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  • “It Is Written”?: Making, remaking and unmaking early ‘writing’ in the lower Nile Valley

    Kathryn E. Piquette

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

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    Conventional analysis and interpretation of inscriptions and associated images often focus on their status as finished objects, with less attention being devoted to image ‘life histories’, particularly the creative processes involved in physical expression. The aim of this chapter is to explore the unfolding of written culture across time–space in relation to particular material media and the implications of their transformations for the role of inscribed objects. For its basis, this inquiry grapples with evidence from the lower Nile Valley during the Late Predynastic–Early Dynastic periods (c.3300 / 3100–2800 / 2770 BCE), including perforated bone, ivory and wooden plaques or ‘labels’, stone vessels, and funerary stelae from cemetery contexts, with particular focus on the Upper Egyptian site of Abydos. Tool and other marks on these objects provide detailed insight into sequences of technical action involved in the writing process. However, I move beyond a general consideration of the writing act to focus on different degrees of un-making and partial making, as well as episodes of adjustment, addition, and possible re-making. Whole compositions and parts thereof are obliterated through vigorous scratching or scraping away while some are scored or crossed out. Yet other images are tidily removed. Additions may be made after initial inscription using different or similar writing tools and techniques. In at least one case, the drafting phase appears complete while the subsequent carving remains unfinished. Drawing on the notion of chaîne opératoire and practice theory, including structuration, I examine these secondary and other transformations and consider their implications for maker intention and choice, and object function and meaning. In contrast to notions of writing as enduring and transcendent, embodied in terms such as ‘record’ or ‘source’, a material practice approach prompts consideration of the ways in which writing and related symbolic modes may be unstable. Based on the form, content and modes of expression, as well as spatial and temporal distribution, Egypt’s earliest script was clearly bound up with the development of the Egyptian state, playing an important role in high status funerary practice. However, despite the centralisation and increasing standardisation of scribal and artistic activities, the ways in which the writing ‘system’ was practised on more local and individual levels could be variable and contingent.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Piquette, K. 2013. “It Is Written”?: Making, remaking and unmaking early ‘writing’ in the lower Nile Valley. In: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R (eds.), Writing as Material Practice. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.k

    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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