This volume gathers papers from the first conference ever to be held on the
disappearance of writing systems, in Oxford in March 2004. While the
invention and decipherment of writing systems have long been focuses of
research, their eclipse or replacement have been little studied. Because
writing is so important in many cultures and civilizations, its
disappearance – followed by a period without it or by replacement by a
different writing system – is of almost equal significance to invention as
a mark of radical change. Probably more writing systems have disappeared
than survived in the last five thousand years.
Case studies from the Old and New Worlds are presented, ranging over
periods from the first millennium BC to the present. In order to address
many types of transmission, the broadest possible definition of ‘writing’
is used, notably including Mexican pictography and the Andean khipu system.
One chapter discusses the larger proportion of known human societies which
have not possessed complex material codes like writing, offering an
alternative perspective on the long-term transmission of socially salient
subjects. A concluding essay draws out common themes and offers an initial
synthesis of results.
The volume offers a new perspective on approaches to writing that will be
significant for the understanding of writing systems and their social
functions, literacy, memory, and high-cultural communication systems in