skip to content


With the return of Greek Dialogues Online in the new academic year, featuring Dr Pippa Steele's seminar on early writing systems - Greek Dialogues Online - Early writing systems and practices in Greece and beyond, Dr Steele outlines, in the following article, some theoretical aspects of the study of writing systems and practices. In this article, she uses a study of the writing instrument used to write clay documents as a means of analysing the wider issues concerning the development of writing practices. The article is a reprint of Dr. Steele's introduction to her paper, "Material Entanglements of Writing Practices in the Bronze Age Aegean and Cyprus," published in Sustainability 2020, 12(24), 10671;, as part of the Special Issue Exploring Materiality in the Bronze Age. It is reprinted with kind permission.

Writing is a phenomenon that, from a linguistic perspective, is frequently studied in terms of its function of language encoding, an approach very deeply embedded in much literature on writing systems. To speak of writing as existing in systems is itself a product of longstanding structuralist traditions that tend to view writing in a way that abstracts it from the people doing it and the settings in which it is being done. More recent research on writing as a practice and especially on the materiality of written objects has thankfully made a very significant contribution to redressing the balance and placing a focus on physical, social and technological contexts of writing. While these growing trends have greatly improved our understanding of the phenomenon of writing from different perspectives, there remains considerable scope in my view for the linguistic/structuralist and the material/contextualist approaches to be brought into more constructive conversation with each other. In concentrating on the syllabic systems of the Bronze Age Aegean and Cyprus, I will in some senses be preaching to the converted, because the field of Aegean scripts studies (i.e., the study of these systems and the documents written in them) has already been blessed with decades of research that fruitfully brings together linguistic and archaeological approaches and that in many cases pushes the boundaries of interdisciplinarity and results in impressively joined up thinking. However, I hope this paper may add some new perspectives on the ways in which the material and practice-based aspects of writing can be further probed to ask some fruitful questions of the nature and development of writing in these areas and periods.

The approach followed in this paper views materiality not as a static property of an object but as a dynamic one that must also be considered in relation to practice. Kathryn Piquette and Ruth Whitehouse in the introduction to their volume on the materiality of writing notably advocated this wider view: ‘‘‘Materiality’ can thus refer in a general way to the material aspects of artefacts, while also, and importantly, prompting their situation in relation to mutually-informing sets of practices. This enables material to be described as more than a mere ‘support’ for writing. It becomes active in the construction of meanings, from the preliminary work of manufacturing artefact ‘blanks’ on which marks are made, and the techniques of surface transformation which give rise to written marks, to the ways in which these physical objects were incorporated into subsequent activities, from reading/viewing (where intended) and display, to discard, deposition or loss.” From this perspective, objects and materials can be understood as agents in the social setting in which they exist, and in which they play a dynamic role in the interaction between humans and their material surroundings. Practice represents the coalescence of these different aspects and interactions.

The title of this paper introduces the term ‘material entanglements’, with intentional allusion to the idea of webs of human-thing entanglements that affect perceptions of the role and agency of things that exist in human society. Such things have material properties that determine and are determined by their interactions with people, and in turn those interactions have social context—making it useful also to introduce anthropological approaches to practice, such as those grounded in Bordieu’s concept of ‘habitus’. In other words, anything that people have or that people do cannot be simple or isolated, and can be understood from multiple angles in relation to the wider mesh of agents, things and practices that make up a given social setting. We can move from the abstract towards more concrete applications with an example. James Whitley’s recent discussion of writing in Archaic Greece showed one particular way in which the concept of material entanglement can be useful to a study of writing practices. He argued that, in different areas of Archaic Greece, writing and written objects were entangled with other forms of cultural and oral practice to different degrees, and that the nature of writing practices could correspondingly vary. In central Greece in this period, writing seems to be heavily entangled with other forms of cultural expression, including narrative and visual culture (which is obvious, for example, in the frequent appearance of writing on highly decorated and narrative ceramic wares, objects strongly associated with symposiastic activity and elite practice), as well as with sanctuary-based religious practice and with practices related to craft production. In the same period, writing on the island of Crete seems to be far less entangled with these particular areas of social practice and is less visible in e.g., ‘private’ documents like graffiti and oggetti parlanti (objects that ‘speak’ to the reader in the first person), while predominant uses of writing are far more impersonal, in particular the monumental legal codes for which Crete is perhaps most famous. The different settings and practices with which writing is entangled in each area are connected with local differences in the nature of writing.

Such entanglements can of course be unpicked further. What do mean when we say that one thing or practice is entangled with another? In the case of a vase with a narrative scene that integrates writing (e.g., the names of figures, direct speech, the signature of the artist), it is abundantly clear that the act of writing was in no sense separate from the act of decorating the vase and painting the figures and scenery that appear on it. It was done by the same person, using the same implements and materials. The placement of the writing depended on and/or dictated the arrangement of pictorial elements. This necessitated technical skill, both in working with the materials, paints and implements and in executing the letters and shapes. The content of the writing required the artist to understand the myth or scene they were depicting, and to have some degree of literacy however limited. The finished vase with its inscription will then become part of a social landscape in which it co-exists and interacts with other objects, many of which will not bear inscriptions but may nevertheless have a meaningful relationship with it. In order to understand a given object, there is a whole mesh of relevant interconnected relationships between humans, materials, objects, practices and social context that need to be explored. For the Bronze Age Aegean, some impressive work has already been done to explore and establish the relationship between the material aspects of writing and the broader context in which inscribed objects are viewed and imbued with meaning.

In the context of his ongoing work on cognitive approaches to materiality and material engagement, Lambros Malafouris has specifically sought to situate Bronze Age Aegean writing practices within a new interpretive framework. This views the production of Linear B tablets as ‘a temporally unfolding process, or sequence of related processes, encompassing both interaction between humans, situated tool use, and intelligent use of space, bodies and things’. Crucially, the properties of Linear B as a system are a hybrid to which both the people and the things involved contribute: “the cognitive and the social are inseparable often to such an extent that from the perspective of distributed cognition one may see the social organization of the Linear B system as a form of cognitive architecture in itself”, emphasis original). This view is a departure from structuralist linguistic approaches to writing systems in that it sees material and social context of writing as a practice as vital parts of that cognitive architecture, rather than separating the abstract concept of writing as a system from the embodied performance of writing as a practice. We can build on this model by drawing language encoding and writing system structure into the wider mesh of entanglements that encompass but also go beyond the material and social aspects of writing practice. Such combined approaches to cuneiform writing have indeed proven helpful in understanding the development of writing as both system and practice.

The final theoretical point to make is that by combining different approaches, we may be able to envisage a far wider set of complex connections that coalesce in the practice of writing, including: the concept of representing sound and language in a visible and tangible medium along with the structure of the writing system (including the signs and their shapes and values); the need and potential uses for writing in a given social setting, the types of objects that will bear the writing along with the types of tools used to execute the writing and their material properties; the availability of materials to fashion the objects and tools alongside considerations of their suitability to the intended purpose; the social mechanisms by which individuals learn the conventions of using the writing system and participating in the writing practice; the social contexts in which writing co-exists with other practices and in which writing constitutes a meaningful act. Any attempt to boil down such a practice will necessarily be reductive, and this list of examples is intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive, and to open up the range of factors that need to be brought into consideration. Within such a mesh of entanglements, we have to envisage the people and objects involved as active agents contributing to the practice of writing.

Header image courtesy of


Latest Posts

Lewis-Gibson Visiting Fellowships

21 November 2023

CCGS is now taking applications for its Lewis-Gibson Visiting Fellowships 2024-25. We look forward to receiving yours. Closing date, 31st January 2024