14 March 2019 Start
16 March 2019 End
UK Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University, Sidgwick Ave, Cambridge CB3 9DA


Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems

March 14-16, 2019

Writing systems are not just abstract systems to be deciphered and analysed but an important part of culture, integrated into a multiplicity of other facets of human life, practice and material culture. The study of writing systems is not just a question of epigraphy, palaeography or linguistics but a matter of cultural history. Yet this aspect of early writing often receives less attention. How are writing systems embedded in society and culture? How are they shaped by human practice and agency, and how in turn do they affect these things? What is their relationship with material culture and what would an ‘archaeology of writing systems’ look like?

This conference aims to bring together researchers utilising a wide range of approaches to address these questions, including archaeology, anthropology, cultural history and sociology, and going beyond the traditional epigraphic, philological and linguistic approaches. We are particularly interested in exploring and establishing methodologies for approaching these sort of questions, rather than concentrating only on specific case studies. The conference is focused on historic writing systems, but does not have a specific chronological or geographical restriction: on the contrary, diversity and comparative approaches are encouraged.

Attendance is free but registration is necessary as places are limited. Please register by emailing Dr Philip Boyes at

The conference schedule has now been released. It can also be downloaded: crews conference 2019 programme

Abstracts are available to view here.

Thursday 14th

Writing and Culture

8.30        Registration

9.00        Welcome

9.05        Yves Duhoux – Scripts’ secondary purposes

9.50        Theo Nash – Cultures of Writing: The Invention and Re-Invention of Greek Writing in Context

10.35      Break

11.00      Eleanor Robson – A family of script practices: deconstructing Mesopotamian cuneiform, reconstructing post-conflict Iraq

11.45      Cécile Guillaume-Pey – A Script ‘good to drink’. Invention of an alphabet and Emergence of a Religious Movement among the Sora (central India)

12.30       Lunch

Literacy, Learning and Writing in Society

2.00        Aurélie Névot – How to decrypt the secret writings of the Masters of psalmody (Yunnan, China)? Words beyond writings

2.45        Christopher Rollston – Scribes, Seal Makers, Bureaucrats, Masons, and the Military Brass: The Social Context of Writing in the Iron Age Southern Levant

3.30        Break

4.00        Piers Kelly – Writing systems invented by non-literates and what they tell us

4.45        Katherine Forsyth – Literacy beyond the limes: the social and cultural contexts of ogham and Pictish symbol writing

5.30        End of papers


Friday 15th

Archaeologies of Writing

9.00        Philip Boyes – The Social Archaeology of Writing Systems

9.45        Karenleigh Overmann – A Cognitive Archaeology of Writing: Concepts, Models, Goals

10.30      Break

Materiality and Artefacts

11.00      Nancy Highcock – The Afterlives of Inscribed Commemorative Objects: the transformation of personal memory in Mesopotamian temple contexts

11.45      Marie-Lousie Nosch & Agata Ulanowska – Materiality of the Cretan Hieroglyphic Script

12.30      Break

Writing for Display

2.00        Christian Prager – Visual-Iconographic Dimension of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: Meanings Beyond the Surface

2.45        Sophie Heier – The visibility of runic writing and its relation to Viking Age society

3.30        Break

4.00        Alex West – Why did people in medieval Java use so many different scripts?

4.45        Claus Jurman – Towards socio-graphematics: Learning and adopting lapidary script(s) in the multilingual/multi-ethnic environment of Egypt during the 8th century BCE


Saturday 16th

Agency and Personhood

9.00      Marcia-Anne Dobres – An Outsider’s Musings on the Meaningful and Embodied Practice, Technology, and Social Agency of (Some) Early Writing Systems

9.45      James Whitley – Why με? Personhood and agency in Greek inscriptions (800-550 BCE).

10.30      Break

Writing and elite culture

11.00        Kathryn Hudson & John S. Henderson – Script, Image, and Elite Culture in the Maya World: A Southeastern Perspective

11.45        Sarah Finlayson – Writing and elite status in the Bronze Age Aegean

12.30      Lunch

Writing and Identity

2.00        Katherine McDonald – Connectivity and competition: alphabets as identities in Italy

2.45        Natalia Elvira Astoreca – Names and authorship in the beginnings of Greek alphabetic writing

3.30        Olga Tribulato & Valentina Mignosa – A graphic sign of identity? History and meaning of an arrow-shaped alpha

4.15        End of papers