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  • Form Follows Function: Writing and its supports in the Aegean Bronze Age

    Sarah Finlayson

    Chapter from the book: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R. 2013. Writing as Material Practice: Substance, surface and medium.

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    The phrase ‘form follows function’, originally conceived as an aesthetic principle, has been applied to fields as disparate as architecture and software engineering. I use it here as a starting point from which to unpick the complex and changing relationship between writing and its supports during the Aegean Bronze Age, with the basic hypothesis that the shape, and to a lesser extent, material, of objects that bear writing change according to the purpose to which they, object + writing, are put.

    I examine the evidence at two levels. Firstly, the use of writing supports in each of the three main Aegean scripts, Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A. and Linear B, is reviewed. Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A are both in use on Crete during the First and early Second Palace Periods, although largely in different areas, offering the possibility of comparing contemporary approaches to the creation and use of different objects on which to write what seem to be (given that both scripts are undeciphered) broadly similar subject matters. Cretan Hieroglyphic ceases to be used later in the Second Palace Period, and Linear A use spreads — likewise, Linear B replaces Linear A in the Third Palace Period; these two transitions allow us to look at how practice changes through time, but also, potentially, at the deliberate refinement of writing supports as certain forms are carried from old to new script, new shapes are introduced, and others go out of use.

    While keeping these longer term patterns in mind, I then focus on Linear A; its diverse range of writing supports offers the potential of building up a more detailed picture of how and where different kinds of writing-bearing object are used within a particular chronological period. Writing appears on objects we classify as administrative, such as clay tablets, but also, intriguingly, on what seem to be non-administrative items like metal pins or stone ‘libation tables’, giving the impression of a loose and flexible attitude to what can be written upon. Key questions to consider include to what extent this diversity of shape is ‘organised’? Does the shape of the writing support add meaning to the usually brief inscription, or vice versa? And, is it possible that people interacting with writing might have visibility of only one kind of support — what would this mean for their conception of writing, and our definitions of literacy?

    To conclude, I return to the longer view, and my original hypothesis, to consider whether form really does follow function with Aegean Bronze Age writing, and whether the changes that occur result from writing-users refining the system, or the system refining the users.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Finlayson, S. 2013. Form Follows Function: Writing and its supports in the Aegean Bronze Age. In: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R (eds.), Writing as Material Practice. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.g

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Published on Dec. 18, 2013


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