11 August 2009

Scripta manent

I am a booklover, even a bookworm. I have always felt the need to fill up the shelves of the places where I've lived with as many books as possible; maybe it's because I was born in a house where there were few books, or just because I love them. I guess some of the readers of this blog are also booklovers. Sometimes you buy a book and you read it immediately, but more often you just put it on the shelf and leave it there for a long time, even years, or decades, before opening its first page. The big problem about this is space. One day you realize that there's not enough room for so much literature and you are forced to make difficult decisions about what to do with your beloved books. You want to keep them all, but you know very well that some of these books must go, especially that big volume you bought fifteen years ago for reasons that you can't recall any more. You know you might never read it but throwing it to the recycling container is indeed a painful experience. Recently, I have experienced this kind of feelings, as I am in the process of moving house, which means I have to face the reality of my book collection in its actual dimensions, compared to the ever-shrinking size of contemporary homes. One of the 'big' books I came across the other day is called Scripta Manent. La memoria escrita de los romanos. It is actually the catalogue of an exhibition that I visited in Barcelona in 2002. The exhibition was really interesting, and I decided to buy the beautifully designed catalogue, which included several articles about Roman and pre-Roman epigraphy in Iberia. The book lay on the shelf all these years, and sometimes I thought "Why did I buy this thick volume after all?"- I was not particularly interested in ancient epigraphy at the time and I thought buying that book was not a brilliant idea. But books are patient artifacts, they wait in silence for years and years until their 'moment' arrives. There are also cases where the postponement of the act of reading is a more deliberate choice: the reader knows that the book is there but decides that it is better to start reading it sometime in the future. When I read Richard Ford's novel Independence Day a few years ago I thought it was one of the best books I'd ever read, and I still think so. Independence Day is the second part of a trilogy which describes three different stages in the life of its main character, Frank Bascombe. I bought the first book of the trilogy, The Sportswriter, and read it the following summer. Then, somebody gave me the third book (The Lay of the Land) as a birthday present last year, but I still haven't read it. Maybe I need to allow myself some time to match the timing of Bascombe's development as a character. He was in his forties in the previous novels, and he is presumably older in The Lay of the Land, so I'm not in a hurry to read the book. I'm just taking my time. Why not? - Now, let's go back to the Ibero-Romans.
The phrase Scripta Manent is actually the second part of a well-known Latin proverb: Verba Volant, Scripta Manent (= "spoken words fly, the written ones remain"), a well-chosen name for the exhibition. I have been browsing the catalogue, where I have found a couple of interesting articles, especially one by Javier Velaza: "La epigrafía romana como modelo de las epigrafías paleohispánicas" (pp. 52-65). Velaza is one of the most important experts in the field of pre-Roman scripts and epigraphy in the Iberian Peninsula: in his article, he offers a brief and comprehensive account of the subject which can easily be read by the non-specialist. He also analyses some of the inscriptions in detail, for example one that was found in Empuries, an ancient site on the Catalan coast. This inscription (see picture above) was made in Iberian in the 1st c. BC, using the Levantine script, but the format of the signs clearly show the influence of Roman epigraphy. It is thought that it was made in a workshop that was also producing Latin inscriptions. The co-existence of epigraphic texts in Latin and pre-Roman languages (Iberian or Celtiberian) lasted until the beginning of our era, when Latin became the only language used in writing.

Inscriptions made on stone, bronze, lead or pottery are the only documents that have reached us written in the pre-Roman languages of Iberia. This is in fact an important limitation in the study of these languages, as the texts found in epigraphy are usually confined to a few contexts, mainly commercial or funerary. We do not have any written texts reflecting the oral epic or the legends of the Iberians or the Celtiberians; we don't even know if they were ever written down, but in any case the transmission of this literature is lost forever, as the languages themselves. Something similar happens with Etruscan, and many other pre-Roman peoples in Europe. We have for example more than 8,000 Etruscan inscriptions, but they mostly consist of a few words, maybe just a person's name in a tomb. This all makes it very difficult for the investigators to understand the languages of the Iberians, the Lusitanians, the Celtiberians or the Etruscans. They must rely on the epigraphic material and the indirect information from other sources: classical authors, toponymy, etc.

1 comment:

JoseAngel said...

The title of your post reminded me of this one I wrote some time ago - reflecting on the essence of writing...