The Function and Meaning of Writing in the Prehistoric Aegean: Some reflections on the social and symbolic significance of writing from a material perspective
Chapter from the book: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R. 2013. Writing as Material Practice: Substance, surface and medium.
In this chapter I discuss the materiality of writing in the Bronze Age Aegean, with a particular focus on evidence from Crete. It is from here that the earliest forms of writing in the Aegean derive, dating to before the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. In the period of the first palaces there seem to have been two systems of writing in use: Linear A and the so-called Cretan Hieroglyphic Script. The development of these scripts coincides more or less with the construction of the first palaces at Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos, and it is probable that the early use of writing on Crete was closely associated with the emergence of centralised administration at the transition from the Early Bronze Age to the Middle Bronze Age. In the first part of the chapter I review the different types of support (clay, stone, metal, bone) that are known from archaeological excavation or for which there is indirect evidence (wood, papyrus, leather). I consider their particular material qualities in relation to the act of writing as well as to the types of documents for which they were used and the contexts in which they were produced and put to use. In the second part of the chapter I discuss Aegean writing in terms of its social and symbolic meanings. It is possible that the ability to record information in a visible and tangible form may have been seen as a form of esoteric power. Early examples of writing occur on seals, which would have been objects of prestige and perhaps authority, as well as on clay tablets. Writing on stone and metal artefacts has been found in cultic contexts, which suggests that writing may have been associated with religious meaning as well as having been a way of enhancing objects made of valuable materials.