did they even want to?

The final question raised by this is what even constitutes the ‘death’ of a writing tradition. If there are people who know how but choose not to, did the writing practices die when they last wrote, when they decided not to do so any more or not to pass the skill on, or when the people themselves died? Even in cases where destructions appear neat and total, where a city was wiped out, the death of customs and practices can’t be pinned down to a single incident or event. Instead they’re drawn out and occur through the countless choices made by people in response to a changed social context in which, for whatever reasons, they decide that writing – or a given script – is no longer of value to them.


~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)


6 thoughts on “Why do scripts and writing practices die out?

  1. It may be useful to remind ourselves that the use of hieroglyphic Luwian (HL) outlived that of Anatolian cuneiform for some centuries, and that its final years overlaps with the earliest alphabetic texts. Cyprus exhibits something comparable in relation to alphabetic texts with its continuance of the syllabary, clearly cousin to Linear B.

    The corpora of HL correspondence on strips of lead, such as from Kululu, must be only a fraction of the total actually written. For instance, one farmer was stopped just in time from melting his finds down for bullets. The mix of monumental and cursive forms there appears to indicate the ongoing evolution of orthography, and one may suppose that the Bronze Age “scribes on wood” were indeed the forerunners, or even early contemporaries, of earlier correspondents on lead.

    Scoring signs on lead may show that scoring onto wood could have been just as likely, and perhaps earlier or more widespread, given access to the material. This factor, along with handwriting with fluid on a flat surface, have long been known to produce simplification of symbols in all cultures to cursive forms, and the difficulty of incising curves onto a flat surface further reduced symbols to the “runic” look of some scripts. Chiselling signs onto stone does not impose the same inconvenience as more cursive writing, and later HL texts on stone do indeed exhibit a mix of monumental and cursive forms similar to that on the lead strips. This seems to indicate HL orthography in something of a state of “free fall”, much as in the time of Elizabeth I, when a correspondent would take pride in spelling a word in as many different ways as possible within the phonetic possibilities.

    Taking all in all, I think that writing on wood played a key formative role in the evolution of HL and other scripts, and that the practice should be viewed as “on the critical path”, rather than as a marginal curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On this topic you may care to read the attached review.

    A noteworthy feature of the destruction of Ugarit is the absence of human remains anywhere except in the tombs.

    Congratulations on your fascinating and valuable volume Understanding Relations Between Scripts II. Early Alphabets.

    Alan Millard. Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew & Ancient Semitic Languages, The University of Liverpool.

    5, Saxon Court, Guys Cliffe Avenue, Leamington Spa, Warwicks. CV32 6LY England. ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There has been publicity recently about the 7000-odd languages spoken in the world today and that about one of them per year goes extinct. It strikes me that the circumstances under which a spoken language ceases to be used may stand parallel in general terms to those under which a written language drops from use. Both visual and acoustic media are subject to the centrifugal forces that lead to disruption and death, which are opposed by the cohesive centripetal forces of tradition and religious orthodoxy. Apart from Darwinian competitive pressure, there are political choices, environmental disruptions, and so on, which are likely to affect either or both forms of communication in much the same way. This is a matter of anthropology supported by archaeology and semiotics more than one of straight linguistics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll reply to this comment rather thank your other one (this is Pippa writing – Philip has looked at HL more than I have, though I do agree with you!), but thank you very much for both.

      Just to say that I agree very much that language death is not a simple linguistic issue, and I think considering ‘script death’, and the interplay of script and language, and the wider social and cultural context of both or either, is of great importance. There are a great number of potential factors that could play a role and I think every community of language speakers responds differently to different pressures and changes.


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