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Reading Between the Lines: The Role of Visual Cues in Documents from the ‘Archive Wall’ at Aphrodisias

Abigail Graham

Institute for Classical Studies, University of London

Through a case study of a specific monument (the ‘Archive Wall’ at Aphrodisias), this paper will consider how the context and visual framework of writing can impact its perception and the act of reading. One of the most challenging aspects of approaching “literacy” in the ancient world is the plurality of different meanings that the term can have for ancient and modern readers. Different approaches apply different criteria, contexts and expectations to the act of reading, which can result in divergent concepts or “literacies” ((Harris 1989 vs. Bowman and Woolf (ed) 1994, and Berti (ed 2017)). Recent scholarship in neuroscience has demonstrated how the act of reading, generated from a pre-existing cognitive process of reading a visual landscape, is reliant on a visual framework and cues (Stanislas Reading in the Brain 2009). This suggests that reading a text and reading a monument were not separate cognitive processes but products of a similar process. The key difference between reading a text and reading a monument, therefore, lies in the experience and context of reading: how we read, where we read, and why we read, shapes our interpretation.

Reading a document in a monumental context was fundamentally different from reading a scroll at home or in an archive (Corbier 2006 and 2013, Graham 2013). This difference can be distorted in a modern context, where the format of published inscriptions often creates a disembodied text, which does not convey the experience of reading an ancient monument: how and why writing was displayed in a particular place. Recent studies on viewing inscriptions, which emphasize elements of materiality (Eastmond 2015, Berti (ed) 2017) and the use of paratextual elements such as spaces, indentations, margins, and decorations (Jansen (ed) 2014), reflect a dynamic approach to reading as an embodied experience. These studies also raise questions about literacy and monumental documents: was one expected to read the text, the visual landscape, or a combination of both? Is a recognition of the framework of writing considered reading?

This case study will consider a specific set of monumental documents on the ‘Archive Wall” at Aphrodisias with a focus on column IV. Building upon previous scholarship (Reynolds 1982 & 2007; Kokkinia 2016), this paper will examine practical points in the experience of “reading” an inscribed document, including the limitations imposed by the monument’s location and physicality (e.g. was it meant to be viewed on a vertical or horizontal axis?). A close survey of two documents will assess how decorations, spaces, indentations were used to create a recognizable visual framework, and how this framework served to highlight key messages and formulaic elements in a document. Did visual cues facilitate a recognition or a partial reading of document? In conclusion, the paper will explore how we define the act of reading, and how “reading between the lines” of a monumental document may offer illuminating insights on the subject of literacy.

Session/Panel Title

Inscriptions and Literacy

Session/Paper Number

34.6

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