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10.4: Surfaces

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  • We should also recognise that writing is deployed on a vast range of preserved materials, with no exceptions known to me, except obsidian and amber; even one lead architectural clamp from the Agora excavations has a text, albeit very difficult to read, cut on it (David Jordan pers. comm.). The full extent of painted texts will never be known to us; it would be a nice pipe-dream to think that in, say, 2030, somebody will write “people made the claim only two decades ago that we would never read such texts”. In the British Museum is a remarkable early marble monument, of c.600 bc (Figure 10), where both angular and curvy sigmas are still discernible — Phanodikos’ stele, an epigraphic colossus to place beside contemporary sculptural tours de force up to four times life size (Jeffery 1990: 371, no. 43, pl. 71). It was removed by Elgin from near the site of ancient Sigeion in the Troad. The cutting on it of a similar text in two different Greek dialects and scripts, Attic and Ionic, says much about the independence of the small Greek states of the period and their local pride, but also something about locally-driven writing habits. Ann Jeffery noted that in the area of Ionia there is much scruffy looking writing on stone dated to the 6th century, and she wondered whether this may have been the result of the reported flowering here of many branches of written literature, presumably produced in ink, at this time (Jeffery 1990: 57). It is certainly a tendency far different from that of Athens later, in the 5th century, where we see a new ‘aesthetic’, I use the word deliberately, of formally patterned chessboards of letters. Ironically, however, that stoichedon system may have been initiated in Ionia, an early example being the scruffy lettering, but also patterned, text on the side of the throne dedicated on Samos by Aiakes (Figure 11), a piece, whether sculpture or text, of much disputed date — 540 or 500? BC — (see Immerwahr 1990: 96–97 for an assessment, even if he tends towards an Athenian origin for the system).

    Unfortunately we have little substantial evidence to support Jeffery’s suggestion; while we can now point to an expanding series of personal letters written mostly on lead from the broad Ionian world, which are of high interest in other respects — especially for the fact that financial problems seem to be the sole topic of epistolary intercourse — they add little regarding the written word. The grammar sometimes fails to reach A-level standards but that again is by the way. More useful is the reference in one such text (Figure 12) to documents written on skins (see Avram 2007: 239 for general bibliography; diphtheria are mentioned in the text from Olbia, Dana 2007: 75–76, with n. 16).

    A recent suggestion that this part of the world did see wide use of cursive writing in the period under consideration has been put forward by Adiego (1998: especially 57–79; 2007: 230–233), who finds the oddities of letter shapes in Carian texts best explained by positing that the forms we have in inscriptions from the later 7th century onward are petrifications of unattested cursive forms used in the area in an earlier period. Much as one would like to see a rational explanation of the Carian alphabet, on all analogy this one seems highly improbable.