Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.21

Anna Margherita Jasink, Judith Weingarten, Silvia Ferrara (ed.), Non-Scribal Communication Media in the Bronze Age Aegean and Surrounding Areas: The semantics of a-literate and proto-literate media. Strumenti per la didattica e la ricerca, 196.   Firenze:  Firenze University Press, 2017.  Pp. viii, 256.  ISBN 9788864536361.  €19,90 (pb).  

Reviewed by Cassandra Donnelly, University of Texas at Austin (

Open Access
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This innovative volume on “non-scribal” communication is a response to what Sir Arthur Evans called “the Art of Writing” in Aegean script studies. While trans-Mediterranean in scope, the volume presents itself as a corrective for how Aegean script scholars have predominantly viewed the origins and development of writing as administrative. The scholars here take up non-“artful” writing and markings, such as those on potmarks, weights, and sealings. As the subtitle suggests, questions of literacy and who has access to the practice and products of writing feature prominently.

The fifteen contributions chronologically span the Neolithic through the Late Bronze Age. They are organized by geographic region, “Aegean,” “Cyprus and Anatolia,” and “Near East and Egypt.” Cyprus and Anatolia share the ‘in-between’ character of their writing traditions. Writing in Cyprus combines Near Eastern and Aegean features, and Anatolia has two script traditions, one ‘indigenous’ and the other Near Eastern. However, there are no established connections between Anatolian and Cypriot writing traditions. Treating Egypt together with the Near East highlights the different trajectories of the region’s two oldest writing traditions. The geographic divisions let the reader see commonalities and differences across regions and time period. Three main themes emerge from the volume, each an important contribution to the field of Aegean script studies: the persistence of non-administrative writing and marking systems, the interdependence between writing and marking traditions, and the role of “non-” or “sub-” elites in both writing and marking practices.

Several contributions in this volume demonstrate that writing or marking is not an either/or proposition. Rather, many marking systems include signs from known writing systems. For example, Miguel Valério and Brent Davis identify previously unrecognized Cypro-Minoan (CM) signs in the Cypriot ingot- and pot-marks (133). Their identifications rely on Valério’s CM signary, which reduces the total number of basic signs used in writing texts from around 90 signs (the approximate size of the Linear B phonographic repertory) to 60 signs (the approximate number in the historical Cypriote Syllabic syllabary), as proposed in his recent dissertation. His signary awaits acceptance by scholarly consensus. Using the standard definition of writing proposed by Olivier and Godart of two consecutive signs stricto sensu, Valério and Davis identify several pot and ingot inscriptions that meet this definition but have been excluded by the two latest Cypro-Minoan corpora (136).1 It is unclear whether their hypothesis that markers of pots were also manufacturers applies in cases where the inscriptions meet the definition of writing. If so, it would expand our understanding of the social role of CM writers.

Silvia Ferrara and Anna Margherita Jasink propose that the “iconicity” of Cretan Hieroglyphic (CH) signs on MMII Cretan Petschaft seals made them readable to a mostly illiterate population (45). The standardized shape of such seals accentuated the images inscribed on them and lent their bearers social distinction. Ferrara and Jasink’s analysis explicitly rejects Olivier and Godart’s two-sign-minimum definition of writing. They argue that singleton CH signs “possibly…may record sounds” (48). It is unclear whether they mean that the specific examples under discussion actually represent phonetic values or the possibility that they could justifies treating them as writing. Their conclusion that CH signs on seals conveyed meaning over and above their administrative function is convincing, especially with Jasink’s preliminary observations that these seals show minimal wear and tear because they were not used much as sealing devices.

Two contributions explicitly address the coevolution of marking and writing systems. Pietro Militello conducts a diachronic study of non-literate communication in Prepalatial and Palatial Messara. He concludes that the find-spots of marked objects straddle private and administrative contexts, and their signs straddle the divide between marking and writing (66). Though the borrowing of Linear A signs into Cretan marking systems often appears to be haphazard, Militello conjectures that AB 04, or Linear B “te,” which occurs on everything from stone blocks (as ‘mason’s marks’) to loom weights, may signify a palatial transaction, as it does in Linear A tablets (61). In New Kingdom Egypt, the connections between writing and the markings on workmen’s lists are much more transparent. Ben Haring identifies the various sources of marks seen in workmen’s lists from the New Kingdom workmen’s village of Deir el Medina (1550-1070 BCE). The marks combine contemporary hieroglyphic signs, the hieratic numbering system, and more obscure marks. Haring adopts Levi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage as a metaphor for the workmen’s marking system because it arranges several different at-hand systems into a whole. The metaphor could also suit the Cypriot markings discussed by Valério and Davis. Amazingly, these workmen’s lists span up to 8 generations, allowing for a diachronic study of the script, which Haring undertakes admirably. He links the increased use of hieratic signs in the lists to the increased exposure the workmen would have had to hieratic during the Ramesside period and recognizes these documents as the first that identify workmen as individuals rather than teams (238).

Assaf Yasur-Landau, like Haring, sees “non-elite” individuals writing in the Late Bronze Age. He focuses on the Southern Levant, where at least five different scripts are attested, albeit sparsely. He incorrectly labels two unidentified alphabet cuneiform tablets as “Ugaritic,” however, and neglects to mention a third (208).2 The multiplicity of script traditions arises, in Yasur-Landau’s convincing assessment, because of the region’s lack of centralized administration. Accordingly, most inscriptions have non-administrative find-spots and occur on non-administrative media such as weapons. Yasur-Landau equates their non-administrative nature with the non-elite status of their writers and a personal or private impulse to write. Precisely what is mean by “private” in the context of the Bronze Age and who constitutes the “non-elite” require further attention.3

Judith Weingarten’s study of Minoan roundels returns to the traditional domain of Aegean script scholars: the palace. Contrary to the traditional interpretation of sealing impressions on roundels as the marks of administrators counting goods delivered by craftsmen, she sees them as originating from the craftspeople themselves. Her novel interpretation rests on a compelling reading of obscure logograms AB164 and AB74, which appear on the same sets of sealings She relates these logograms to the metal and wool industries, which are nearly absent from the Linear A administrative tablets. To Weingarten, their absence suggests these industries are non-palatial. Her further argument, that a lack of numerals on the roundels indicates the illiteracy of their non-palatial users, contradicts work in the social sciences that suggests numeracy is independent of literacy.4 The same positivist logic that links literacy with capacities for abstract thinking features in Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Miloufar Moghimi’s contribution on Neolithic tokens (178).

Willemijn Waal puts literacy in the hands of Late Bronze Age Anatolia’s potmakers. In a diachronic analysis of marking practices in Bronze Age Anatolia, Waal argues that the increase in pre-fired potmarks with multiple Anatolian Hieroglyphic (AH) signs in the Late Bronze Age reflects AH’s proliferation from the palatial elite of Hattusa into the ‘sub-elite’ sphere of potmakers. Such a penetration, she figures, requires a long incubation period. Therefore, she proposes a Middle Bronze Age origin for Anatolian Hieroglyphs. She thus creates a “maximalist” chronology opposed to the “minimalist” chronology based on when AH inscriptions are first attested in the archaeological record: the Late Bronze Age. She presumes a top down model for the creation and use of AH signs, from the elite administrative center to the dispossessed fringe. The attested AH sign repertoire on pots is quite limited, however, and it is conceivable to imagine the adaptation of certain highly visible potmarks into the Hieroglyphic repertoire rather than the other way around. Stefania Mazzoni’s pan-Mediterranean study of the Early Bronze Age demonstrates, through analogy to Greco-Roman figlinae, that rural potmakers controlled sealing practices on storage jars (201). Why would the same not be true of Late Bronze Age Anatolia?

That “the Art of Writing” can take hold in non-administrative contexts is clearly demonstrated in both Philippa Steele’s and Ilsa Shoep’s contributions. They both analyze Linear A documents for signs of non-administrative use. Schoep studies the find-spots of MMIII-LMI Cretan sealings. She identifies numerous instances where sealings have been deposited along with cult objects such as rhyta, which, she argues, demonstrates that sealings retained value outside of administrative contexts. In particular, she links these “structured deposits” to feasting activities, a concern of some Linear A tablets (83). The contrast here with Linear B feasting tablets, interpreted as administrative documents, is instructive. According to Palaima, feasting is part of the administration’s reinforcement of “social and political unity and stratification,” which is why Linear B administrators took pains to record feasting equipment.5 Perhaps Linear A feasting can also be understood as an extension of administrative control. Gwenola Graff’s study of early Egyptian Hieroglyphics identifies the origins of hieroglyphic writing in a realm adjacent to administrative needs, in the realm of propaganda (my term, not hers). The intersection of writing, administration, and social control recurs throughout this volume.

Philippa Steele approaches non-administrative Linear A documents as a way to evaluate the relationship between Linear A and its likely offshoot, Cypro-Minoan (CM). Steele restricts her comparison of CM to the Linear A “Z-series,” i.e., inscriptions on materials other than clay. Its corpus is notable for having many non-administrative inscriptions, but the proportion of those non-administrative CM inscriptions is debatable—Steele regards the clay boules, which comprise 30% of the CM corpus, as administrative due to their standardized ductus (156). Another 30% of the CM corpus are potmarks, whose function is unclear. The remaining 40% consists, by and large, of blatantly non-administrative document types, a much higher proportion of the corpus than for Linear A (ca. 10%) or Linear B (ca. 0%). Steele analyzes four distinguishing elements of Linear A writing practices: use of logograms and abbreviation, writing direction, paleographic differences across media types, and geographic or chronological distribution. She tentatively observes that the Z-series represents an earlier MM III-LM IA phenomenon, and perhaps reflects a period of wider literacy on Crete (168). Only later in LM IB is writing restricted to palatial clay tablets, as if in anticipation of Linear B. This observation highlights one subtext of this volume: Linear B’s restricted administrative use is an outlier. It also dovetails nicely with Maria Alberti’s contribution, which identifies standard measures in Minoan loom weights, for example, especially in the Neopalatial period (16-17).

An important entry that does not quite fit the volume’s purview is Massimo Perna’s study of Linear A flat-based nodules. Perna uses a comparative study of Coptic prayer books to reconstruct the information capacity of Linear A perishable documents. Relying on previous reconstructions of the size of the Linear A perishable documents, Perna concludes that they would have held considerably more information than has usually been presumed (76). Perna’s chapter winds down with a cross-cultural comparison of perishable writing documents including Tamil palm leaf writing, a connection Sir Arthur Evans first made.6 Another comparison closer in chronology and region are the Iron Age Old South Arabian economic records.7 The volume concludes with final reflections from John Bennet, a leading theorist on the origins of writing in the Aegean area. He encourages the field, as it goes forward, to do what this volume has done: be wide-ranging in the collection of data and analytic techniques.

Jasink, Ferrara and Weingarten have put together a successful volume. It identifies several desiderata for the field of Aegean scripts. These include a more suitable definition of writing, especially for the meagerly attested Cypro-Minoan and Cretan Hieroglyphic scripts, and more comprehensive studies of the interface between marking systems and writing. Certain terms which recur through the volume, such as non-administrative, private, and non-elite, do need better definition.

Table of Contents

Part One: Aegean
Maria Emanuela Alberti, “A Measured World? Measures in Minoan Daily Life,” pp. 3-39
Silvia Ferrara and Anna Margherita Jasink, “To Have and to Hold: Hieroglyphic Seals as
Personal Markers and Objects of Display,” pp. 41-53
Pietro M. Militello, “Management, Power and Non-Literate Communication in Prepalatial and Palatial Messara,” pp. 55-72
Massimo Perna “Administrative Documents without Writing: the Case of Sealings and Flat- Based Nodules,” pp. 73-80
Ilsa Schoep “The Role of Non-written Communication in Minoan Administrative Practices” pp. 81-98
Judith Weingarten “When One Equals One: The Minoan Roundel,” pp. 99-108

Part Two: Cyprus and Anatolia
Willemijn Waal, “How to Read the Signs: the Use of Symbol, Marking and Pictographs in Bronze Age Anatolia,” pp. 111-129
Miguel Valério and Brent Davis, “Cypro-Minoan in Marking Systems of the Eastern and Central Mediterranean: New Methods of Investigating Old Questions,” pp. 131-152
Philippa Steele, “Writing ‘Systems’: Literacy and Transmission of Writing in Non-Administrative Contexts,” pp. 153-172

Part Three: Near East and Egypt
Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Miloufar Moghimi, “Making Tokens Talk,” pp. 175-183
Stefania Mazzoni, “Seal Impressions on Jars: Images, Storage and Administration,” pp. 185-206
Assaf Yasur-Landau, “Non-scribal Communication in the Southern Levant During the Middle and Late Bronze Ages,” pp. 207-219
Gwenola Graff, “Predynastic Egyptian Iconography: Contributions and Relations with the Hieroglyphic System’s Origin,” pp. 221-232
Ben Haring, “Identity Marks in Ancient Egypt: Scribal and Non-scribal Modes of Visual Communication,” pp. 233-246
John Bennet “Final Reflections,” pp. 247-252


1.   Jean-Pierre Olivier and Louis Godart, Corpus Hieroglyphicarum Inscriptionum Cretae (Paris: Onassaglou, 1996), 13.
2.   Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 94-101.
3.   Steven J. Garfinkle, “Public Versus Private in the Ancient Near East,” in A Companion to the Ancient Near East, ed. Daniel C. Snell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005), 384-396.
4.   Anne Chapman and Alison Lee, “Rethinking Literacy and Numeracy,” Australian Journal of Education 32 no. 3 (1990): 277-289.
5.   Thomas G. Palaima, “Sacrificial Feasting in the Linear B Documents,” Hesperia 73 (2004): 218.
6.   Sir Arthur Evans, Scripta Minoa, the Written Documents of Minoan Crete, Vol. 2: with Special Reference to the Archives of Knossos (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 2.
7.   Peter Stein, Die altsüdarabischen Minuskelinschriften auf Holzstäbchen aus der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek in München (Tübingen: Wasmuth, 2010).

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