Three new anthro-blogs

Readers of Glossographia may be interested in three new anthropology blogs that have popped up over the past month:

Archaeogaming focuses on the intersection of archaeology and video games, and promises to be a lively discussion – it’s brand new this week!  Those of you who may not be up-to-date on differences between artifact types in the Elder Scrolls series may nonetheless be fascinated by the most recent post, ‘Video Game Archaeology in Meatspace‘, where Andrew Reinhard deals with the science and ethics of the recently announced excavation/looting to take place in Alamogordo, New Mexico at the site of the infamous Atari Dump Site where, purportedly, 14 truckloads of unsold E.T. cartridges were discarded and cemented over in 1983.

Bone Broke is authored by Jess Beck, a former student of mine who now studies bioarchaeology at the University of Michigan and whose blog will feature material on osteology and other related topics.  I particularly like her post ‘Taylorism and Teaching‘ where she develops a research protocol for evaluating the evolution of the hand and/or the qualifications of undergraduates for industrial line work (hold the comments on the job prospects of anthro majors, please).

The Human Family seems at first glance to be what would result if you brought Zombie Lewis Henry Morgan to life and sat him in front of a computer.  But far from just recapitulating classic theory in kinship and social organization, the author brings it into contemporary relevance with his discussion of ‘Pedigrees, genealogies, and same-sex parents‘, showing the continued practical applicability of kinship studies for modern biological and social relationships.

Maya Decipherment blog / research tool

Last week, a nice article came out about Mayan epigraphy and specifically about David Stuart’s Maya Decipherment blog.    Don’t be fooled by the title – this isn’t about Zooniverse-style crowdsourced science (which has its own merits and challenges), but about the way that the blog is being used for early discussion and review of new ideas by very prominent scholars (which Stuart clearly is) – not supplanting peer review but in parallel to it.  I particularly like the article’s emphasis on the ongoing and collaborative nature of Maya epigraphy (while acknowledging that it can be an incredibly contentious field at times).    I would, however, like to propose a moratorium on the journalistic use of the word ‘mysteries’ in reference to archaeological findings.

Numerals inside the Great Pyramid

A couple of weeks ago all the news was about some new red ochre markings found in a shaft on the interior of the Great Pyramid at Giza (a.k.a. the Pyramid of Khufu), identified using an exploratory robot. That was pretty cool. But if you’re a professional numbers guy (as I am) you’ll be doubly excited to learn that it is probable that those marks are hieratic numerals. If this interpretation is correct, these are almost certainly mason’s marks used to indicate some quantity involved in the construction. Other than the fact that I would like all news outlets to stop calling them hieroglyphs (they aren’t – the hieratic script is a cursive Egyptian script that differs significantly from the hieroglyphs, and the numerals look nothing alike), this is really cool. I do want to urge caution, however: this does not imply that the Great Pyramid was designed along some sort of mystical pattern or using some numerological precepts. It actually doesn’t tell us even that the marks indicate the length of the shaft (as Luca Miatello suggests in the new article) – it could just as easily be 121 bricks in a pile used to make a portion of the pyramid. I am also not 100% convinced of the ‘121’ interpretation – the 100 could be a 200, very easily, or even some other sign altogether, for instance. But the idea that numerical marks using hieratic script would be made by the pyramid-makers is entirely plausible and helps show the role of hieratic script in the Old Kingdom. Although it’s hardly going to revolutionize our understanding of Egyptian mathematics, it may well help outline the functional contexts of the use of numerals in Old Kingdom Egypt.

Pseudo-writing in the news

I promise I didn’t plan it this way – if I’d known about the article I’d have included it in my post earlier this week – but there’s a good short piece on pseudo-writing in New Kingdom Egypt at Past Horizons, about work being done by Dr. Ben Haring. At the workers’ village of Deir el Medina, one of the richest sources of our knowledge of daily life in the New Kingdom, ordinary (cursive, hieratic) script is found alongside a nonlinguistic system of marks used by tomb makers as personal marks of identity, and many writers were familiar with and used both systems, thus refuting the notion that pictograms are supplanted once phonetic writing comes along. The question of influence of hieratic script on this system of marks, and vice versa, is a rich line of intellectual inquiry.

From ancient to digital archives

Belatedly, I note that Numerical Notation features prominently in the annual report of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project published online last month (the section on my book is near the end). Matt Stolper, the head of the project, graciously gave me permission to reprint the Old Persian cuneiform tablet Fort. 1208-101 in my book, as it features the first evidence of the Old Persian numerals for the higher hundreds (in the numeral phrase ‘604’), and is the only known Old Persian document that serves an administrative function. Ultimately, the tablet was chosen by my editors to grace the extremely attractive cover.

Stolper alludes indirectly in the report to the serendipitous inclusion of this tablet in my research. I’ll be more direct: online publication and open access to the research findings of the Archive are the only reason I was able to integrate this important artifact into my research, at what was a fairly advanced stage of publication. If Stolper and his co-author Jan Tavernier had not published their findings directly online (Stolper and Tavernier 2007), enabling me to rapidly track it down once the media began to report on the tablet’s analysis, I could never have discussed it. (I should also give full credit to my wife, who first alerted me to the news articles on Fort. 1208-101). There are other arguments, such as cost, in favour of this model of publication, but access and speed – especially in fields like this, where data can lie unpublished for decades – are absolutely critical.

Writing systems and literacy: a syllabus

At the end of a conference a few years ago on writing systems, we (the dozen or so participants) energetically promised to share with one another the various syllabi we use in our courses on writing systems and literacy. Apparently we failed, as I have been unable to find any correspondence indicating that we did so. I taught such a course to a small group of seniors in the fall of 2006, and this fall I am teaching a highly revised version of the course to a small group of grad students. I don’t think the syllabus itself is anything special (it’s a seminar: we read a lot, then write long papers), but below, I give the reading list along with a brief discussion of each:

1. Andrew Robinson, Writing Systems and Literacy: A Very Short Introduction.
None of my students have any particular prior expertise in the area, so I’m having them read this prior to our first class meeting. It is what it is, but will form a really good introductory set of ideas for them.

2. Maurice Bloch, How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy.
This is a great mix of theory from social and cognitive anthropology and the detailed ethnographic work in Madagascar that Bloch is known for, linking literacy to memory and cognition in some really intriguing ways.

3. John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B.
I used this in the first incarnation of the course – a fantastic autobiographical account of the world’s most famous script decipherment, and a grand tribute to Michael Ventris, whose tragic death marks the narrative indelibly.

4. John Defrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.
While the title suggests that it is more generally on language, the core of the book is on the nature and social context of the Chinese characters, ranging from basic semiotic issues to modern romanization efforts, and the gross misunderstandings most Westerners have of the script.

5. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind.
Goody isn’t as popular today as he was twenty years ago, but I find his account extremely compelling and theoretically rich. The critics get their day (see below) but fundamentally my approach to numerical notation rests on Goody, another holdover from the first incarnation of the course.

6. Stephen Houston (ed), The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process.
Finally out in paperback so I can assign it – this collection of magisterial essays is social, historical, linguistic, and archaeological, framing the origin of writing in a thoroughly anthropological framework.

7. Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, The Psychology of Literacy.
Despite the title, this is a work of deep ethnography as well as cross-cultural psychology, investigating what effects (if any) the native Vai syllabary and other scripts have on a complex Liberian literate context.

8. Brian Street, Literacy in Theory and Practice.
I suppose this would be the ‘anti-Goody’, placing literacy (correctly) as a social practice whose cognitive effects cannot be predicted. Street’s theoretical position forms the mainstream of the modern anthropology of literacy.

9. Peter Wogan, Magical Writing in Salasaca.
A great little ethnography injecting issues of inequality and colonialism, as well as ritual and religion, into the literate lives of the people of Salasaca in Ecuador (I’m also assigning this because we have two Ecuador specialists in our department).

10. Niko Besnier, Literacy, Emotion and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll.
A last-minute addition, a further ethnography allowing us to look at another region of the world, but also to look at the ways in which literacy relates to the construction of individual identities and personal authority.