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  • Straight, Crooked and Joined-up Writing: An early Mediterranean view

    Alan Johnston

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

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    The role of different surfaces in the development of writing styles in the earlier periods of literacy in the Mediterranean world has rarely been discussed. I examine some aspects with particular reference to writers of Greek and Etruscan. The study is of course impeded by the limited nature of the evidence preserved for us, but we can make some estimates of the character of lost materials, most notably skin and papyrus, from a few secondary sources, largely from Greek literature. 

    A major factor with respect to the influence of the medium (whether the surface or the tool) is the extent at any given period of tendencies towards ‘cursivity’; the concept is discussed briefly and some sporadic examples are noted of the usage of ‘flowing’ letters in the material that is preserved in the period down to c.400 BCE. However, a contrary development is seen in the more formal texts on stone appearing from the later 6th century in the ‘stoichedon’ style of patterned ‘four-square lettering’. The appearance of such, mainly official, texts on stone or bronze may have reined in any incipient moves to casual, ‘joined up’, writing. This is suggested by the few glimmers of Greek texts on papyrus that survive from the period before c.350 BCE (and the sole Etruscan one after that date), where the lettering remains in ‘capitals’. 

    With respect to overall tendencies within the broad geographical area, not many individual polities have yielded sufficient material for solid judgements to be made; local usages can be occasionally isolated, but the general pace of change to the cursive writing that indeed eventually emerges is slow between the 7th to 4th centuries; some comparanda can be seen in other areas of material culture where ease of manufacture and utility are somewhat haltingly developed. 

    In the course of the chapter I draw on examples from inscribed ceramics to papyrus, mummy bindings and rock-cut graffiti and other stone inscriptions to illustrate both local phenomena and more general tendencies pertaining to individual types of surfaces and writing instruments. Virtually all emerge from the basic form of alphabet developed in some areas of the Greek- speaking world in the period c.850–775 BCE from a Semitic model; the initial re-working of the signs that were borrowed at that time can be seen to be grounded in the current decorative style of the period, the so-called Geometric style, which appears in more or less ‘rigid’ versions throughout the area. In the background there will remain the topic of the relationship of writer to reader, and the extent to which the former may have had the latter’s interests in mind; a general trend away from the use of interpuncts is an indication that such interests were not of any deep-seated nature.

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    Johnston, A. 2013. Straight, Crooked and Joined-up Writing: An early Mediterranean view. In: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R (eds.), Writing as Material Practice. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.j

    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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