Saturday, October 25, 2008

Book review: The Disappearance of Writing Systems

Nature (Andrew Robinson)

The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication
Edited by John Baines, John Bennet and Stephen Houston
Equinox: 2008.

Here's an extract of the review:

The book came out of the first major conference to focus on the disappearance of ancient writing systems, held in 2004 in Oxford, UK, and organized by the three editors. Baines is professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and well known for his work on literacy in ancient Egypt. John Bennet of the University of Sheffield, UK, is an expert on the Aegean scripts, notably Linear A and B, and Stephen Houston of Brown University in Rhode Island has been instrumental in the Maya decipherment revolution since the 1980s.

It is a pioneering, fascinating and authoritative book. The 17 contributors cover a surprising range of topics in detail and with comprehensive bibliographies. They discuss familiar lost scripts such as cuneiform, and more obscure examples, including the Kharosthi script of northwest India, the Meroitic script of Nubia in what is now northern Sudan, Aztec and Mexican pictography, the knotted-cord quipus of the Inca empire and its Andean successors, and the Manchu script of China, which fell out of favour with the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912 but was revived in the 1980s. Inevitably there are omissions, most regrettably the much-debated Rongorongo script of Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific, a script that probably flourished for less than 100 years until its rapid disappearance in the mid-nineteenth century.

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