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Agency in Ancient Writing

Agency in Ancient Writing

EDITED BY Joshua Englehardt
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Agency in Ancient Writing
    Book Description:

    Individual agents are frequently evident in early writing and notational systems, yet these systems have rarely been subjected to the concept of agency as it is traceable in archeology. Agency in Ancient Writing addresses this oversight, allowing archeologists to identify and discuss real, observable actors and actions in the archaeological record. Embracing myriad ways in which agency can be interpreted, ancient writing systems from Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, China, and Greece are examined from a textual perspective as both archaeological objects and nascent historical documents. This allows for distinction among intentions, consequences, meanings, and motivations, increasing understanding and aiding interpretation of the subjectivity of social actors. Chapters focusing on acts of writing and public recitation overlap with those addressing the materiality of texts, interweaving archaeology, epigraphy, and the study of visual symbol systems. Agency in Ancient Writing leads to a more thorough and meaningful discussion of agency as an archaeological concept and will be of interest to anyone interested in ancient texts, including archaeologists, historians, linguists, epigraphers, and art historians, as well as scholars studying agency and structuration theory.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-209-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Jennifer L. Dornan

    Since their inception, the social sciences have struggled to understand the complex interplay between self and society. In recent years, we have increasingly accepted that there is never a simple mapping of cultural meaning and social categories onto the minds of those individuals participating in, reproducing, and altering a culture. As such, focus has rightfully shifted to exploring the (often purposeful) differential selection and interpretation of shared cultural propositions by individuals as we acknowledge the actual processes of meaning making and internalization in our investigations into the workings of culture, symbol, and power.

    Agency theory has provided us with a...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. INTRODUCTION: Individual Intentionality, Social Structure, and Material Agency in Early Writing and Emerging Script Technologies
    (pp. 1-18)
    Joshua Englehardt and Dimitri Nakassis

    A search for “agency” and “archaeology” in virtually any academic database will yield a vast number of books, articles, and reviews, written for the most part in the past twenty years. If, however, one adds the search term “text” or “writing,” the number of hits diminishes dramatically, and if references to modern texts and writing are removed, the result is virtually nil. Such searches measure very crudely what we archaeologists already know: agency and text have not to date been archaeological concerns (cf. Yoffee 2005, 113–30). Why should this be? After all, reading and interpreting ancient texts are an...

  8. Part I: Agency in the Formation of Early Writing and Notational Systems

    • ONE The Mediated Image: Reflections on Semasiographic Notation in the Ancient Americas
      (pp. 21-44)
      Margaret A. Jackson

      In recent years, the long-standing model of a dichotomous relationship between text and image, a mainstay of the semiotic approach to visual communication, has fallen increasingly under criticism.¹ Our daily interactions with computers and icons of all kinds make it obvious that the world is populated by countless varieties of conventionalized and codified visual signs that operate outside the strictures of language. There are any number of visual codes that are neither purely text nor purely image. This realization is reflected by increased scholarly attention and greatly expanded curiosity about the workings of these alternate forms, which are known as...

    • TWO Bureaucratic Backlashes: Bureaucrats as Agents of Socioeconomic Change in Proto-Historic Mesopotamia
      (pp. 45-70)
      Clemens Reichel

      Writing systems, at their most fundamental level, are visual manifestations of established social norms and contracts. Such a notion is well expressed in a comment by the noted Assyriologist Ignace J. Gelb in his book A Study of Writing (first published in 1952), where he stated that “[w]riting began at a time when man learned how to communicate his thoughts and feelings by means of visible signs, understandable not only to himself but also to all other persons more or less initiated into the particular system” (Gelb 1969, 13). What Gelb vaguely referred to as a “particular system” is the...

    • THREE Are Writing Systems Intelligently Designed?
      (pp. 71-94)
      Adam D. Smith

      This chapter concerns the genealogy of writing systems, not of morals. But, like Nietzsche’s “English psychologists,” I am interested in the role of “blind and accidental hooking-together and mechanism” in the formation of that genealogy, particularly to the extent that its results resemble the products of goal-directed human agency. I will argue that the apparent design and efficacious functionality of writing systems are the products of less human agency and forethought than is generally imagined.

      Much of my argument aligns very neatly with the key themes of Giddens’s (1984, 16–28) account of “structure” and “structuration,” which is one of...

    • FOUR Agency in Death: Early Egyptian Writing from Mortuary Contexts
      (pp. 95-112)
      Laurel Bestock

      Writing is a way of communicating a variety of messages across boundaries. The most obvious of these boundaries are space and time. The ability to bridge these boundaries was undoubtedly a significant factor in the development of writing, but in the case of Egypt this model can be profitably expanded. In this chapter, I suggest that the mortuary context within which much early Egyptian writing is found indicates a further desire to communicate across the boundary between life and death to maintain the individuality, social position, and agency of certain dead individuals. That writing could function as a key ingredient...

  9. Part II: The Material Agency of Early Writing and Incipient Scripts

    • FIVE Reembodying Identity: Seals and Seal Impressions as Agents of Social Change on Late Prepalatial Crete
      (pp. 115-138)
      Emily S.K. Anderson

      Archaeological evidence indicates that the island of Crete in the southern Aegean saw processes of significant social and cultural change at the turn of the second millennium BCE. In the Cretan chronology, this moment stands as the transition between the Early and Middle Minoan periods (EM and MM, especially EM III–MM IA, ca. 2200–1900 BCE), at the end of which the Aegean’s first “palatial” social formations are traditionally understood to have emerged on the island. Evidenced changes in material culture, economic strategies, exchange, and settlement patterns are thus grouped together under the rubric of a palatial transition and...

    • SIX Performance, Presence, and Genre in Maya Hieroglyphs
      (pp. 139-164)
      Michael D. Carrasco

      This chapter examines the objecthood of Maya hieroglyphic writing as well as the discourse about writing in hieroglyphic narratives. Two of my specific goals are to advance a genre-based approach to the study of Maya writing and to augment interpretations that have traditionally privileged oral performance in their understanding of the role of writing in Maya society. To this end, I examine texts from the vantage points of genre, media, and performance to suggest that the presence of text was an important part of an inscribed object’s meaning and that the agentive power of a text comes just as much...

    • SEVEN Contingency and Innovation in Native Transcriptions of Encrypted Cuneiform (UD.GAL.NUN)
      (pp. 165-182)
      J. Cale Johnson and Adam Johnson

      The comingling of the material sign and its seemingly limitless (possible) entextualizations has functioned as a master trope in so many disciplines and in so many ways that we must be particularly vigilant in any discussion of notational systems (epigraphy) and the constraints under which their practitioners operate (agency). We must, first of all, deny here the relevance of (or at least try to abstain from) metaphorical extensions that describe “culture as text that can be read—or of a culture as a Geertzian (Geertz 1973, 453) ensemble of texts” (Silverstein and Urban 1996, 1; see Olsen 2003, 90, and...

  10. Part III: Agency through Writing and Early Texts

    • EIGHT Structuration of the Conjuncture: Agency in Classic Maya Iconography and Texts
      (pp. 185-208)
      Joshua Englehardt

      In recent years, archaeologists have incorporated the concept of agency into their analyses and reconstructions of past social behaviors. A focus on the intentions behind and consequences of individual action has flourished, despite some confusion as to what agency is or should be (Dobres and Robb 2000, 9; Dornan 2002; Robb 2001, 2010). In this chapter, I employ an agency approach to examine textual and iconographic evidence regarding the much disputed Teotihuacán “arrival” in the Maya lowlands in AD 378, an event known as the entrada (Bove 1991; Braswell 2003a, 2003b; Englehardt 2005; Stuart 2000). I am interested in the...

    • NINE Inscriptions from Zhongshan: Chinese Texts and the Archaeology of Agency
      (pp. 209-230)
      Wang Haicheng

      Twenty-five years ago the eminent Egyptologist Barry Kemp made a somewhat gloomy assessment of archaeology, or at least of some of its ambitions: “The archaeology which . . . seeks to do more than to set out tableaux and to document the earthier sides of human life . . . is forced to rely upon an intellectual transformation of data which it is poorly equipped to carry out. To this extent archaeology is . . . a flawed discipline” (1984, 27).

      Kemp made this assessment in a 1984 essay on the relationship between archaeology and texts. Since that time, a...

    • TEN Structuration and the State in Mycenaean Greece
      (pp. 231-248)
      Dimitri Nakassis

      At first glance, Mycenaean Greece is an odd place to examine early writing and agency. The Mycenaean writing system, Linear B, is a syllabic script used to write the earliest known form of the Greek language (ca. 1400–1200 BCE). Linear B was inscribed with a stylus on sealings and tablets whose clay was still moist (Figure 10.1); it was also painted with a brush on large transport vessels known as stirrup jars. The authors of all these documents are anonymous scribes. The texts themselves are all highly laconic, temporary economic records that circulated among a restricted group of administrators....

  11. Epilogue: Agency and Writing
    (pp. 249-256)
    Ruth D. Whitehouse

    I take it as my brief in this epilogue to pick out issues that I find particularly interesting and to make some suggestions for future research. I make no apology therefore for concentrating on my own interests and also for introducing examples that come from my own research field, first-millennium BC Italy, which is not covered by any of the chapters in the volume.

    I shall focus specifically on different ways in which agency relates to writing, both as a general theme and as treated in the chapters in this volume. I shall avoid a general discussion of agency and...

  12. References
    (pp. 257-288)
  13. List of Contributors
    (pp. 289-292)
  14. Index
    (pp. 293-299)