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Painting Words, Writing Images: "Alternative" Literacies in Early Greece and Etruria

Elisa Scholz

University of Cambridge

When writing emerged in the Central Mediterranean in the eighth and early seventh century, it was accompanied by an equal explosion in figural images. These two practices were certainly connected in the minds of their consumers, since the same verbs are used to refer to them in Greek and Etruscan (grapho and ziχ-, respectively). This paper explores what happens when writing and figural drawing meet by examining a specific sub-category of ‘literacy’: the production and consumption of texts linked to images and of images that prompt a still unwritten text. 

In the last years, scholarship both in Classics and outside, has done much to re-define our concept of what ‘writing’ is and therefore what ‘literacy’ entails. Johnson and Parker’s 2011 volume has reformulated the literacy question in the plural as “text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts”, while new discoveries at sites such as Methone are increasing our knowledge of the range and uses of early graffiti and dipinti (Strauss Clay et al. 2017). At the same time, work in the field of other writing systems has broadened the definition of ‘writing’ to encompass scripts normally scorned at in Western scholarship, particularly those where the boundaries between image and word are extremely porous (Houston 2005; Boone and Urton 2011). Lately, this fluid relationship has also been recognised in the early inscriptions of Greece, especially in Pappas’ work (2011), while other scholars have looked at alternative literacies in the ancient world, which drew on knowledge of images, rather than of words and script (Zaghetto 2002; Perego 2013). Significantly, it has also become imperative to look at writing as only part of the ‘literacy act’ (Oikonomaki 2017). 

In this paper, I intend to explore these notions by analysing a series of artefacts from Greece and Etruria, where the two categories overlap, either literally or where words are ‘present’ and are ‘read’, even where there is no writing. Did writing affect at all the reading of images and how did images affect the viewing of words? Are they really telling the same ‘story’ (Papadopoulos 2017), or do they perform different functions? What happens when the language of the inscription is not native to the place where the inscription is found? By looking at a range of objects belonging to the 8 th and 7 th centuries, from Geometric vases to ‘Phoenician’ bowls, I ask what it means to be ‘literate’ in early Greece and Etruria and what kind of literacies we find in these regions at the dawn of the Archaic period.

Session/Panel Title

Inscriptions and Literacy

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