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Review - Powell's Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization


The Bottom Line

Philologists, classicists, linguists, archaeologists, and all others interested in the origins of ancient writing should read Barry B. Powell's insightful Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization; however, those who read Powell's 1991 book on Homer may find it somewhat redundant [see BMCR review]. Although described as jargon-free, with good reason, the concepts are confusing, as Powell admits: "I hope this book may serve as a brief introduction to an immense, tangled, and obscure topic."
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  • Full of humorous bits and anecdotes
  • Care taken to show translating steps in words and pictures
  • Excellent choices of illustrations
  • Teaches the reader a great deal about ancient scripts
  • Ties together discrete areas of mythology and historical linguistics


  • Some terms could be explained better when first introduced
  • Some statements that seem like opinion are not backed up/evaluated


  • Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization, by Barry B. Powell. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 276 pages.
  • Systematic introduction to the origins of writing.
  • Covers original writing systems in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica.
  • Contains a timeline of writing and glossary of the terms.
  • Defines writing: "Writing is a system of markings with a conventional reference that communicate information."
  • Repeatedly cites Assyriologist I. J. Gelb who held the phonographic element of writing is written language's goal.
  • Discards the term pictographic. Largely replaces it with "iconic".
  • Tells how various languages like Linear B were deciphered. Gives readers a taste of the process.
  • P. 147: There is a typo. The order of the vowels at the top of the page should be the conventional: a,e,i,o,u.

Guide Review - Review - Powell's Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization

Barry B. Powell dispels the myth that language proceeded gradually and unilaterally from pictures. Indeed, today we increasingly use pictograms, a term Powell dislikes and replaces with "icon". Powell's concentration on precise names for terms used in discourse clears up some of the confusion common to histories of work on ancient scripts. Alphabet refers to writing in signs that are smaller than syllables, but are pronounceable when put together. The alphabet, the telos of writing, was produced by the Greeks who used writing for none of the conventional, expected purposes, like accounting, trade, or recording kings' deeds, but because they produced something else of value, meter, in the form of epic poetry.

Powell interjects his personality into his introductions of major figures in the history of deciphering: "Arthur Evans, to his discredit, kept the tablets from Cnossus to himself until his death 40 years later...", "the precocious man of destiny, Jean Francois Champollion....", writing about Mayan writing scholar Yuri Knorosov, "he helped himself to a rare publication....", and mass murderer is Chairman Mao's epithet. These clever, concise characterizations help the reader understand the fits and starts in the timeline from uncovering the artifacts to translating/deciphering them.

One problem I have with Powell's writing comes from the fact that I haven't read his material before and don't always "get" him. I can't tell whether he agrees with Gelb, whom he usually approves, when he quotes from him: "A phonetic writing can and ultimately must be deciphered if the underlying language is known." If he agrees/disagrees, where is the analysis? Pages later? In the Intro? The answer may be implicit -- in the italics, but this isn't the only place I couldn't tell, and elsewhere there were no italics.

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