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Ancient Literacy

The Tavoliere Project


Alto-Medio Polesine -Basso Veronese

Ancient Literacy

Three members of Accordia, Ruth Whitehouse, John Wilkins and Kathryn Lomas, have received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (previously the Arts and Humanities Research Board) for two research projects examining literacy and its role in socio-cultural development in pre-Roman Italy, both based at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. This first of these, Developmental  Literacy and the Establishment of Regional Identity in Italy, ended in 2005 and a publication is in preparation. The second, Etruscan and central Italian literacy in socio-cultural context, is in progress. For further information about both of these projects and associated events, please visit the Ancient Literacy website at UCL.

Developmental  Literacy and the Establishment of Regional Identity in Italy

Grotta Porcinara, site of a Messapic sanctuary

This research project (2002-2005) is an inter-disciplinary project funded by a major research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board and based at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.  It aims to study the role of incipient literacy as a critical factor in the formation of urban/state societies, and in the emergence of differing cultural identities. It will focus on three key areas of ancient Italy - north-east, south-east and north-west - where local communities developed in contact with the established urban societies of the Etruscans, the Western Greeks and the Romans.

The broad research aim is to explore the role played by the adoption of writing and literate skills in the development of social complexity in culture-contact situations. The comparative nature of the project should allow the identification of both shared cultural processes of wide applicability and specific factors operating locally. Some of the specific questions addressed include:

a) the restriction of literate skills to selected contexts, e.g. the 'ritual' area. Preliminary studies suggest that there is a heavy emphasis on the ritual use of writing in all three areas, with most inscriptions coming from either funerary or sanctuary sites. However, there are many local variations. For instance, in SE Italy inscriptions occur on the walls of caves such as the Grotta della Poesia and the Grotta Pagliara, although this practice never occurs in association with the Greek settlements. Some appear to represent dedications to deities, which would support an interpretation of the caves as cult places, perhaps representing the continuation of a long prehistoric tradition of cave cults in southeast Italy. The local use of writing on cave walls might provisionally be interpreted as a practice in which the new elite technology of writing was used to bring renewed validity to time-honoured rituals carried out in caves, while recursively the ritual brought validity to the new technology by incorporating it within established local symbolic systems and social practices.

Grotta della Poesia: interior of cave sanctuary

b) literate skills as the exclusive prerogative of a religious and/or political elite. This might be assessed through examination of the absolute numbers of inscriptions, the variety of contexts in which they occur and, sometimes, the content of the texts (e.g. plausible interpretations as explicit references to priests and priestesses, royalty or officials of various kinds). Where inscriptions occur on everyday objects such as loom-weights, we might deduce that literacy (at some level) was not restricted to elites but more widespread.

c) the association of developing literacy with one or both genders.  Analysis of contexts in which identifiably female and male names occur may help elucidate the nature of these roles and also throw light on other aspects of gender roles, relations and ideology in this society.

d) the technology of writing and its relationship to other technologies and craft skills. One way in which this can be examined is by looking at the different materials on which inscriptions are found. For instance, where bronze objects were inscribed at the time of manufacture, we may assume that some bronze-smiths were literate (at least to some extent) and we may wish to deduce some connection between the craft of metal-working and the craft of writing. We can also look at the materials used for writing, such as the bronze writing palettes and styluses discussed above, although it will be necessary to consider the distinction between everyday tools and their symbolic counterparts deposited in sanctuaries or tombs.

e) the application of the new literacy to specific purposes, the role of the 'reader', and the importance of symbolic function. This involves consideration of more general theoretical issues concerning literacy. In particular we shall examine critically the interpretation of writing as communication and the concept of the reader. For instance, we shall ask who might be considered the 'reader' in the many cases of writing interred in tombs, inscribed on cave walls (distant from natural light), or buried in votive deposits in sanctuaries. At this preliminary stage we feel that writing may often have had a symbolic function in these societies, not necessarily directly connected with the content of the inscriptions, but more closely related to the social contexts in which they were produced, displayed and disposed of.

Etruscan and central Italian literacy in socio-cultural context

Etruscan tombs from Caere

Central Italy in general, and Etruria in particular, is a key region for the study of literacy in Italy. It was the first region to adopt writing from Greeks and Phoenicians, and to adapt it to local purposes. The early date of the introduction of alphabetic writing poses interesting questions about possible connections between literacy and the social, economic and political changes which resulted in the development of state/urban societies in the region. To enhance the study of variation in the development of early literacy in central Italy, we will study not only Etruria itself but also the neighbouring areas in which Etruscans settled and with which they had close contact (principally Latium, Campania and Umbria). Since the quantity of written material from the regions is very large, the project will focus on evidence for the period from the earliest development of writing to approximately the early 4th century BC. In addition to keeping the sample size manageable, this will allow us to focus on a specific phase in the development of Etruscan society, which underwent significant social changes and changes from the 4th century onwards.

The primary objective of this project is to develop an understanding of the social context of literacy in Etruria, from its earliest development to approximately the beginning of the 4th century BC. The project will seek to build on the studies mentioned above by undertaking a more comprehensive and fine-tuned chronological and geographical survey of the early inscriptions from Etruria. It will also attempt a more systematic survey of the wider culture of writing, studying items related to writing and other evidence such as visual representations of writing in tomb-paintings, sculpture and locally-produced vase-painting. By comparing different types of evidence for writing and literacy, it should be possible to reach some more secure conclusions about the introduction and diffusion of writing, and its social context.

Our second objective is to contribute to the development of theoretical accounts of ancient literacy and its impact on society, in particular in the context of early Italy. There has recently been considerable interest in the development of literacy in early societies amongst anthropologists, archaeologists and historians working on many early societies, but only relatively recently have scholars attempted to apply this theoretical work to early Italy.

Finally, the project will use the study of literacy as a vehicle for examining cultural differentiation within Etruria. There has been a strong trend in Etruscan studies to regard the region as a cultural unity in Antiquity, but in fact, there are major differences within the region (and especially between north and south Etruria) in culture, in economic development, in contacts with areas beyond Etruria, and in urbanisation. By examining possible differences in the establishment and usage of literacy between various parts of the region, or between major centres, we hope to shed further light both on differentiation within Etruria and also differences between the Etruscans and their central Italian neighbours, such as the Latins or Campanians.

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