BMCR 2021.09.41

Avventure della scrittura: documenti dal Mediterraneo orientale antico

, Avventure della scrittura: documenti dal Mediterraneo orientale antico. Cahier du Centre Jean Bérard, 24. Napoli: Centre Jean Bérard, 2019. Pp. 242. ISBN 9782918887737 €31,00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The leading word in the title of the present volume – ‘Avventure’ – epitomizes the central thesis drawing together the present collection of articles, which examine the many possible modes in which the use of writing has manifested itself over time.[1]

The volume originated in a set of papers presented at a two-day conference ‘Avventure della scrittura. Documenti dal Vicino Oriente Antico,’ which took place in Naples in November 2012. The articles appearing in this collection focus on writing from its most concrete to its most abstract realizations: from engravings of ancient inscriptions to its use in the context of administration, bookkeeping, and the dissemination of political propaganda. The discussions are centered on the Eastern Mediterranean region, from the first cuneiform documents to the diffusion of classical alphabets in the area. The contributing authors include Classical archaeologists and epigraphists; experts on Mycenaean philology, Aegean civilizations, and pre-classical Anatolia; Assyriologists and ancient Near/Middle Eastern archaeologists; and Semitists and Hebraists. All articles are accompanied by high-resolution visual material in black-and-white or color, such as photos, tables, and maps. To provide precise references for the reader, the accompanying material is interposed judiciously as the argument unfolds.[2] The articles are written in French, English, and Italian; all have dual-language abstracts at the end of the volume, in the original language and in English.

The volume takes an interdisciplinary approach to three main themes: iconography, writing materials, and context, organized into four sections: (i) ‘signs between language and image,’ which focuses on writing systems as the signifying element of identity; (ii) ‘writing, language and identity,’ which points to the exchanges and relationships in the balance of power in the use of a language/writing system; and (iii) ‘writing, language and political control/propaganda,’ which looks at writing as an administrative and political instrument and a vehicle for propaganda, whose overarching themes connect with the final section (iv) ‘writing, language and euergesia,’ which is focused more on the individual.

In ‘signs between language and image,’ Bachelot discusses writing as a derivative product of language, more specifically as an interpretation of the visual sign. He concentrates on the use of the image in communication, a distinctive trait of the Mesopotamian civilization, which used cuneiform writing throughout its history.[3] Civitillo’s article on Minoan hieroglyphic writing assumes that these signs, either metaphorically or metonymically, played a referential role in adverting to a complex, conceptual and evocative symbolic system, without the need for linguistic mediation (56). In a similar vein, Graziani emphasizes the texts attested on a selection of seals belonging to different periods. The relationship between letters as writing and as embellishment or decoration is addressed anew by Pierobon Benoit in an article on Greek lamps. This ranges from the socio-cultural context in the transition from Byzantine to Umayyad Gerasa, which concludes that the artisans would have enjoyed reproducing ‘exotic’ letters as proof of their broad culture (107). The investigation of images in relation to texts is both productive and long overdue; in particular, the figures of speech that generate combinations of images and texts had not been sufficiently scrutinized until the present research.

In the second section, ‘writing, language and identity,’ Amadasi Guzzo discusses the relationship between language and identity, with a focus on Aramaic. It is considered that Arameans are those who speak a set of related languages, which existed from around the 12th to the 7th century bc in Kurdistān. Aramaic includes the western Semitic dialects expressed in a written consonantal alphabet of twenty-two signs of putative Phoenician origin (127). As hypothesized by linguists,[4] the evolution of the Aramaic script in its earlier stages records a language possessing its own characteristics, which gradually diversified across individual regions and is better described as a group of related languages than as an individual language with various dialects (134-135). Lacerenza focuses on the highly controversial problem of the development of the Hebrew script: whether the original script of the Torah was the keṯav ‘ivrî or kêṯav aššûri. He argues that the effort to preserve the keṯav ‘ivrî is, from a graphic point of view, equivalent to preserving the “holiness” (149-150) of the text: keṯav ‘ivrî is a well-known archaic script that changed belatedly in the circles of the Samaritans. Lacerenza comes to the notable conclusion that the Samaritan script is indeed the original vehicle for the first transmission of the Torah (151).

In the third section, ‘writing, language and political control/propaganda,’ Franceschetti’s article on Aegean texts considers the plurality and coexistence of writings linked to the performance of ‘public’ functions, ranging from administration and trade to diplomacy (166). By contrast, Salvini’s article traces the theme of ‘propaganda’ as evidenced in a letter written by Hattushili I, a bronze sword of the Aegean-Anatolian type, and monumental bilingual inscriptions from Urartu. Palermo’s article on Latin inscriptions in Northern Mesopotamia (2nd-3rd C. CE.) outlines the diverse forms of control exercised by the Roman Empire on its periphery. On the basis of the available evidence, the author concludes that the most pronounced character of the Roman domination over the area was expressed through the imposition of the official language, Latin, and through the construction and maintenance of roads not only for trade but for maintaining strategic control over the major axes, so as to govern the most remote regions of the empire (199). Furthermore, this section introduces for the first time in the volume the themes of collection, diffusion, and the consequent loss of the invaluable contexts of specific finds, which are of great importance for scholars, especially in the case of inscribed objects.

In the final section, ‘writing, language and euergesia,’ De Martino’s article considers the connections between writing and euergesia based on four documents originating in Eastern Greece and datable to the Hellenistic age, describing the ways in which small landowners’ euergesia was inspired by that of their sovereigns. The history is amply documented, above all in relation to public construction, and in the financing of parties, refined spectacles, and fierce competitions. Loreto’s article identifies euergetism in the widespread use of inscriptions on constructions in South Arabia of the 1st millennium. The euergesia activity may in fact extend to the financing and organization of various areas of social life, including building works. The use of a technical lexicon suggests that the early inhabitants of South Arabia employed generic expressions to refer either to the whole of a building or to a detail of it, and that similar construction techniques existed in different areas and periods, which are archaeologically attested (232-233).

The present collection of articles offers tantalizing hints as to the many possible modes in which the use of writing manifests itself over time among a variety of peoples who dwelled in the eastern Mediterranean. A fuller development might involve (i) an assessment of key writing methods including, where possible, a description of their technical and conceptual development, tracing the evidence of diverse textual and material contexts; (ii) an  investigation of how writing influenced and was influenced by social and cultural structures, intellectual trends, and modes of expression (especially, figures of speech); (iii) an exploration of why certain languages were preferred in different contexts across the ancient Mediterranean.

On the whole, the collection should excite the curiosity of scholars about the themes under discussion, so as to allow for further investigation, and to open up novel issues[5] to be investigated, relating to alternative documents or different languages. In this sense the volume serves as a sampler for how and where to seize the opportunity for an exciting new ‘adventure.’

Authors and titles

Raffaella Pierobon Benoit, Introduzione: le ‘avventure della scrittura’

I segni tra Lingua e Immagine
Luc Bachelot, Aventure et mésaventure de l’écriture
Matilde Civitillo, Entre écriture et iconographie. Le cas du hiéroglyphique minoen
Simonetta Graziani, Scrittura di segni, scrittura di immagini nella Mesopotamia antica: leggere i sigilli come testi
Raffaella Pierobon Benoit, Lettere come immagini. Le lucerne di Gerasa/Jerash

Scrittura, lingua e identità
Maria Giulia Amadasi Guzzo, Gli Aramei e l’alfabeto
Gincarlo Lacerenza, Osservazioni sul cambio di scrittura nell’Israele antico

Scrittura, lingua e controllo politico
Adele Franceschetti, Le scritture egee come strumento della burocrazia palaziale
Mirjo Salvini, Avventure cuneiformi
Rocco Palermo, Words of Power. Latin Inscriptions and the Roman Borderland in Mesopotamia (2nd–3rd c. CE)

Scrittura, lingua ed evergesia
Elena Miranda De Martino, Scrittura e classi dirigenti. Alcuni esempi dall’Oriente greco
Romolo Loreto, Cerimonialità e architettura nelle iscrizioni di costruzione sudarabiche nello Yemen pre-islamico. Dati epigrafici ed evidenza archeologica


[1] The volume under review complements Ferrara’s 2019 book, La grande invenzione. Storia del mondo in nove scrittura misteriose (Milan: Feltrinelli). The present volume includes a select few case-studies arising from China, Egypt, Mexico, Mesopotamia, Cyprus and Crete.

[2] A few minor caveats. The first and fourth articles do not end with a list of figures, as do the rest. There is a scattering of trivial inconsistencies in the spelling of surnames and in the years of publication between the bibliography and the footnotes: (i) examples of surnames: p. 189, f.n. 9: Claus vs. p. 200: Clauss; p. 221, f.n. 15: Sola Solé vs. p. 236: Solá Solé. (ii) Example of year-of-publication: p. 132, f.n. 46: Gibson 1975 vs. 1976 at p. 137; p. 188, f.n. 8: Kennedy 1988 vs. 1998 at p. 200. Some references cited in footnotes are omitted from the final bibliography. Examples: Melchert 1978, p. 174, f.n. 19; Mitchell 1983, p. 196, f.n. 27.

[3] This point engages with research published in André-Leickman and Ziegler (eds.), Naissance de l’écriture: Cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes, Catalogue de l’exposition aux Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 7 mai – 9 août (Paris: Ministère de la culture, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux), 1982.

[4] On writing systems, see Naveh, The Development of Aramaic Script (Jerusalem: Ahva Press) 1970. On classification issues, see Huehnergard, “What is Aramaic?,” ARAM 7, 1995, 262-282.

[5] The museum displays for epigraphic collections are not addressed here and deserve a separate discussion, as noted by the editor (p. 8, f.n. 8).