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.”


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.

[Update, 7/30/2020:  The bibliography has been appended below.]


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Burlak, Svetlana A. [misattributed to Starostin A. Burlak]. 2008. Meroitic and Tocharian — from the point of view of a Tocharianist. Sudan & Nubia Bulletin No. 12. London, UK: The Sudan Archaeological Research Society.

Everson, Michael. 2009. Proposal for encoding the Meroitic Hieroglyphic and the
Meroitic Cursive scripts in the SMP of the UCS. N3665. UC Berkeley Script Encoding Initiative.

Griffith, Frances Llewellyn. 1911. Karanòg: the Meroitic inscriptions of Shablul and Karanòg. Philadelphia: University Museum.

Hintze, Fritz. 1989. ‘Meroitische und Nubische, Eine vergleichende Studie’. Beiträge zur Sudanforschung 4. Vienna, Austria.

Hummel, Siegbert. 1992. Die meroïtische Sprache und das protoaltaïsche Sprachsubstrat als Medium zu
ihrer Deutang. Fabri Verlag: Ulm/Donau, Germany.

Leclant Jean, Heyler André, Berger el Naggar Catherine, Carrier Claude, Rilly Claude. 2000. Tome III – REM 1001 à REM 1278. In: Répertoire d’épigraphie méroïtique, Tome III – REM 1001 à REM 1278, sous la direction de Jean Leclant.

Rilly, Claude. 2009. ‘From the Yellow Nile to the Blue Nile’. Section française de la direction des antiquités du Soudan., accessed 7/30/2020.

Rowan, Kirsty. 2006. ‘Meroitic — an Afroasiatic language?’ SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol. 14.
London, UK: School for Oriental and African Studies.

Winters, Clyde A. Undated. The decipherment of Meroitic., accessed 7/30/2020.

Zylharz, Ernst. 1930. ‘Das Meroïtische Sprachproblem’. Anthropos 25. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Anthropos Institute.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s