To make objects speak – Inscriptions as both things and texts  

by Anna Sitz

After the Bronze Age collapse of circa 1200 BCE, Greeks forgot how to write. Linear B texts – syllabic script used for writing in Mycenaean Greek – disappeared. Greeks did not learn how to write again until perhaps the eighth century BCE, when, at various places in the Greek world, semitic letters were adopted and adapted to Greek language. The rest, as they say, is history: the Greeks developed or expanded many of the writing genres that are still with us today, from tragedies and comedies to history writing to philosophy. But we do not have evidence for these genres until a couple centuries after writing re-emerged in Greece. So why were these early Greek writing systems initially developed? What did Greeks get from writing? The traditional answer to this question has taken a linguistic approach: Greek characters captured phonemes, allowing the recording of the oral poetry that was such a central part of Geometric and Archaic Greek culture, as embodied by the epics of Homer.

Inscribed base of a colossal kouros next to the ‘House of the Naxians’ on Delos. It reads [τ]ο αϜυτο λιθο εμι ανδριας και το σφελας ‘I am of the same stone, both base and statue’ – (Jeffery 1990, 292 and 304 no. 10). Photo author.

Professor James Whitley of Cardiff University gave a lecture in Heidelberg on January 18 in which he presented a completely different answer to the question of why the Greeks began to use writing again through an investigation of the period circa 900–550 BCE. His answer is one in which the subject matter of the SFB 933 – the material aspects of texts, their relationship with the writing bearer, and the Präsenz of writing – not only serves as a complement to more typical philological/textual approaches to Greek alphabets, but actually provides the fundamental reason for the development of writing in this cultural context. In short: Greeks developed scripts in order to make objects speak, to give them person-like agency, and to deepen the entanglement of human and object actors.

Phrasikleia. Speaking statue. Aristion of Paros, c. 550 BCE. Photo: C. Raddato.

Professor Whitley’s lecture was a collaboration of the SFB 933 “Material Text Cultures”, the Institute for Classical Archaeology and Byzantine Archaeology, and the Seminar for Ancient History and Epigraphy. He emphasized that we can understand Greek inscriptions only through this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration: for too long, epigraphers (often working within the field of Ancient History) have published inscriptions as texts in corpora, which sometimes do not even include pictures or drawings of the stone. The inscriptions are therefore divorced from their material writing support, from the visual properties of the script itself, and from any carved or painted images that may have their place on the same writing bearer. Only by cooperating with researchers from other departments, by studying more than one discipline, and by making the corpora themselves accessible to a greater number of researchers can this divide be bridged, resulting in a more holistic understanding of Greek inscriptions. This goal of bringing together disciplines also lies at the heart of the two SFB 933 projects that invited Professor Whitley to Heidelberg, A10 (Professor Nikolaus Dietrich and Dr. Johannes Fouquet, Schrift und Bild in der griechischen Plastik) and A01 UP1 (Dr. Anna M. Sitz and Banban Wang, MA, Die Präsenz von Inschriften in griechischen Heiligtümern).

The evidence that Professor Whitley assembled in his lecture was textual, visual, and anthropological. First, he discussed the well-known formulation of some of the earliest Greek inscriptions (usually on ceramic vessels), in which the object declares “I am…” or “so-and-so made me…” This formula is also used on grave stones and dedications, and it clearly frames the object as a speaking entity – as a type of person. Furthermore, the laying out of the earliest of these inscriptions on the ceramic vessels (scratched onto the ceramic surface after firing) often follows the painted decorative lines on the vessel, as well as the shape of the object (i.e., the text might curve around the should of a jug). Professor Whitley draws attention to the probability that the development of Greek scripts (in the plural; there was not just one, single Greek alphabetic script in the early centuries) corresponded with the development of Geometric decorative motifs: we cannot understand this development as solely a linguistic-phonetic phenomenon. He furthermore takes an anthropological view of personhood, drawing on research arguing that personhood is performative and that, in various cultures throughout history, it has been attributed to objects/statues/nature in addition to humans.

Professor Whitley’s lecture therefore underscored the importance of studying “material text cultures.” One does not need to agree with each point in his argument in order to grasp the necessity of looking at texts as material objects, as well as the benefits of taking an interdisciplinary approach. His answer to the question of why early Greeks developed alphabetic writing systems challenges the old association of Greeks with nascent (western) rationality, encouraging us to instead situate ancient Greek practices within more widespread human habits. 

Image above: “Nestor’s cup”. Late Geometric cup buried at Pithekoussai, c. 720 BCE. Photo: M. Cyron

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