Friday, June 03, 2011

Scribal Culture's Shadow Tradition

Some of us grew up in schools and learned to read from school texts, studied thousands more of them, and then went on to make a living writing them and teaching them to others. In, you know, school.

Not shockingly, we tend to imagine texts as by and for school. Those of us who study ancient texts may then even offer ancient school (with or without little red shingled roof, and even with or without buildings) as the key to understanding their nature and purpose. And sometimes it is. Naturally, this solution is more attractive if your own formation and way of life is based on it.

But sometimes it isn't. For example, the alphabet led a diverse life in the Iron Age. Almost nobody who talks about the uses of literacy mentions that most alphabetic texts from archaic Greece are hardly educational or monumental. They're mainly about drinking and sex, and in Hexameter. Greek speakers adapted the Phoenician alphabet to write skillfuly but casually.

And almost nobody talks about the full range of West Semitic uses in the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., where the evidence of alphabetic writing is even more diverse! North Arabianist M.A.C. MacDonald points out that

Literacy seems to have been extraordinarily widespread, not only among the settled populations but also among the nomads. Indeed, the scores of thousands of graffiti on the rocks of the Syro-Arabian desert suggest that it must have been almost universal among the latter. By the Roman period, it is probable that a higher proportion of the population in this region was functionally literate than in any other area of the ancient world.
- "Ancient North Arabian" in Woodard, ed., Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages

The existing evidence is quite clear: North Arabian literacy was both more widespread and more casual than in the Levant.

[T]he major obstacle to a paleographical analysis of the Ancient North Arabian inscriptions is the fact that the vast majority of them are informal texts written by innumerable individuals who learned to write, not in schools, but casually from a companion, and whose letter-forms were not therefore part of a slowly evolving tradition, but represent a multiplicity of individual choices. An indication of this is provided by the four Safaitic abecedaries which have been discovered so far. Each is in a different letter-order and none of them bears any relation to the inherited orders of the Northwest and South Semitic alphabets. The letters have simply been arranged according to the writers’ differing perceptions of similarity in their shapes. By contrast, the only known
Dadanitic abecedary is in the South Semitic letter-order, while the unique Hismaic example more or less follows the Northwest Semitic order, but with significant differences which suggest that it was unfamiliar to the writer.
-- MacDonald, "Ancient North Arabian," and in greater detail, “On the uses of writing in ancient Arabia and the role of palaeography in Studying
them.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 15 (2004).

When we think about the uses of writing in the first-millennium BCE Levant, we tend to begin with the big, famous corpora of Mesopotamian and Egyptian scholastic life. But we need to be aware that there was a widely distributed, and in some ways more important "stream of tradition" that was nothing at all like the schools of the city-states and empires. How do you do the paleography of this shadow tradition? What was its relationship to the cultures and polities of the period? And as passionately as some of us are drawn to big, strong empires, does the evidence suggest that texts like the Gezer, Zayit and Qeiyafa inscriptions are closer to this type of shadow tradition than they are to, say, the vast and carefully organized Mesopotamian compendia of omens and signs being written during the same period? I suspect these questions will only become more important and interesting in coming years.