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Non-scribal Communication Media in the Bronze Age Aegean and Surrounding Areas: The Semantics of A-literate and Proto-literate Media (Seals, Potmarks, Mason’s Marks, Seal-Impressed Pottery, Ideograms and Logograms, and Related Systems)

Non-scribal Communication Media in the Bronze Age Aegean and Surrounding Areas: The Semantics of A-literate and Proto-literate Media (Seals, Potmarks, Mason’s Marks, Seal-Impressed Pottery, Ideograms and Logograms, and Related Systems)

Edited by Anna Margherita Jasink, Judith Weingarten, and Silvia Ferrara. Pp. 270. Florence, Firenze University Press, 2018. €19.90. ISBN 9788864536361 (paper).

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“We live our lives surrounded by text,” writes Bennet in his thought-provoking concluding commentary to this volume (247). He also observes that ours is a “hybrid world where verbal and non-verbal visual communication exist side-by-side” (248). Case in point and much to my chagrin, my own phone texts are increasingly punctuated by emojis.[[AU: Correct to edit this to say your own texts? or did you mean those you receive?]] This volume is an exploration of the hybridity of communication in the ancient eastern Mediterranean. The editors intend for its contributions “to characterize and, to an extent, explain the interconnectedness of writing to the ‘alternative’, visible, if non-institutionalised, modes of interaction and communication” (viii).

They claim this is a “novel effort” (viii), and this is true in the sense that the volume brings together evidence diverse in type and temporally and geographically wide-ranging within the parameters of the eastern Mediterranean through (and primarily confined to the Bronze Age. Analyses of the interactions between language writing and other visible communication systems of that area and era have usually focused on specific cultural traditions. Here, too, the individual chapters (except Steele) are circumscribed in place and time. What is different is the cross-cultural and diachronic perspective when the volume is considered as a whole. The articles and their bibliographies provide the reader an understanding of the variety of evidence and approaches to asking what—and how and why—in addition to their language writings did Minoans, Anatolians, Cypriots, Near Easterners, and Egyptians record. Important is the explicit recognition that written communication systems could be devised for purposes other than recording language. Too often and for too long scholarship has been dominated by the single-minded evaluation of various recording systems as predecessors to written language or indicators of literacy. Additionally, Militello rightly points out that the bureaucratic narrative has dominated interpretations of recording systems since the 1960s (55–7), and he and others (Yasur-Landau) stress the need to consider other reasons for writing or marking, such as ritual (Steele) or social status (Ferrara and Jasink, Schoep).

The volume is organized geographically: Aegean (six articles), Anatolia and Cyprus (three), and the Near East and Egypt (five), reflecting the authors’ expertise and “the fragmentary nature of the ancient material, depending, as it does, on physical materials being deposited, being preserved, and, finally, recovered archaeologically” (248). The Aegean section would have been better titled Minoan, as the Mycenaeans get only passing mention, and then as foil to the Minoans (Perna, 77–80). The Minoan tilt is even heavier if one includes Steele’s article, which is as much about Crete as about Cyprus. A better arrangement, and one which would also clearly reflect the subtitle, would have been to separate the studies of recording systems developed in the absence of or preceding writing systems (Schmandt-Besserat and Moghimi, Mazzoni, Graff) from those operating in tandem with or in lieu of contemporary language-writing systems, the stated purpose of this volume (the remainder of the articles).

The interaction of alternative means of record keeping with written-language texts is most directly explored in Haring’s analysis of the Deir el-Medina ostraca and in Militello’s discussion of marking practices at Phaistos and Ayia Triada. Both authors describe marking systems independent of but strongly influenced by the writing systems used by elite management. With reference to Militello’s well-considered criteria for defining categories of “non-scribal devices,” this reviewer would suggest adding visibility and, for the potters’ marks, whether they were made before or after firing.

Central to Haring’s and Militello’s inquiries is the vexed question of when isolated marks can be identified as signs of writing. This is the entire focus of Valério and Davis’ and Waal’s contributions, both of which demonstrate sound methodologies. Waal’s argument that the marks on Anatolian pottery reflect signs of writing is handicapped by a lack of direct evidence: the wooden boards he proposes as the medium for script in early Anatolia have not survived. His more general conclusion fits many of the studies in this volume, if one substitutes these italicized words with others as relevant to the various discussions: “Not all identifications of pot marks with Anatolian Hieroglyphs should be discarded out of hand, nor should one forcefully try to read them all as such. The purpose and meaning of the incidental markings on pottery and other objects in all likelihood varied per time and region and ‘scribal’ and ‘non-scribal’ signs may have co-existed” (126 [italics mine]).

Perna’s convincing demonstration that flat-based nodules are evidence that Minoans kept extensive archives painted on perishable materials seems outside the mandates given by the editors, but the question he raises in the second half of his contribution—under what circumstances did Mycenaeans see Minoan writing?—is entirely relevant to the broader discussion. In what contexts is knowledge of writing transferred? In order to adapt script (to whatever other media and for whatever purposes), someone needs to see it and see a need for adapting it.

Steele’s is the single article that focuses exclusively on recognized scripts. But she shares with other authors the question of what writing looks like outside the bounds of “big administration” (viii), in this case on Late Bronze Age Cyprus and Minoan Crete. Her argument that the lack of any long-standing administrative system on Cyprus fostered the variation seen in Cypro-Minoan writing (until recently identified as separate scripts) effectively sets the stage for a reconsideration of the relation between Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphic. Similarly, Yasur-Landau argues that the absence of a writing habit in the second-millennium southern Levant left space for innovative recording methods, including, eventually, the adoption of the alphabet in the Early Iron Age.

Alberti’s and Weingarten’s examination of metrological systems and roundels, respectively, illustrate the importance of considering these alternative recording systems in reconstructing how Minoans got things done—by means of measures (Alberti) and deliveries (Weingarten, contra Hallager).

As a teacher, I have watched the vocabulary, syntax, formatting, and even the characters comprising my students’ written, typed, and texted communication change radically over the past three decades. This volume asks the reader to consider diverse visible communication systems that developed over the course of millennia in the eastern Mediterranean and their various degrees of connection to written language. The papers are forward-looking, generally more about proposing ideas and testing methodologies than proposing conclusions, urging the reader to take the next steps. A variety of disciplinary approaches are encouraged. This reader hopes that a follow-up volume is planned, one that explores alternative modes of communication used in fully literate cultures.

Nicolle Hirschfeld
Trinity University

Book Review of Non-scribal Communication Media in the Bronze Age Aegean and Surrounding Areas: The Semantics of A-literate and Proto-literate Media (Seals, Potmarks, Mason’s Marks, Seal-Impressed Pottery, Ideograms and Logograms, and Related Systems), edited by Anna Margherita Jasink, Judith Weingarten, and Silvia Ferrara

Reviewed by Nicolle Hirschfeld

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Hirschfeld

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