The role of digital tools in relation to understanding Meroitic

Progress toward understanding the Meroitic script has been well underway since the foundational work of Francis Llewellyn Griffith, published in 1911.  A standardized digital encoding for both Cursive and Hieroglyphic Meroitic was proposed in 2009, and 122 characters for it were approved in the release of Unicode 6.1.  In the 2009 proposal, it was noted that while the script was understood, at least 24 unencoded symbols would need to remain to be studied further, and that “the language itself remains unknown, apart from names and a few other words.”

ANT.222268

Fig. 1.  Stela offering table, Meroitic (75-350 CE), sandstone; 13 lines of text with tab on top; offering formula to Isis; Arminna West, Cemetery B, Tomb 19 (AWB 19.1/REM 1063/ YPM ANT222268). Nubia, Egypt.  Courtesy of the Peabody Museum, Yale University.

The encoding occurs at the level of basic infrastructure, which may lead to a case of what Bourdieu refers to as “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”  (Bourdieu, 1977)

That is, decisions that were made at the root level about a script can affect how tools built around them shape the representation and use of the script, even without imposing a predetermined outcome.  In this case, because the underlying language is not well understood, and we don’t know with certainty even the language family to which it belongs, the tools that have been designed around an understanding of the script alone may yet favor certain interpretations of the language over others.

So the approach taken to encode, based on what could be achieved as a mainstream consensus that excluded discredited outliers (Hummel, Winters, Zylharz), trims some possibilities of language relation off of the list of candidates.  The focus of the academic community has stayed largely on Nilo-Saharan, not Tocharian or Altaic, but with some argument that an Afroasiatic relation should be reconsidered (Rowan 2006).  For any discredited hypotheses to be revived will now require the additional hurdle of providing evidence that can be processed using digital tools that have reified certain structures that may work against them.

(Featured image:  Meroitic decorated beaker, YPM ANT242775, courtesy of the Peabody Museum at Yale University.)

Note: A bibliography will be appended sometime after this post is published.  The delay is due to limited connectivity of the author during the coronavirus shutdown.

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