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Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet.

Six of the British Museum's 64-page pamphlets in the "Reading the Past" series have been gathered into hard covers: Cuneiform, by C. B. F. Walker, pp. 14-73 (1987); Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by W. V. Davies, pp. 74-135 (1987); Linear B and Related Scripts, by John Chadwick, pp. 136-95 (1987); The Early Alphabet, by John F. Healey, pp. 196-257 (1991); Greek Inscriptions, by B. F. Cook, pp. 258-319 (1987); and Etruscan, by Larissa Bonfante, pp. 320-78 (1990). Runes, Maya Glyphs, and Mathematics and Measurement are omitted. They are repaginated, their indexes are combined, and the color covers deleted--otherwise they stand unaltered. Even the tables of contents have not been collected or even reset (only the new page numbers are dropped in), and their varying typography--not to mention the differing sizes and faces of the type in the six sections--is intrusive. The book is a good buy at half the price of the separate pamphlets (each, $9.95), but the format rather defeats the purpose of a booklet with which to wander the halls of the British Museum. This (like Gaur 1984) is very much a British Museum document: half its authors are keepers, and the great majority of objects seen in photographs (except in Linear B) are from the British Museum's collections.(1) But (except for the introduction) this is a far more reliable volume than Gaur's.

The introduction (all references to Cuneiform need to be reduced by two pages) tries to cram too much into eight pages, including a one-paragraph summary of the Chinese cultural area. This leads to several incorrect or misleading statements. Ideogram and logogram are not equivalent terms; they reflect profoundly different understandings of the nature of a script and of writing in general. It is completely wrong to say that the Ugaritic and Old Persian scripts used signs "selected" from the (Mesopotamian) cuneiform inventory; there is no relation between the shapes of any of them: the Ugaritic characters are cuneiform adaptations of the linear alphabet, while no antecedent of the Old Persian characters has been convincingly suggested. The statement that the Roman alphabet "does not prevail everywhere, partly because it is inadequate for the representation of certain languages (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese), partly because other languages (Greek, Russian) already have adequate alphabets of their own" is absurd. It suggests that the members of other cultures would do well to exchange their heritage for uniformity with the superior civilization of the West! Its promulgator seems to be unaware of the very powerful principle (seen, e.g., with Arabic and Cyrillic) that script follows religion.

Cuneiform received a detailed review by Greenstein, General Linguistics 29 (1989): 61-64, and a notice by Kaufman, JAOS 110 (1990): 161. The lapsus calami noted by Greenstein was already corrected in a subsequent printing of the separatim. The observation that "in reading the inscription on the great law code of Hammurapi one has to hold one's head down on the right shoulder" imposes a too modern viewpoint on the ancient scribe--it seems very unlikely that hundreds of lines would have been written in an unconventional fashion, and scribes must have been accustomed to reading in both the archaic and contemporary (following the 90|degrees~ rotation) orientations. Walker is a bit weak on grammatical matters, and holds a number of inconsistencies. At the top he refers to the "half vowels" w and y, but calls them (more suitably) "semivowels" mid-page; at the top, p is listed among the consonants of Sumerian, but at the bottom it is said to occur in Akkadian but not Sumerian. Hebrew is said to use h and h of the three Proto-Semitic aitches, rather than h. And he says Akkadian "uses the same four vowels as Sumerian: a, e, i, and u, having probably lost the vowel o under the influence of Sumerian." But no one has ever suggested an *o (or *e) for Proto-Semitic or Pre-Akkadian. Careful proofreading would have fixed "Neo/Babylonian" and "Artazerxes" in the table on p. 29. These are all tiny cavils, but popularizations for the general public must be far more carefully handled than specialist literature: there is no such thing as a self-correcting error in this context. Walker's survey of the range of cuneiform literature is a judicious summary. But he makes the standard error of ascribing the decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform to H. C. Rawlinson; the achievement was Edward Hincks' nearly alone, and was virtually completed well before Rawlinson published the Third Column of the Behistun inscription (Daniels 1993).

Egyptian is a well-illustrated, competent-looking survey of the stages and varieties of script from Narmer's Palette to Coptic, with an elementary sketch of the grammar added; the chapter on decipherment is very well done, though it overlooks the fact that Champollion was quite explicit about his dependence on and divergences from the work of Thomas Young. Champollion's most important discovery was that the phonetic hieroglyphs were used not just for Greek names (where some sort of mystic signs were not to be expected), but for Egyptian names and common words as well, demonstrating that hieroglyphs constituted a script like any other (this is stated more accurately in the introduction).

Linear B is another of Chadwick's satisfying overviews; two important items should have been added to the Bibliographical Note: Linear A is the main, but not sole, focus of Duhoux et al. 1989; and Michael Ventris' Work Notes have finally been published, in Sacconi 1988.(2)

Early Alphabet presents a great deal of up-to-date information in an extremely accessible form that ought to be well suited to both the layperson and the beginning student.(3) Healey takes well-informed positions on all the current issues: the syllabic interpretation of the West Semitic signary is gently derided, the Fakhariyah inscription with its conservative letterforms is evidence for the later date of transmission of the alphabet to the Greeks, there may be Syriac input as well as Nabatean into the Arabic script. All the offshoots of alphabetic script are at least mentioned, including South Arabian/Ethiopic, Brahmi, and Armenian/Georgian.(4)

Greek Inscriptions offers nearly sixty texts in photograph, transcription, and translation, ordered by difficulty, discussing (on a level somewhat more advanced than that of the other sections) problems of epigraphy, grammar, restoration, and interpretation.

Etruscan discusses the iconography and culture of its texts rather more than their language, as might be expected--though Bonfante does not pause to mention that they have not yet actually been "deciphered"! What there is of Etruscan can be said to be "understood," but the vast array of votive inscriptions and picture captions have so little content that there is nothing really there for the philologist to focus on. A concluding chapter treats an important Oscan inscription.

All these sections serve their purpose very well. The University of California Press has begun issuing British Museum pamphlets in two further series uniform with this one, on archeological methods and on small artifacts; several titles ought to be added to Reading the Past. Very useful would be similarly compressed but competent treatments of: Italic inscriptions (and the other, even more obscure, remnants of pre-Classical Indo-European languages); Latin inscriptions; Indian epigraphy and paleography; Ogham; Slavic materials (with Armenian and Georgian); modern script inventions, beginning with Korean and Cherokee; Chinese; Japanese; and the process of decipherment.

1 The Ugaritic Aqht tablet is credited to the Louvre on p. 55 and, in a much clearer photograph, as a BM loan on p. 213. We are granted the luxury of two different views of the same sphinx with Proto-Sinaitic on pp. 129 and 211.

2 I. J. Gelb was among the scholars who received copies of Ventris' Work Notes in 1951-52. Some thirty years later he had no idea where to find his copy; one hopes that their significance and value were recognized when his papers were archived after his death.

3 It's a bit jarring, though, to find pot used as a mass noun for a writing surface in place of ceramic or potsherd; alongside papyrus, it suggests some sort of hempen paper product.

4 Gamkrelidze 1989 now urges a return to the Greek rather than the Syriac model for the last. Erekle Astakhishvili interpreted the reference for me and explained the background.


Daniels, Peter T. 1993. "The Decipherments of Ancient Near Eastern Scripts." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson et al. New York: Scribner's.

Duhoux, Yves, Thomas G. Palaima, and John Bennet, eds. 1989. Problems in Decipherment. Bibliotheque des cashiers de I'Institut de Linguistique de Louvain 49. Louvain: Peeters.

Gamkrelidze, Thomas V. 1989. Alphabetic Writing and the Old Georgian Script: A Typology and Provenience of Alphabetic Writing Systems. Tbilisi: Tbilisi State University |in Georgian and Russian~.

Gaur, Albertine. 1984. A History of Writing. New York: Scribner's.

Sacconi, Anna, ed. 1988. Work notes on Minoan language research and other unedited papers, by Michael Ventris. Incunabula Graeca 90. Rome: Ateneo.
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Author:Daniels, Peter T.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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