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The Disappearance of Writing Systems

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This volume gathers papers from the first conference ever to be held on the disappearance of writing systems, in Oxford in March 2004. While the invention and decipherment of writing systems have long been focuses of research, their eclipse or replacement have been little studied. Because writing is so important in many cultures and civilizations, its disappearance – followed by a period without it or by replacement with a different writing system – is of almost equal significance to invention as a mark of radical change. Probably more writing systems have disappeared than have survived in the last five thousand years.

Case studies from the Old and New Worlds are presented, ranging over periods from the second millennium BC to the present. To address many types of transmission, the broadest possible definition of ‘writing’ is used, notably including Mexican pictography and the Andean khipu system. One chapter discusses the larger proportion of known human societies which have not possessed complex material codes like writing, offering an alternative perspective on the long-term transmission of socially salient subjects. A concluding essay draws out common themes and offers an initial synthesis of results.

The volume offers a new perspective on approaches to writing that will be significant for the understanding of writing systems and their social functions, literacy, memory, and high-cultural communication systems in general.

Published: Sep 1, 2008

Section Chapter Authors
List of Illustrations John Baines, John Bennet, Stephen Houston
List of Tables John Baines, John Bennet, Stephen Houston
Notes on contributors John Baines, John Bennet, Stephen Houston
Preface John Baines, John Bennet, Stephen Houston
Now You See It; Now You Don’t! The Disappearance of the Linear A Script on Crete John Bennet
The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Hieroglyphic Luwian J. Hawkins
The Obsolescence and Demise of Cuneiform Writing in Elam Jeremy Black †
Increasingly Redundant: The Growing Obsolescence of the Cuneiform Script in Babylonia from 539 BC1 David Brown
Script Obsolescence in Ancient Italy: From Pre-Roman to Roman Writing Kathryn Lomas
Whatever Happened to Kharoṣṭhī? The Fate of a Forgotten Indic Script Richard Solomon
On the Demise of Egyptian Writing: Working with a Problematic Source Basis Martin Stadler
The Last Traces of Meroitic? A Tentative Scenario for the Disappearance of the Meroitic Script Claude Rilly
The Phoenix of Phoinikēia: Alphabetic Reincarnation in Arabia Michael Macdonald
The Small Deaths of Maya Writing Stephen Houston
The Death of Mexican Pictography Elizabeth Boone
Late Khipu Use Frank Solomon
Disappearance of Writing Systems: The Manchu Case Giovanni Stary
Revelatory Scripts, ‘the Unlettered Genius’, and the Appearance and Disappearance of Writing John Monaghan
History without Text Chris Gosden
Writing and its Multiple Disappearances John Baines
Index John Baines, John Bennet, John Houston

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"The editors can be congratulated for their efforts that yielded a most valuable and highly informative overview of a largely neglected field of writing system research."
Martin Neef, TU Braunschweig, Written Language and Literacy 14:1 (2011)

"It is a pioneering, fascinating and authoritative book. The 17 contributors cover a surprising range of topics in detail and with comprehensive bibliographies. ...A landmark collection of articles by scholars.
Andrew Robinson, Wolfson College, Cambridge, in Nature, vol. 455 (October 2008)

"While the book is heavily slanted towards Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern systems, which make up the bulk of the case studies, we are, nevertheless, provided with a battery of instructive and impressive discussions of the decline of scripts. Important and indispensible contributions to the still-fledgling study of writing and can be highly recommended to all."
Gordon Whittaker, Universität Göttingen, in Antiquity, Volume 84, Issue 324 (June 2010)

"Each essay is informative and stimulating; the whole collection presents studies that should stimulate further research into a comprehensive analysis into the factors involved in the disappearance of writing systems. Baines and his colleagues deserve gratitude for this significant volume."
American Journal of Archaeology, 113

"This is a fascinating book. It is not a final definitive treatment, but a pioneering first step, and a guide to the considerable opportunities for research, both on these writing systems and others which could not be included in this volume. The editors and contributors are to be congratulated for the success with which they have opened the discussion and pointed the way to others."
C.W. Shelmerdine, University of Texas, in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 20, no. 1, (2010)