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Writing «systems»: Literacy and the transmission of writing in nonadministrative contexts

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Steele, PM 


A wide range of document types have been preserved written in the undeciphered scripts of the Aegean and Cyprus (Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Cypro-Minoan), with inscriptions appearing on a variety of media and object types. Some of these inscriptions are assumed to relate to centralised administrative structures, especially those on particular types of clay objects such as tablets and seals/sealings. This paper, however, will deal with the question of literacy existing outside of any centralised administrative sphere. Within an administrative context, we may envisage writing as an economic or bureaucratic tool, controlled to some extent through training in the structure and conventions of the script. Outside of such a context, however, we face the question of how and why writing is proliferated: Who is using it and how do they know how to do it? Do they have access to any kind of training? How standardised is the script they use? The Aegean and Cyprus provide us with some important parallels and differences. On Crete in particular, the concept of administrative writing, whether in seals and sealing practices or in centralised record-keeping, was probably always part of the story. The context in which the deciphered Linear B writing system was adapted from still undeciphered Linear A had a tangible effect on the type and composition of the new script, which was developed alongside administrative influence. Unlike its descendant Linear B, however, we must also remember that Linear A is well attested in non-administrative or ‘private’ contexts, raising the question of whether individuals writing outside the administrative sphere were using the same model of script as the centralised administrations. On Cyprus, we must envisage a completely different context for script adoption. Although the need for writing was probably stimulated by economic development, and although the Late Bronze Age Cypriot script(s) was/were related to the Aegean ones, there is no evidence for Cypriot writing existing within a closely controlled and centralised administrative system. Instead we find a vast array of inscribed objects from a wide variety of contexts, many of which look decidedly non-administrative. It may be no accident that, alongside this diversity in attested written forms, there continues a longstanding scholarly debate concerning the number of writing systems in existence in Late Bronze Age Cyprus. Difficulties in reconstructing the size and composition of the script(s) in use may correspond to real variation (as opposed to standardisation) in the written repertoire. An investigation of these factors has the potential to stimulate new debate on what we mean by ‘writing’, and what we are doing when we try to reconstruct an undeciphered writing ‘system’.



Writing «systems»: Literacy and the transmission of writing in nonadministrative contexts


Is Part Of

Non-scribal Communication Media in the Bronze Age Aegean and Surrounding Areas

Book type


Periploi - Collana di Studi egeo-ciprioti (Firenze University Press)

Publisher DOI


European Research Council (677758)