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Support Aeon Donate now Recent scholars of the history of writing describe what was first and foremost an administrative tool. Along the way their argument goes writing became flexible enough, in how it captured spoken language, to be used for poetry and letters and, eventually, word games such as Mad Libs and fortune cookies.
In his book, he draws from accumulated archaeological findings to show that large sedentary populations and grain agriculture existed long before the first states in both Mesopotamia and China.
These operations came to be coopted by rulers, ruling classes and elite interests. He seems to be saying that everything that humans would come to write — myths, epic poems, love letters, essays, re-assessments of the history of civilisation — was an epiphenomenon of bureaucratic paperwork.
As far as I am concerned, however, the evidence suggests otherwise. I come to this defence of writing as an unabashed partisan of text, a diehard literate in an age pivoting to video — I barely watch television, which marks me as a philistine these days.
Who needs writing, anyway? Seen through the filter of a military analogy, writing might be like nuclear weapons which were developed specifically by the militaryor it might be like gunpowder, which was discovered by alchemists searching for life-prolonging substances hundreds of years before its use in weapons.
The question is this: Or is it composed of pre-existing representational practices that expanded to fill the needs of the state and complex society? The evidence suggests that writing is actually more like gunpowder than like nuclear weapons.
I like to think of writing as a layered invention. Then the symbolic invention: Humans have been doing this for a long time, too. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks.
Then comes the functional invention: All these moves belong to an alchemy of life that makes things go boom. When you consider these layers of invention, you discover that early writing in Mesopotamia, for instance, had no overtly political function, as the archaeologist David Wengrow at University College London argues in What Makes Civilization?
Instead, for the first years of early cuneiform texts in the region from about BCEWengrow sees a bookkeeping function for managing temple-factories of the day. In the s, the archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat began studying clay tokens — cylinders, pyramids, discs, balls — thousands of which had been found all over Middle Eastern archaeological sites, though no one had explained what they were.
These tokens showed up in Neolithic archaeological sites from BCE, well before the earliest states emerge in Mesopotamia. Schmandt-Besserat, whom I studied with at the University of Texas at Austin in the early s, argued that the tokens went back 10, years.
She realised that they were markers for objects: At first, tokens that denoted goods and objects were stored in groups; one storage method was sealing them into hollow clay balls. By the fourth millennium, scribes realised that the impressed signs made the envelopes redundant — just press the tokens into the clay, or better yet, create written signs that mimicked tokens.
Then one more step of abstraction completed the journey: The implications are clear, at least for Mesopotamia. Early states functioned without writing for nearly 3, years before the invention of cuneiform because they had the token system for counting.
What we have is counting that precedes complex economic organisation as well as phonetic writing that precedes political functions. The administrative hypothesis lacks evidence in other regions where writing developed, as well.
That, in turn, points to a complex society. But was this society administered by forms of writing? Further mysteries are posed by writing in Mesoamerica. All the existing examples of Mesoamerican writing are engravings on rock or murals; writing on other materials, such as palm leaf, were either lost to decay or destroyed by the Spanish conquerors.
Before phonetic writing there was iconography, and early writing itself featured leaders, rulers, prisoner-taking, and conquests. Nothing economic or administrative exists. Over and over, what we see is that writing is more like gunpowder than like a nuclear bomb. Even in Mesopotamia, a phonetic cuneiform script was used for a few hundred years for accounting before writing was used for overtly political purposes.
Fourteen years later, things are unchanged, especially for Mesoamerica, Houston told me in a recent email. There are plausible grounds to think they had cadastrals [listings of land parcels and who owned them] and the like, which appear in early Colonial Mexico.
In fact, in various corners of the Earth and throughout history, inventors have crafted alphabets and syllabaries to resist the state. Kelly studies religiously flavoured political movements and politically flavoured religious movements in Southeast Asia and West Africa whose charismatic leaders have invented writing systems, often after having been inspired by otherworldly visions.
Kelly points out that writing has been reinvented at least nine times in Southeast Asia since the s, mainly by largely non-literate highland people whose way of life was under threat from powerful states.Travel Agent ← I highly recommend Travel Express in Montana, a travel agency that specializes in sending hunters to Africa and around the world.
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