Epigraphy and Sociopolitical Grounding

Mallory E. Matsumoto (Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin)

Carving Hieroglyphic Community in the Western Maya Lowlands

In the region spanning portions of what are now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, scholars have used a series of common cultural traits to define Maya civilization, which was especially cohesive during the Classic era (ca. 250–925 CE). These characteristics, which included a hieroglyphic script and a multifaceted calendrical system, were shared among populations that were not only distant in space and time, but also never unified as a single polity (Martin 2020; Martin and Grube 2008). Scribes and sculptors active across the region produced hundreds of stone monuments inscribed with texts in a common hieroglyphic script. The inscriptions are central to our understanding of Classic Maya civilization (see Coe and Houston 2015; Houston and Inomata 2009). Yet we remain largely ignorant of how scribes working in different times and places acquired and shared knowledge of what and how to write, or how this exchange was inflected by other aspects of inter-polity interactions.

The area stretching from western Guatemala into the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, hosted key centers of Classic Maya scribal production. Its geographic and geopolitical position at the western edge of the Maya lowlands, however, allowed the region to develop a distinct political and cultural identity at arm’s length from the hegemonic dynasties based in the central Maya lowlands. This study deploys paleographic analysis to identify patterns of scribal change and exchange based on Late Classic inscriptions from Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan, two antagonistic kingdoms in the Usumacinta River valley. Focusing on hieroglyphic form rather than linguistic content provides insight into the cultural construction of intra- and inter-polity relations. This research thus makes a broader case for studying hieroglyphic texts as material outcomes of cultural production and transmission that can shed light on the contexts of their creation.

Theo Nash (PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Mycenaean Scribes? A View from the Minor Deposits

Linear B, a syllabary used to record the earliest known dialect of Greek, is preserved almost exclusively on unbaked clay tablets and poses special difficulties for those seeking to understand the lives of those who wrote it. It is not clear even that the label 'scribe' is entirely apposite; there is nothing to suggest that literacy and the keeping of records were central to the identity of the tablet writers. We have no signed tablets, no explicit references to the identity of the writer, and no evidence for scribal training. In the absence of such information, we must rely on the internal evidence of the tablets (such as palaeographic analysis, which allows us to distinguish separate hands) and contextual evidence (their archaeological findspots) to reconstruct the lives and activities of 'scribes'. This is further complicated by the fact that different models of administrative organisation seem to obtain at different sites: at Pylos the corpus is almost entirely contemporary and most tablets were found in a central archive, while at Knossos deposits generally linked by subject matter were scattered across the palace. These two sites, which represent the two largest corpora of Linear B tablets, have been well-served by studies of scribal behaviour and organisation. However, they are not the only sites at which Linear B has been found: though smaller and certainly incomplete, deposits from Mycenae, Thebes and Tiryns have been overlooked in discussions of overarching 'Mycenaean scribal identity'. Focusing on these smaller corpora, I will discuss scribal activity and agency both in the context of local administrative structures and from the broader perspective of Mycenaean literacy.