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Literacy in the Aegean Bronze Age
Anthropologists and archaeologists call certain societies "iron age" or "bronze age." In doing this they recognize that the properties of the main metal used by a society's technology greatly affect both its use and through this the nature of that society. For instance, bronze unlike iron is too soft to be used for ploughing; it is an alloy. Bronze can be smelted at lower temperatures than iron which need specialized supplies of charcoal. All these facts affect societies which use bronze and iron. For example, since bronze cannot be used for ploughing these societies cannot produce in many regions the large agriculture surplus iron societies can; since bronze requires tin bronze age societies had to trade, etc. (Claiborne, 1974) I believe the same parallel exists between the different characteristics of different writing systems and its use as a communication technology in a society.
The Bronze Age is one of the great eras of our European past, a time of change and innovation on the threshold of history. The Bronze Age lasted from about 3000 BC to 500 BC, a period which saw the widespread adoption of bonze metallurgy across Europe. This was not just an age of technological progress, but also saw important developments in the way society was organized, in the daily lives of ordinary people, their religious beliefs and artistic expression. Literacy had a large part in this changing society and the roles people played in it. (Cline, 1994)
Literacy and Society
Literacy is always culturally progressive with increasing literacy making a society more "modern." (Gelb, 1974) Literacy also interacts with society through improving the technology of communication and information preservation. One main impact of literacy upon society is the nature and existence of its power relations. Texts are an integral means by which power in literate societies is delegated to elites. This text-based delegation of power gives many groups, both in the ancient and modern worlds, political and social prestige and privileges over others. There are two means by which power is delegated though texts. First, through the authority gained legitimately through its function of communicating and preserving information, arguments and ideas. Second, an illegitimate delegation of power where the medium of writing itself commands deferential respect from those who cannot penetrate it. (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992)
Writing constructs forms of authority absent in societies without writing. Writing enables a group of people to do something done less easily in an oral society - gain a monopoly on understanding the ideas, narratives and texts vital to that society. When these are written, only those who can read can have full knowledge of them. This restriction gives these readers a privileged position to interpret them. This translates into power. As Gellner (1998) puts it "a delimited set of divinely uttered propositions .. is socially sustained by the social classes which have privileged access to it through literacy, and an interest in invoking its legitimacy against such groups as would threaten it, and which can elaborate and uphold a corpus of interpretations and application of the initial set of revealed assertions." This delineation of power was certainly true in the Aegean Bronze Age; people and society were separated by literacy. Literacy meant power and those who had it, knew it.
Sometime not very long before 750, the Greeks developed the alphabet. Greek mythological tradition ascribes this development to a borrowing from the Phoenicians (Canaanites) and this seems to be basically true. Semites in Egypt developed an "acrophonic" alphabet based on hieroglyphic signs: each sound was represented by the picture of an object beginning with that sound. By 1200 it had become a linear script. The new alphabet only had 27 characters -- huge improvement over the clumsy hieroglyphic and cuneiform systems of writing. (Hankey, 1993) This system spread to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. But like hieroglyphics the system represented only consonants. The Greeks took this system, and represented vowels with some of the signs for Semitic consonants not appearing in the Greek language. The Romans got their alphabet from a variant Greek alphabet, and we use the Roman alphabet. The earliest inscriptions are poems inscribed on pottery. Semitic scholars claim that the Semitic forms most similar to those borrowed by the Greeks date to about 1200-1050. (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992)
In 1952 great light was thrown on the literacy of early civilization by the deciphering of an ancient writing on clay tablets, known as Linear Script B. Michael Ventris, a young English architect, accomplished the task on which scholars had labored for 50 years. (Cline, 1992) These tablets were among some 2,000 uncovered at Knossos on Crete by Evans. With them were tablets in an older writing, which Evans called Linear Script A, and some still older hieroglyphics. Linear Scripts A and B. are forms of writing in which symbols are used to represent syllables. In 1939 about 600 more tablets on Linear Script B. were found at Pylos, on the Greek mainland, and in 1952 and 1953 some were discovered at Mycenae. (Powell, 1991)
Ventris found that Linear Script B. is an archaic Greek dialect. It is the oldest Indo-European system of writing yet discovered. The language is at a stage 700 years older than the earliest classical Greek. The tablets appeared at Knossos because the Mycenaeans had earlier conquered the Minoans. The tablets are only inventories of palace storerooms and arsenals; however, they reveal a great deal about the Mycenaeans. They engaged in agriculture, industry, commerce, and war. A king headed the society. Under him was a "leader of the people," perhaps an army commander. There were landowners, tenant farmers, servants and slaves, priests and priestesses. There were many trades and professions. The Mycenaeans worshiped Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Ares, Artemis, and Athena and the other gods of Mount Olympus. (Hankey, 1993)
The language of Linear Script A has not yet been deciphered. It was in use on Crete from about 1700 BC to 1600 BC as a replacement for an earlier hieroglyphic writing system -- possibly adopted from the Egyptians. In about 1100 BC Greece was overrun by an invasion of barbaric tribes from the north. The Dorians and, later, the Ionians occupied the areas where the Minoan-Mycenaean cultures had flourished. Greece was not to be so rich and powerful again until the golden age of Athens under Pericles in the 5th century BC. (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992)
This system of writing developed on the island of Crete and in continental Greece in the Bronze Age. (Cline, 1992) It represented the famous Cretan & Mycenaean cultures of the East Mediterranean, which preceded the culture of classical Greece. There were in fact two main stages in the development of the Cretan script: pictographic and syllabic. The pictograms (or hieroglyphs) were used in the Middle Minoan period of the history of Crete (2100-1700 BC) and are divided into two variants - Early, used mainly on seals, and Late, which is met in inscriptions on tablets. About 150 pictographic inscriptions were found at all, they depict people, animals, plants, and written from either from the right or from the left. (Hankey, 1993)
Pictograms can hardly be deciphered, it is supposed to have denote not only words but also symbols and determinatives. Some signs could sound as syllables. This script's origin can be traced in Egypt, because the shape of pictograms sometimes reminds Egyptian hieroglyphic. (Hankey, 1993)
The Linear A script appeared in the Middle Minoan period (1700-1550 BC). It was a syllable one, used a limited number of symbols and therefore are easier to study. The script, found on seals, instruments, tablets on the islands of Crete, Phera and Melos, includes from 77 to 100 symbols, each of them denoting a syllable. The language of them is still unknown, but it is for sure non-Indo-European, and can be referred to as one of the "Mediterranean" languages. This language did not make any distinction between long and short vowels, voiced and voiceless consonants, l and r.
The Linear A script was a basis for the development of the Linear B. writing, which emerged here on Crete in about 1450 BC and soon spread to continental Greece, where in Pylos and Mycenae large archives of Linear B. documents were excavated. The Linear B, the first script accepted by Indo-Europeans, became a part of the Mycenaean culture, the first civilization of continental Europe. It was written both in Greek and in aboriginal languages of Crete and other Aegean islands. The Linear B. script contained 88 syllabic letters and several determinative symbols (logograms). (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992)
Since it was borrowed from non-Indo-Europeans, Linear B. was not convenient for the Greek language, it did not reflect many important phonetic features of the tongue, and could not, for example, end a word in -s or any other consonant. Still, the script was in wide use in Greek city states (Pylos, Tyrinth, Mycenae), and a great lot of economic documents were written in it. After 1200 BC, when Doric tribes from the North invaded Greece,…[continue]
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