Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2015
Elizabeth Hill Boone and Gary Urton, eds. Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Symposia and Colloquia.. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oakes Research Library and Collection, 2012. 422 pp.; 55 color ills.; 136 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780884023685)

Their Way of Writing is the material record of “Scripts, Signs, and Notational Systems in Pre-Columbian America,” a symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in October 2008. Framing contributions by symposiarchs Gary Urton (chapter 1) and Elizabeth Hill Boone (chapter 15) contain thirteen case studies from both Mesoamerica (chapters 2–9) and the Andes (chapters 10–14). Accompanied by black-and-white and color illustrations—including several never-before-published images from the Andes—these contributions vary widely in their level of legibility to non-experts.

The Mesoamerican chapters begin in the twentieth century, with Michael D. Coe’s consideration of why Soviet linguist Yuri Knorosov, and not British Mayanist J. Eric S. Thompson, produced the first modern-day phonetic decipherments of Maya hieroglyphs (chapter 2). The next seven chapters explore Maya writing from the Preclassic to the Postclassic (Stephen D. Houston), Cotzumalhuapa writing from the Preclassic to the Late Classic (Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos); the pan-Mesoamerican presence of Classic-period Teotihuacano script (Karl A. Taube); Oaxacan writing from the Formative to the Postclassic (Javier Urcid); and Postclassic and posthispanic writing from Oaxaca and/or Central Mexico (Michel R. Oudijk, Federico Navarrete, and Elizabeth Hill Boone).

The Andean section of the volume begins with Moche ceramics (Margaret A. Jackson), followed by Chiquibamba textiles (R. Tom Zuidema); a deep historical consideration of the tocapu (Thomas B. F. Cummins); and two chapters on khipus, from the prehispanic to the early posthispanic (Gary Urton and Carrie J. Brezine) and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Frank Salomon, Carrie J. Brezine, Reymundo Chapa, and Victor Falcón Huayta).

As Urton points out in the opening chapter, 2008 was not the first time that Dumbarton Oaks hosted a dialogue between scholars of communicative traditions from both Mesoamerica and the Andes. In 1991, Boone organized a roundtable that resulted in the publication of Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). This field-transforming text questions the Eurocentrism behind definitions of writing as speech made visible and makes two compelling claims: that New World texts were typically performed for a larger audience; and that the “colonial” history of indigenous writing in the Americas can no longer be bracketed off as insignificant.

Their Way of Writing both extends and reworks the Writing Without Words project. Performative frameworks are emphasized in many of the contributions (chapters 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 12), and the 1994 volume is cited in no less than six of the chapters. But where Writing Without Words engages with the temporal transition from prehispanic to posthispanic (all chapters, apart from one Classic Maya exception, deal with textual traditions from the centuries immediately surrounding 1492), Their Way of Writing backgrounds prehispanic-posthispanic changes with centuries-long histories of prehispanic development.

This focus on deep time connects to another point of contrast between the 1994 and 2008 volumes. Where the organizing editors of Writing Without Words were particularly engaged in a critique of the writing-must-encode-speech mandate, the editors of Their Way of Writing are interested in the temporal-social contrasts between speech (as ephemeral) versus writing (as durable). As Urton states,

In the case of writing, however, there exists a relatively stable original text (depending on the way texts are preserved, archived, and copied, etc.) that can be continuously consulted and reinterpreted across multiple generations. The existence of such transtemporal “orienting" texts is a matter of great importance for the people within a society that possesses such documents, as individuals in that society will be continuously challenged to understand, interpret, and explain their world in light of these foundational texts. (5)

According to Boone, “speech and performance (including gesture) are vehicles for direct communication between people who can hear and see each other and who therefore must occupy the same general space at the same time. X [script-sign-pictography], on the other hand, allows discourse across time and across space; it carries a kind of discourse that could not have existed without it. X requires a physical body of some permanence that receives and holds meaning" (380–81). Following these provocative leads, five of the case-study chapters in Their Way of Writing focus on written traditions across millennial spans of time.

But the ability of text artifacts to survive for centuries—long after their creators are dead—raises a critical question. What happens when the skills needed to interpret those enduring records have been lost? Both Houston and Chinchilla offer fascinating examples of the becoming-illegible of texts in prehispanic times (31–32, 49). But the question of textual opacity is also a problem of our own present—as Coe’s chapter makes clear (a chapter totemic, I would argue, for the volume as a whole). Many text artifacts from Mesoamerica and the Andes, although “relatively stable” in Urton’s terms, have now become unreadable. Questions of opacity and decipherment are not very central to Writing Without Words, in part because of that volume’s emphasis on pictorial writing from Central Mexico and Oaxaca. But because Their Way of Writing engages with longer, prehispanic spans of time and places greater relative emphasis on Andean communicative systems like the khipus and tocapu, the challenge of illegibility emerges as a key theme (and is noted individually by a number of authors: pages 65, 278, 319). How does one write about a writing system that is only partially understood—and which may indeed never be decipherable? Their Way of Writing offers a sort of a primer on this dilemma.

Two approaches emerge, and both are (in their own ways) concerned with the challenges of description. One approach uses what we might call the theoretical frame. Faced with a recalcitrant material-visual archive, a researcher may try to see that archive in new ways by re-describing its contents according to the productively anachronistic categories of academic theory. Thus Urcid views Oaxacan writing through the lens of Roy Harris, and Erwin Panofsky provides an optic for Oudijk, as Mikhail Bakhtin and François Hartog do for Navarrete. Turning to the Andes, Jackson draws on Boone and James Elkins to rethink Moche images. “Theories are like little machines,” ethnographer Elizabeth A. Povinelli remarked in one of my early grad seminars: like meat grinders, they take a large mass of disparate data and process it into a certain kind of uniformity and legibility. Of course not all theory machines are alike, and while some can illuminate the information they process, in other cases that information will cause the machine to jam. But at its most productive, the theoretical-frame approach can generatively filter out, and highlight into legibility, certain aspects of an archive that will always exceed our ability to completely understand it. This limit-horizon is even true of Maya hieroglyphs, as Houston makes clear in chapter 3 (a well-placed pendant, incidentally, to Coe’s previous chapter): “The tradition of Maya writing . . . has been successfully researched to the point that we can legitimately lay claim to full decipherment, insofar as that goal can ever be reached with a logographic system for which not all clues are now present” (34).

An alternative (though by no means mutually exclusive) descriptive mode for attacking illegibility is the inventory. The challenge here is not simply amassing data, but assembling a structured archive, with all of the decisions about order, inclusion, and exclusion such a task involves. One might be tempted to think assembling raw data into an archive is somehow a straightforward, empirical, pre-theoretical task, but it is not, and the most useful and generative archival systems are those that make plain their constraints and constructedness. Fortunately, a number of the volume’s contributors struggling with opaque inscription traditions provide illuminating comments on the nature of their inventories: Chinchilla on the making of his Appendix of Cotzumalhuapa signs; Taube’s survey of Teotihuacano signs according to the context of their use (as calendric signs, in grids, and in contexts beyond Central Mexico); Urcid’s categorization of Oaxacan texts in terms of place, personhood, and error; Cummins’s juxtaposition of alphabetic descriptions of tocapu with a material-visual survey of their possible Andean genealogy; and Urton and Brezine’s compellingly readable account of the ways in which they transform knotted cords into alphanumeric database data. Urton and Brezine’s chapter—which details the archiving of an archive, a building still used to house khipus—provides a fitting conclusion to the volume’s case studies. Although unreadable by their guardians, a series of descriptive undertakings and decipherments—radiocarbon dating, material analysis, insertion in a broader military-sartorial history—brings into legibility certain aspects of these text artifacts. In other words, chapter 14, the last of the volume’s case studies, is a story of a particular kind of decipherment, and so serves as another pendant to the first case study of Coe’s chapter 2.

Byron Ellsworth Hamann
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study