How does writing work as a part of society and culture? That was the question I set out to address when I joined CREWS in 2016. It’s not a complete question, though. Society and culture are specific things, particular to a given place at a given time. No two societies operate in the same way, and culture is arguably even more prone to differences, not just by time and society, but even within societies themselves. As long-term followers of this blog will know, my specific case study has been the kingdom of Ugarit, a small but important Syrian trading power in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries BC. Now, after four years of research, I’ve finally been able to offer up some answers in the form of a book, Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, just published by Oxbow books.
Since excavations began over 90 years ago, Ugarit has been an extremely important site in Near Eastern studies because of its large corpus of surviving clay tablets. Many of these are written in the Akkadian language and the logosyllabic cuneiform script that was used across much of the Near East and East Mediterranean in this period. However, just over half the tablets from Ugarit are written in a different script and language: an alphabetic form of cuneiform used to write the local Ugaritic language. In addition, there are relatively small collections of written material in other scripts and languages such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cypro-Minoan.
Traditional approaches to writing at Ugarit have focused on the content of these tablets: what they can tell us about how Ugarit’s society was organised and its links to the wider Near East. In particular, many scholars have used Ugarit as a point of comparison to understand the earlier history of Levantine scribal culture and the origins of traditions which would give rise to the Bible. Alongside this focus on content, there has also been palaeographic and a degree of material study: close analysis of the changing forms of the signs of Ugarit’s cuneiform alphabet and how they were made on the clay. This is all well and good – much of this research has been exemplary and has allowed us to reconstruct Ugarit’s history and economy in great detail for the period covered by the texts. What it doesn’t do, however, is tell us much about the cultural place of writing itself – how it affected, and was affected by, wider changes in the lives of Ugarit’s people. Indeed, people can often seem a bit elusive in Ugaritian studies, unless they are kings, queens or the small number of literate members of the elite who signed their names to documents. What about all the rest of the population? How was writing woven into the lives of the people of Ugarit beyond the rarefied world of elite administration, diplomacy and literature?
To answer this, we need to think about writing not just as text, or as the relatively self-contained act of marking that text on a writing surface, but as a form of human practice thoroughly woven into a much larger tapestry of social and cultural life. We have to realise that meanings are not fixed by the words in clay, but are ever-changing depending on who is looking and when, what they believe and what they are hoping to do with the inscribed object. We have to focus not just predominantly on inscribed objects, but pay just as much attention to the rest of Ugarit’s material culture. What a tablet is found alongside can tell us a great deal about how it was used and its place within society.
One of the things which quickly became apparent as I carried out my research was how difficult this kind of approach would be. Path-dependency is a big factor in Near Eastern studies. The questions we can answer are strongly determined by the evidence available to us, and that evidence has been shaped not just by the accidents of what happens to have survived over the last 3000+ years, but by the decisions about excavation, study and publication made by generations of previous scholars. When they have been much more interested in studying the content of texts in relative isolation than they have in detailing the rest of the archaeological record or in addressing wider social questions beyond the world of the literate elite, the published evidence is very much geared towards continuing to pursue the same sorts of research agendas.
This is not, of course, to say that I’m the only person interested in Ugarit’s wider social archaeology. There has been some wonderful work done on things like domestic architecture or specific types of material culture. But especially with a site as extensively investigated as Ugarit, study and publication take a long time – it takes a long time to change direction and even then, the agendas of the early archaeologists who excavated and published key parts of the site like the palace and major temples still have profound effects.
This all meant that it was often very difficult to get data on areas I felt were important – especially the lives of people outside the elite and those who lived beyond the capital at Ras Shamra. The rest of the kingdom of Ugarit has been investigated very little so we have very little understanding of how the picture presented by the administrative texts relates to the archaeology of rural Ugarit. This meant that frequently, I don’t provide ‘answers’ in Script and Society, so much as suggestions: informed speculation shaped by what data we do have, and where possible, by trying to understand how Ugarit and its culture sits in relation to other Near Eastern societies. Some might find this a bit unsatisfying or frustrating. I admit, sometimes I do to. It would be lovely to be able to ask new questions and come up with clear answers that you can unambiguously demonstrate to be the case.
Sadly – or perhaps excitingly – archaeology rarely works like that.
So, while I don’t think Script and Society offers a definitive and conclusive statement on what the place of writing was in Ugarit’s culture and society, I do hope – and think – that it’s still useful to offer grounded and evidence-based speculation on what that place might have been. In doing this, I can add my voice to those promoting a broader, more socio-cultural archaeology of sites like Ugarit in additional to the traditional text-based one. Asking questions – even ones we can’t answer entirely satisfactorily – is how we move the discipline forward and shape future excavation and research strategies. It also highlights am important methodological conversation about how we approach the study of writing and especially its separation from, or integration with, other disciplines concerned with human practice and culture, such as history, archaeology, anthropology and sociology. To really understand writing, we need to think about all of these, and Script and Society is my attempt to show how we might do this.
Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit (CREWS Volume 3) is available now from Oxbow. It is written to be accessible, I hope, to both Ugarit specialists and wider audiences within and beyond academia. It is also fully Open Access. You can download the full pdf for free here (CC-BY licence).