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.


Good graffiti?

There’s a neat article in Slate this week on the defacement of a panel on the Luxor Temple by a teenaged tourist from China.    What interests me most is that instead of the typical ‘woe is me, vandalism’ narrative, the article (without defending the most recent episode) presents the broader social history of tourism-related graffiti and vandalism in Egypt.  Not only is it not unusual (or new), but for decades there was apparently a virtual trade in graffiti tourism in Egypt among wealthy Europeans.   And, of course, when we analyze ancient graffiti on ancient monuments (though alas, never ROMANES EUNT DOMUS), we learn far more about the everyday lives of individuals than would otherwise be possible: about travel practices, literacy rates, informal linguistic registers, naming practices, and so on.   Because Greek and Roman soldiers and traders, two thousand years ago, hastily placed inscriptions on Egyptian monuments, we now have access to thousands of voices that would otherwise be lost.    If the present activity of a tourist at Luxor is so much worse, why is it worse?   Because it’s newer?  Because it’s prohibited now?

Because Allen Walker Read, in his travels through the western U.S. in the early 20th century, thought to record often-crude bathroom graffiti, we now have Classic American Graffiti: Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (even though, at the time of its first printing in 1935, he had to have it privately published in Paris due to its lewd content), and know far more about twentieth-century American English profanity and its folklore than would otherwise be possible.  On the wall of a bathroom stall near my office at Wayne State University is a carefully-curated unit circle, no doubt put there as a mid-test aid for some hapless mathematics student – almost painfully re-inscribed, it seems, every time I return.  We can see the same sort of thing in Quinn Dombrowski’s collection Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur: Confessions of the University of Chicago.   For my own part, I can attest that you learn at least as much about what francophones and anglophones in Montreal think about language policy by studying the graffiti on stop signs than you do from the text on the signs themselves.

Thinking about the production and consumption of these informal texts starts us on an interesting line of thinking about what sorts of textual productions we value, which we ignore, and which we stigmatize as befouling spaces that should remain pure.  There’s no easy answer.  In any case, the superficial scratches made at Luxor have already been repaired with no long-term damage. I’m hardly saying that we should tolerate all forms of vandalism (on public monuments or otherwise), or that there is nothing problematic with writing on ancient temples.   But it’s worth pondering on what principles we decide what types of writing are authorized, and how they become authorized.

Not the earliest zero, rediscovered

A rather unfortunate effort in Discover by Amir Aczel, ‘How I Rediscovered the Oldest Zero in History’ more or less effaces his solid legwork with shoddy theorizing and ahistorical claims.  Supported by the Sloan Foundation, Aczel (a popular science writer) went to Cambodia and tracked down the location of the Old Khmer inscription from Sambor, which is dated 605 in the Saka era (equivalent to 683 CE), which obviously contains a zero.    While the Hindu-Arabic-Western numerical tradition is seen to emanate from India, all of our earliest unquestioned examples (the late 7th century ones) of the zero are from Southeast Asia, and Sambor is the earliest one.  Because things have been rough in Cambodia for a long time, his work tracking it down and ensuring that it would be protected deserves a lot of credit.

If he had stopped there it would have been fine. Unfortunately, in an effort to bolster the importance of his claim, Aczel spends quite a lot of time justifying this as the first zero anywhere, ever, neglecting Babylonian and Maya zeroes from many centuries earlier.  To do that he needs to whip out all sorts of after-the-fact justifications of why those zeroes don’t really count, because Babylonians didn’t use their zero as a pure placeholder, or because Maya zeroes, well actually he just ignores those until the comments (but don’t read the comments – really, folks, that is the first rule of the internet).   Just for kicks, and regardless of the fact that it has nothing to do with zero, he starts off with a lengthy diatribe about how the Roman numerals are ‘clunky’ and ‘cumbersome’ and ‘inefficient’, which as long-time readers of this blog, or anyone who has read Numerical Notation, will know, is an utterly ridiculous, ahistorical claim that is divorced from how such numerals were actually used over two millennia.

I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably be spending the rest of my career pointing out that absolute judgements of the efficiency of numeral systems run the gamut from ‘missing the point’ to ‘completely ahistorical’ to ‘rabidly ethnocentric’.  While Aczel’s piece is not the worst of the sort, it certainly doesn’t deserve much praise.  Which is a shame, since that Sambor inscription really is the first known zero in the Indian tradition (to which our own Western numerals owe their origin) and it’s great that he’s been able to reconfirm its location in a politically perilous part of the world.

Alice Kober’s belated obituary

Yesterday’s New York Times features a much-belated obituary of Alice Kober, a professor of classics at Brooklyn College who in the late 1940s played a central preliminary role in the decipherment of the Linear B (Mycenaean Greek) script.     Although she died of cancer two years before Michael Ventris made the key breakthrough identifying the Linear B script as encoding a variety of archaic Greek, Kober’s work was a building block on which Ventris relied.  Her key insight was to identify certain sets of signs that occurred commonly at the ends of words, and which (correctly, as it turned out) could represent morphology (verb inflections and case endings).

Margalit Fox, who is the author of the obituary as well as the author of a forthcoming book on the Linear B decipherment, presents the case that Kober’s work has been forgotten, in the way that so many other women’s scholarly work has been overshadowed by the work of men.  And this is certainly part of the story.   I should say, though, that John Chadwick’s The Decipherment of Linear B, the central history of the decipherment authored by one of its prominent figures, is generous to Kober and represents her contribution quite fairly.    Kober took some important steps and, if she had lived a few more years, very likely would have played a much more prominent role (although she still may not have been recognized sufficiently had she done so).  What we have from her work is a set of important preliminary steps published in a set of key articles in the American Journal of Archaeology in the mid-1940s.  These ought to be read into the popular history of the decipherment, not because they were a decipherment in their own right, but because they were one of a long series of necessary steps over several decades.

The most important lesson in this case is that script decipherments are complex and full of false starts, and that they are processes rather than events.    Even Ventris’ work, though important, only started a process of decades of discussion, in the same way that the Maya script’s ‘decipherment’ is still ongoing.

Chadwick, John
1990    The decipherment of Linear B: Cambridge University Press.
Kober, Alice E
1945    Evidence of Inflection in the” Chariot” Tablets from Knossos. American Journal of Archaeology 49(2):143-151.

1946    Inflection in Linear Class B: 1-Declension. American Journal of Archaeology 50(2):268-276.

1948    The Minoan scripts: fact and theory. American Journal of Archaeology 52(1):82-103.
Sundwall, Johannes, and AE Kober
1948    An Attempt at Assigning Phonetic Values to Certain Signs of Minoan, Linear Class B. American Journal of Archaeology 52(3):311-320.

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.

Shady Characters

In all the hurly-burly of the past couple of months, I completely neglected the birth of a fascinating set of essays in progress at Shady Characters, a new blog by Keith Houston about the history and social context of punctuation. This is a subject on which I have blogged occasionally (e.g. A biography of the ampersand or A typology of quotation marks) but so far, Mr. Houston puts my efforts to shame. Of particular note is his three-part essay on the pilcrow (paragraph mark):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Check it out!