The Bottom Line
- 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
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.