About the Developmental Literacy Project



Background to the Project

This inter-disciplinary project 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  - the 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 project falls within the context of recent work on literacy, ethnicity, culture-contact and state-formation, which represent major themes of research within archaeology, ancient history and anthropology. While culture-contact is often seen as a contributing factor in state-formation, and the growth of conscious ethnicity has also been related to increasing social complexity, literacy by contrast has been treated as a case apart, and strictly within the narrow confines of an uncontextualised linguistics. The new project seeks instead to integrate all these perspectives into an inter-disciplinary framework.

The Evidence

Each area has produced some hundreds of inscriptions, of the 6th to 1st centuries BC. They occur on a wide variety of artefact types (e.g. pots, loomweights, figurines, statues, plaques, sarcophagi, votive cippi, funerary inscriptions and cave walls). They use scripts variously derived from Greek or Etruscan models but offer a wealth of evidence as to the development of local language and inter-language interaction. Traditionally language groupings have been labelled as (Gallo-)Lepontic and Ligurian (NW Italy), Raetic and Venetic (NE) and Messapic (SE). There is a body of traditional grammatical and philological work on the inscriptions, but these studies rarely take account of the archaeological context, and the wider social background. We propose to record the material on new databases, recording archaeological contextual information as well as comprehensive descriptions of the inscriptions.
These databases will serve to organise the material in a systematic manner and to enable it to be investigated through the identification of patterns of correlation and exclusion. For instance, some types of inscription may appear exclusively in funerary contexts, others on votives in sanctuary sites; there may be differences between inscriptions on monumental structures and those on artefacts or, within the latter category, differences between inscriptions found on artefacts made of different materials. We shall also attempt to identify chronological patterns of use over time. As well as looking for patterns within the bodies of data being investigated we shall also look for similarities and contrasts with the way writing was used in the Greek and Etruscan communities from which the local groups took their alphabets, and also subsequent Roman usage patterns.  We hope, eventually, to make our database available on this website.  For more information about the database, its structure and its proposed contents, please see our database page.  During the first year of the project (2002-3), we are concentrating on evidence from north-east Italy.

Project aims

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.

Examples of some specific questions to be 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.

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.