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Agency in Ancient Writing

Edited by Joshua Englehardt

Publication Year: 2012

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Egypt, Crete, China, and Greece are examined from a textual perspective as both archaeological objects and nascent historical documents.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.

Published by: University Press of Colorado

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x


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pp. xi

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pp. xiii-xv

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...

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pp. xvii-xviii

This volume is the result of over two years of hard work and collaboration among a number of outstanding individuals. First and foremost, I thank each of the contributors for their commitment, dedication, and tremendous effort throughout the process of producing...

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Introduction. Individual Intentionality, Social Structure, and Material Agency in Early Writing and Emerging Script Technologies

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pp. 1-18

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...

Part 1: Agency in the Formation of Early Writing and Notational Systems

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1. The Mediated Image: Reflections on Semasiographic Notation in the Ancient Americas

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pp. 21-43

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...

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2. Bureaucratic Backlashes: Bureaucrats as Agents of Socioeconomic Change in Proto-Historic Mesopotamia

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pp. 45-69

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...

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3. Are Writing Systems Intelligently Designed?

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pp. 71-93

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...

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4. Agency in Death: Early Egyptian Writing from Mortuary Contexts

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pp. 95-111

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...

Part 2: The Material Agency of Early Writing and Incipient Scripts

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5. Reembodying Identity: Seals and Seal Impressions as Agents of Social Change on Late Prepalatial Crete

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pp. 115-138

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...

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6 .Performance, Presence, and Genre in Maya Hieroglyphs

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pp. 139-163

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...

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7. Contingency and Innovation in Native Transcriptions of Encrypted Cuneiform (UD.GAL.NUN)

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pp. 165-182

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...

Part 3: Agency through Writing and Early Texts

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8. Structuration of the Conjuncture: Agency in Classic Maya Iconography and Texts

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pp. 185-207

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...

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9. Inscriptions from Zhongshan: Chinese Texts and the Archaeolog y of Agency

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pp. 209-230

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 . . ....

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10. Structuration and the State in Mycenaean Greece

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pp. 231-247

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...

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Epilogue: Agency and Writing

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pp. 249-255

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...


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pp. 257-287

List of Contributors

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pp. 289-291


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pp. 293-299

E-ISBN-13: 9781607322092
E-ISBN-10: 1607322099
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607321996
Print-ISBN-10: 1607321998

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 32 B&W photos, 42 line illustrations, 7 maps, 7 tables
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Writing -- Social aspects -- Case studies.
  • Agent (Philosophy) -- Case studies.
  • Paleography -- Case studies.
  • Social archaeology -- Case studies.
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