Lab 2 Visible Language

Lab 2: Visible Language

I want to begin this entry by discussing what precisely a “textual artifact” actually is. It was a question that I personally struggled with as I walked around the MFA trying to decide on artifacts to use. As an English major, I am inclined to believe that anything can be considered a text since a text could be any object that conveys meaning. However, as a linguistics major, I would like to be more conservative than that and restrain a text to any object that features written language. For my definition of written language, I looked to the definition given by Peter Daniels and cited in Visible Language, which states that writing is “a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer.” By that definition, a textual artifact would then be an artifact that features permanent marks that represent speech.

With that in mind, the first object I selected was a gold libation bowl from Greece in the 7th century BC. What elevates this object to the status of a textual artifact is the inscription on the front of the bowl just below the rim that reads, “The sons of Kypselos dedicated [this bowl] from Heraklea.” When examining the bowl itself, the most striking feature is that it is made of solid gold. This suggests that the person who owned it was incredibly wealthy since they could afford to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a solid gold bowl. Yet the obvious wealth related to the solid gold bowl is contrasted with the relatively simply design of the bowl. It has a bit of a scalloped design to it, but otherwise it is quite plain, which could mean numerous things. It could simply be a design choice, or it could be an indication that the person this bowl was being given to was important but not that important, or it could be an indication that the family was extremely wealthy, but their wealth was not endless. Truthfully, there is no way to tell for sure.

Turning to the text engraved on the bowl, it is essentially like the plaque hanging below the bowl that states who it was donated by. It is truly a rather pointless text. The engraving says the bowl was dedicated by the sons of Kypselos, not owned by, so it was not even a way to mark ownership. As Gleick and Woods both note, writing was originally created for economic purposes, but this type of text shows how much writing has evolved. This text essentially says nothing, showing how writing had begun to move into superfluity. It is a nice thought to write down who dedicated the bowl, but at the end of the day a libation bowl is still a libation bowl with or without a little inscription on it.

Perhaps, however, this little scrap of text is evidence of Socrates’ notion that writing produces “forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it” since people would no longer be capable of remembering who dedicated the bowl without an inscription. Gold is not a very durable metal, so it is unlikely that whoever made this bowl anticipated that it would survive long enough for the inscription to be some sort of historical record, so really it is just reminding people of material that they could have otherwise remembered without the use of writing.

Moving on to the next artifact, I picked a fragment of an inscribed mummy bandage from the 4th century BC in Egypt. On it are written some lines from the Book of the Dead with the accompanying images. On the surface, this artifact is completely different from the bowl. Perhaps most obviously, this bandage is made of linen rather than metal. This highlights the difference in social status between the owners of the two artifacts, and the accompanying plaque even says that writing the Book of the Dead on the mummy wrappings was much less expensive than having expensive papyrus scrolls. The writing itself is indicative of this lower status since it is quite crude. It is highly unlikely that the person who commissioned the production of these bandages paid much for them. If literacy rates were not so low at the time period, I could have guessed the person drew on the bandages themself. However, these bandages show how prolific and commonplace writing had become since even the less wealthy could afford to have a scribe write parts of the Book of the Dead for them.

This leads me to the actual text on the bandage itself. The plaque does not elaborate more on the text besides mentioning it is part of the Book of the Dead. Drawing on my limited knowledge of the Book of the Dead, I believe the image was generally somewhat reflective of the text, which gave instructions on how to get to the underworld. The fact that there is both text and an image is very reminiscent of the world in “Speech Sounds.” It implies that they are both there in case the person forgot either how to read or how to interpret images, much like how the disease in “Speech Sounds” seemingly took either a person’s ability to speak or a person’s ability to write.

Overall, these two objects are truthfully very different. They are made of different materials and they have very different purposes, but they have more similarities than it might seem at first glance. They are both indicators of where writing has gone from its inception as an economic tool used simply to record data. Writing has become a vital part of everyday life, but it has also changed our way of thinking. This is evidenced in The Information by noting that the logic exhibited by a person in an oral culture is completely different from the logic exhibited by a person in a literate culture. Perhaps Socrates was right in his disdain towards writing since it has changed us so much as a society, but perhaps writing has changed us for the better. In the time since writing was created, we have eliminated numerous diseases and been able to improve the living conditions of millions of people, so only time will tell where writing will take us in the future.