The five-year project, Visual Interactions in Early Writing Systems (VIEWS), is based at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge and run by Principal Investigator Pippa Steele (UKRI Frontier Research Grant, no. EP/X028240/1). The project will employ a research team working on writing systems from Linear A and B and cuneiform to Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan.

Writing is, and always has been, a highly visual and visible phenomenon. Traditional ways of classifying writing systems have concentrated on their linguistic properties, such as whether they have separate signs for individual sounds or for whole words or syllables – but these approaches have tended to overlook similarities and differences in their visual properties. For example, the linguistically very different types of system employed in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan writing share some striking visual features, such as their highly decorative and often monumental contexts and the use of signs as visual complements to make meaning clearer. Meanwhile, closely related systems like Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A and B can employ strikingly different features in the way they lay out text and employ logographic signs that are visual depictions of what they represent.

Rollout image of a Mayan drinking cup. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard University. Downloaded from here.

Through new research on five specific pre-modern case studies, VIEWS takes writing systems research in a new direction. It probes important questions, such as the relationship between writing and visual culture, and the ways in which people encounter and interact dynamically with writing. It asks how we might reach a more nuanced understanding of writing systems if we were to categorise them by their visual properties, and investigate the ways in which visual and linguistic features interact. It seeks to establish innovative, interdisciplinary research methods, bringing archaeological, cognitive, linguistic, social-anthropological and visual-cultural approaches into dialogue with each other in order to pursue a more holistic picture of writing as a cultural phenomenon and practice.

The VIEWS project also pushes the boundaries of traditional views of the ancient world, bringing the writing of the Greeks and Romans into conversation with writing in western Asia, northern Africa and even the Americas – as well as looking at wider east Asian, African and Pacific parallels. One of the most exciting aspects of the research is its relevance to the modern day, where many minority writing systems around the world are under threat. A better appreciation of the wider visual-cultural context of pre-modern ‘dead’ writing systems has a powerful potential to help us understand how they lost their vitality, giving important clues as to how we might help to revitalise endangered writing systems in the modern world.

Pippa Steele is a Senior Research Associate at the Cambridge Faculty of Classics, and Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College. She has previously published widely on the writing systems and languages of ancient Cyprus and the Aegean, and recently led an ERC-funded five-year project on Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS, Horizon 2020). VIEWS arises from Pippa’s successful proposal in the European Research Council’s Consolidator Grant competition, but because the UK had not joined Horizon Europe at the time, the project is now funded by the ESPRC as a UKRI Frontier Research Grant.