# Glossographia

• ## Stephen Chrisomalis

Stephen Chrisomalis is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Wayne State University.

# Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Posted by schrisomalis on November 26, 2009

Today, most of my colleagues are toiling away in an attempt to cook and carve some sort of fowl. Me, well, I’m Canadian, and even though I work over in the Dark Nether Reaches and get to enjoy its three-day week, I live over here in Canada’s Deep South and get to … have a flu shot and catch up on posting some links of interest?

I don’t have much to add about the sad passing of Dell Hymes last week. I didn’t know him but I know many people who did, and no one who purports to be a linguistic anthropologist (or sociolinguist … or anthropological linguist … or …) can possibly be ignorant of his work. The NYT description of him as a “Linguist with a Wide Net” is utterly evocative and has me imagining it literally. He will be missed, but his legacy on the discipline will remain vital for decades.

While Turkey officially switched from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s, at the same time it prohibited the use of letters not used to represent Turkish – which includes the ‘ordinary’ Roman letters Q, W, and X. While sometimes portrayed as a ban on those letters specifically, it is a more general ban on non-Turkish characters, as far as I can tell, which would seem to prohibit all sorts of texts. Ostensibly designed to promote national unity and secular rule, the law has only been applied to Turks of Kurdish descent. As someone who until last year was a resident of a region where texts written in my native language are under severe legal constraints, this has been a matter of some interest and concern to me for a few years now. Mark Liberman tells us more over at Language Log.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are investigating the cultural evolution of language, arguing that language change is patterned by the biological constraints of the human brain – in other words, language changes to accomodate itself to the sorts of brains we possess. They are examining this idea experimentally using an artificial language of simple syllables used to describe alien-looking fruit … which is not as bizarre as I may have made it sound. Edinburgh is doing a lot of exciting work these days in linguistics, what with Jim Hurford, Simon Kirby, and Geoff Pullum (among others) housed there.

Relatedly, Marc Changizi claims (following up on work he has been doing for the past several years) that there are strong cognitive / evolutionary constraints on the graphemes (discrete written units) of writing systems, creating similiarites across writing systems that reflect the cultural evolution of graphemes to accomodate the needs and capacities of the human brain. I have more doubts about this one, which I may talk about in more detail – basically my concern is that the cross-cultural analysis is weak and inadequately accounts for borrowing (Galton’s problem). But it’s interesting work that deserves some attention. Hat tip to The Lousy Linguist for both this item and the previous one).

Lastly, Alun Salt has recently published a very interesting paper, ‘The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples‘ arguing for a more rigorous statistical approach to archaeoastronomy and establishing solar orientations. He’s not the first to use statistical analysis in archaeoastronomy but he does note with some dismay that there is generally insufficient concern with quantitative reasoning among archaeoastronomers to be able to apply statistical tests effectively. Salt highlights some of the complexities in making these determinations – leap second daters, take note! More important than the article itself, though, is its venue, the open-access PLoS ONE. Although ‘cheap’ by open-access standards, the fact that authors must pay ‘only’ $1350 to cover publication costs is, I think, problematic in humanities and social science disciplines where grants are small and getting proportionally smaller. To my American friends, good luck with your birds, and thanks for reading! ## Leap second dating Posted by schrisomalis on November 16, 2009 Archaeologists have long been used to being dependent on physicists for radiometric dating, but gravimetric dating? A new paper deposited last week to arXiv suggests so: The physical origin of the leap second is discussed in terms of the new gravity model. The calculated time shift of the earth rotation around the sun for one year amounts to$\displaystyle{\Delta T \simeq 0.621 s/ year}$. According to the data, the leap second correction for one year corresponds to$\Delta T \simeq 0.63 \pm 0.03 s/ year \$, which is in perfect agreement with the prediction. This shows that the leap second is not originated from the rotation of the earth in its own axis. Instead, it is the same physics as the Mercury perihelion shift. We propose a novel dating method (Leap Second Dating) which enables to determine the construction date of some archaeological objects such as Stonehenge.

So how do we get from leap seconds to Stonehenge? The authors are claiming that the predictions of general relativity allow us to estimate the time shift of the earth’s rotation around the sun at ~ 10.3 minutes / 1000 years. The same process that leads to us adding ‘leap seconds’ to the calendar allows us to measure the difference in sunrise / sunset over long time periods. Now, I’m not a physicist so I can’t follow all that other stuff, other than understanding that the shift in Mercury’s perihelion is one of the demonstrations of general relativity used by Einstein. So let’s grant it.

The authors claim that “some of the archaeological objects may well possess a special part of the building which can be pointed to the sun at the equinox.” And if you expect the alignment to occur at sunrise but you’re off by 10 minutes, well, it must be because it was built 1000 years ago, right? But with a shift of 10 minutes per millennium, you’ve got a new problem, namely that you’re going to get a whole bunch of false positive solar alignments. The authors’ assumption that we know in advance which objects are aligned to particular solar events is incorrect.

Moreover, the authors note correctly that “It should be noted that the new dating method has an important assumption that there should be no major earthquake in the region of the archaeological objects.” Indeed, one would need to ensure that there had been virtually no movement of the celestially-aligned features – post-glacial rebound, for instance, can cause massive shifts in elevation over the time scale we’re considering, not to mention garden-variety post-depositional processes. And bear in mind that an alignment requires at least two archaeological features that can be demonstrated to be associated with one another. The error bars would be HUGE.

Finally, the idea that new dating techniques allows physical scientists to ‘tell’ archaeologists the date of their stuff is incorrect. When radiocarbon dating was developed in the late 40s, it required evidentiary confirmation, confirmation which could only come from dating archaeological materials of known age – in this case, Egyptian materials dated non-radiometrically (e.g. papyri containing dates), which could confirm that the rate of C-14 formation was (more or less) constant (Trigger 2006: 382). We don’t have anything like that here.

I’m not saying that this idea is so ridiculous that no one should try it – though it might be. But my advice to astrophysicists is to take a deep breath and consult an archaeologist before claiming to have developed a new dating technique. In other words: look before you leap.

Fujita, Takehisa. and Naohira Kanda. 2009. Physics of leap second. arXiv:0911.2087v1.
Trigger, Bruce. 2006. History of archaeological thought, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

(Hat tip to the weird and wacky folks at Improbable Research)

Posted in Archaeology | 3 Comments »

## Pseudo-disciplines

Posted by schrisomalis on November 1, 2009

There is a fascinating short essay ‘Ancient History and Pseudoscholarship‘ over at Livius.org. I don’t share the author’s belief that most laypeople are able to distinguish pseudoscholarship from professional work, nor that there is an absolute decline in pseudoscience over the past few decades. I do absolutely agree that the prevalence of faulty reasoning and uncritical use of evidence by scholars in the historical and social sciences is far more problematic than the more outlandish pseudoscientific beliefs such as the ancient astronaut hypothesis. And it will come as no surprise to you that I share the author’s conviction that a robust and broad training (in my work, that would include linguistics, archaeology, history, anthropology, and cognitive science) in order to allow professionals to avoid pseudoscientific errors in their own research and teaching.

Posted in Archaeology, Linguistics | 6 Comments »

## Ysteriousmay esselvay

Posted by schrisomalis on September 20, 2009

Archaeologists working at Mount Zion in Israel have uncovered a stone vessel (dated between 37 BCE and 70 CE by archaeological association) bearing a cryptic script. The vessel, which is around 13 cm high, bears ten lines of writing scratched into the stone, but the inscription, which appears to be a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic (we are not told on what grounds), but has not yet been deciphered.

Now that’s interesting. Let’s think about that for a minute. The article claims that “the cup’s script appears to be a secret code, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the two written languages used in Jerusalem at the time”. Both Hebrew and Aramaic are well-understood scripts that represent well-understood languages. So what on earth is going on here?

We don’t have a transcription at all, and I’ve been unable to find any further information yet, but what I suspect is going on is that some of the characters on the vessel are in Hebrew script, and others in Aramaic script, but that the translation of these doesn’t yet reveal a meaningful interpretation in either the Hebrew or Aramaic languages. It’s possible that the inscription records a third language (oh, let’s say … Phrygian, just to be obscure yet controversial), or that it is some sort of linguistic code (think ‘Pig Aramaic’, if you will) or even a substitution cipher. We just don’t know what the language is yet – and that’s really the most likely way we could get a text like this in two well-known scripts that we can’t read.

This is often a problem in media reporting in paleography and epigraphy – no distinction is made between the writing system (script) and the language of the inscription. The good news is that the research team is “sharing pictures of the cup with experts on the writing of the period. The researchers also plan to post detailed photos of the cup and its inscriptions online soon.” Now that’s going to make progress a lot faster.

Posted in Archaeology, Literacy and writing | 2 Comments »

## Levantine hieroglyphs in the Early Bronze Age

Posted by schrisomalis on September 10, 2009

A 4cm fragment of a carved stone plaque (photo here) has been found in northern Israel at the site of Tel Bet Yerah, depicting an arm bearing a scepter and an early form of the Egyptian ankh symbol. It appears to date to the First Dynasty of Egypt (ca. 3000 BCE) – by some centuries, this is the earliest evidence of Egyptian writing outside of Egypt proper – although it isn’t a text that could be understood linguistically, and in fact is very small. The press release from Tel Aviv University isn’t clear how it was dated (whether contextually by association with other material, or paleographically/iconographically from the style of the inscription), but notes that it is “the first artifact of its type ever found in an archaeological context outside Egypt”, whatever ‘of its type’ means. Either way, this is strong evidence that Egyptian representational traditions were known in the Levant in the Early Bronze Age, 1500 years before the New Kingdom, when Egypt first exercised direct political authority in the region.

Posted in Archaeology, Literacy and writing | 5 Comments »

## Zapotec decipherment on the horizon

Posted by schrisomalis on August 31, 2009

Artdaily.org reports on a major new initiative to compile an epigraphic corpus and eventually (it is hoped) decipher the Zapotec hieroglyphic writing system. Unfortunately the article has been poorly translated, and I am at a loss as to the meaning of the sentence, “During that age, numeral system began, which would reach a great sophistication towards 7th century.” But that’s not the point. Most people who think of Mesoamerican writing think of the Maya hieroglyphs, or maybe, maybe the Aztec manuscript tradition. But the earliest inscriptions of the Valley of Oaxaca (the Zapotec homeland) are very early (500 BCE) – as early or earlier than any other Mesoamerican writing (with the exception of the enigmatic Cascajal Block) and (debatably) centuries earlier than any writing in the Maya languages. Monument 3 from San José Mogote is the earliest clear evidence for Mesoamerican numeration (used in the name ’1 Earthquake’).

But we really don’t know as much as we would like about the Zapotec script (of which there are hundreds of examples dating from 500 BCE to 850 CE, although many are short or fragmentary). Our state of knowledge about the script is roughly where we were with Mayan writing forty years ago: we can read the numbers and the calendar, and we can ‘interpret’ a few other glyphs contextually, but that’s about it. There has been important recent work on Zapotec, particularly by Javier Urcid, whose excellent book, Zapotec Hieroglyphic Writing (2001), represents a major step forward, but it isn’t a decipherment nor does it claim to be. If a Zapotec decipherment or even a partial decipherment were to emerge from this new initiative, it would clearly help sort out many thorny phylogenetic issues in lowland Mesoamerican linguistic history and culture. But the script may not be highly phonetic, and certainly is not an excellent candidate for a Linear-B-Michael-Ventris style decipherment. Still, one can hope.

## Copper Scroll mania

Posted by schrisomalis on August 31, 2009

Check out a remarkable piece of popular science writing and pseudoscience debunking: Pseudo-Science and Sensationalist Archaeology: An Exposé of Jimmy Barfield and the Copper Scroll Project. It is an accessible point-by-point refutation of a set of claims regarding the Copper Scroll, an aberrant (but still fully comprehensible) text among the Dead Sea Scrolls, one written on copper rather than parchment or papyrus. Those of you who have followed my posts on archaeolinguistics will find Robert Cargill’s debunking of Jim Barfield’s ‘discovery’ to be a telling example of how both archaeological and linguistic expertise are essential when dealing with ancient texts.

Posted in Archaeology, Linguistics | 2 Comments »

## Tolkien as translator: the anthropology of Middle-Earth

Posted by schrisomalis on August 1, 2009

[Author's note: Sorry for the great delay in posting! I promise that I am not dead, and neither is this blog - I've been involved in an ethnographic project since, well, the day after my last post here, and while it doesn't end for another two weeks, I thought I might check in, just in case anyone is still reading. Expect a flurry of posts to come in late August once I regain my bearings.]

Several months ago, the Tolkien Studies on the Web blog reported that the Maya epigraphist / linguist / archaeologist Marc Zender, who is a lecturer at Harvard, is currently offering (and presumably is nearly concluded?) a summer course entitled, ‘Tolkien as translator: Language, culture, and society in Middle-Earth‘. It looks like a really fascinating approach, from a scholar whose work on Maya hieroglyphic writing will doubtless provide many interesting parallels and contrasts with Middle-earth.

Tolkienophilia is often associated with medieval historians (and no, I haven’t forgotten about that list of sources on medieval anthropology), understandably given that the man was one of the great Anglo-Saxon scholars of the last century, but I’ve always felt a kinship with Tolkien from an anthropological perspective, despite any number of rather unsightly issues of class, race, and gender that exist within his oeuvre. His incredible focus on language, his deep concern with genealogy and kinship, and the foundational roles of myth and history in his worldbuilding, were what first attracted me to Tolkien’s writing, and still do.

There is no question that, even though I’ve hardly read any of his actual scholarship (and wouldn’t understand it if I could), Tolkien has been one of the more important scholarly influences on my work as well. One of my good friends (an archaeologist) once described me as a philologist in the style of Tolkien, and while that’s not actually true, I see what he means. I was about two hours away from leading a seminar discussion on the Elvish tengwar script (as well as other fictional writing systems) as part of a course on the anthropology of writing and literacy. That was the day Bruce Trigger died, and I cancelled class that day, and never taught the topic since.

## Digital analysis of epigraphic Greek hands

Posted by schrisomalis on July 5, 2009

Some very interesting multidisciplinary work is coming out of the intersection of computer science and classical epigraphy. A set of techniques relating to image processing have been applied to classical Greek inscriptions in order to establish the different ‘hands’ in which Greek inscriptions were written (Panagopoulos et al 2009; Tracy and Papaodysseus 2009; see also the news article here). Given 24 high-quality images of classical inscriptions, but no other information about the artifacts whatsoever, the researchers calculated ideal forms for each letter in each inscription, and then analysed the letters from each pair of inscriptions, in order to test statistically the hypothesis that the inscriptions were made by the same writer. The results show 100% agreement with the opinion of Stephen Tracy, the epigraphist associated with the study (who selected the inscriptions but had nothing to do with the image analysis), and apparently with several other epigraphists. Four of the 24 inscriptions were in fact halves of the same inscription, and in both these cases the identification of the writer was correct.

It remains to be seen how widely this technique can be applied; the Greek classical inscriptions are highly regular and the signs are not normally ligatured to one another, while a cursive script would present significantly greater difficulties. It also doesn’t prove that these were written by six individuals – for instance, if two individuals wrote at the same place and the same time in statistically indistinguishable ways, they would be grouped together. This method has equalled expert opinion on a limited corpus, and confirmed these experts’ analysis, but it has not exceeded it. Ideally we would like to be able to apply this to texts in known hands and then to use this to identify the hand of inscriptions whose authorship is completely unknown, or controversial. If in a larger test, it took a batch of inscriptions and put inscriptions thought to be the work of one writer into two different groups, that would not be a refutation of the method – it could in fact suggest that the method is more capable than the epigraphists! While more testing is necessary, this could well prove to be a major advance, not only in Greek epigraphy but in the analysis of all sorts of ancient and modern scripts.

References
Panagopoulos, Michail, Constantin Papaodysseus, Panayiotis Rousopoulos, Dimitra Dafi, and Stephen Tracy. 2009. Automatic Writer Identification of Ancient Greek Inscriptions. Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, IEEE Transactions on 31, no. 8: 1404-1414.
Tracy, S. V., and C. Papaodysseus. 2009. The Study of Hands on Greek Inscriptions: The Need for a Digital Approach. American Journal of Archaeology 113, no. 1: 99-102.

## Cherokee petroglyphs?

Posted by schrisomalis on June 24, 2009

My attention has been drawn to a recent article in the New York Times by John Noble Wilford, describing a purported cave inscription in the Cherokee script from Kentucky. If confirmed as accurate, this would be the oldest dated text in Cherokee, and almost certainly would have to be in Sequoyah’s hand or one of the earliest script learners. I’m on vacation right now and don’t have access to all the resources I’d normally have to do a detailed analysis, but here are a few principles to keep in mind as you read the article:

- The photo you see with the ‘characters’ has been highlighted in white in a way that would not be acceptable practice among epigraphers, due to the risk of misreading. We have no way of knowing with any certainty where the boundaries between different characters are.

- The dating is entirely on the basis of a portion of the inscription not shown, which apparently reads either 1808 or 1818 in Western (Arabic) numerals. But we don’t have any knowledge of whether Sequoyah (George Gist) had any knowledge of how to form Arabic numeral dates at this early period. And the fact that we can’t decide, apparently, if the third character is a 0 or a 1, even though the first character is apparently evident as a 1, suggests a problem with the paleography that should make us very wary of the validity of the finding.

- The inscription is not a text in the sense of something that could be deciphered; rather, the signs are a hodgepodge of Cherokee-like syllabic symbols. Kenneth Tankersley, the archaeologist who is making the assertion, argues that this was a sort of practice text, an ABC of the Cherokee syllabary. But this claim raises a warning flag for me – it raises the evidentiary bar needed to conclude that this is, in fact, Cherokee writing rather than some petroglyphs (or natural lines in rock, or a combination of the two) that can be seen to resemble some Cherokee signs post facto by modern scholars. It also makes me wonder why the early design of glyphs would be taking place bye engraving stone (a difficult medium) rather than something easier to work with.

- Even if the signs are (proto-)Cherokee syllabics, and even if the number 1808 or 1818 is written on it, this does not establish that this was the date of the inscription. The number could have a non-calendrical meaning. The number could have been inscribed at a different time from the other characters. The number could in fact have been written at any time in order to give the inscription an earlier date (for purposes of deception or otherwise).

- There are purportedly 15 identifiable Cherokee characters, but there are also many other characters in the cave that do not resemble Cherokee characters. We would need to know a great deal more about the entire sign-inventory before we could conclude that the resemblances were sufficient to identify them as early Cherokee signs.

- Janine Scancarelli, an expert on Cherokee syllabics who is quoted in the article, does not in fact comment on the validity of the interpretation, but simply describes what is known about the resemblance of Cherokee symbols to other symbol systems.

- There is no peer-reviewed research yet on this finding (although I’m hoping that some of you who were at the SAAs this year saw the talk).

Now I’m not saying at all that this is a hoax or fraud. We certainly don’t have any evidence of that. But we also don’t have any good evidence to convince me that this site is radically different from other petroglyphic sites from the 18th and 19th centuries, and certainly not that we have a dated instance of a proto-Cherokee inscription. I’m looking forward to more information coming to light on this very interesting find, nonetheless.