Field of Focus III - Funded ProjectsText-Object-Person

Project leader:

Dr. Rodney Ast


Past societies are defined and understood to a significant extent by the textual materials they produced, not only their literature but also many kinds of documentary writings, whether legal, financial, administrative, personal, etc. Every text-bearing object that survives owes its existence to the human agent who produced it.

Signs of this agency can take different forms. Occasionally we get a clear textual reference to the individual responsible for the object, but more often clues left by the agents are of a more opaque nature. They can be seen in characteristic features of script, extra-linguistic elements (e.g., symbols and abbreviations, methods of formatting, etc.), and indicative physical properties (signs of certain kinds of writing instruments, etc.). In the end, we may be able to piece together enough evidence from the handwriting or physical properties of the object to construct a plausible picture of who the agent was, what social and cultural context he or she operated in, what his tools (intellectual, linguistic, and physical) were, questions that specialists in a broad range of disciplines who deal with large numbers of written sources in fact routinely ask themselves. These questions are sometimes made explicit, but more often they take the form of implicit assumptions peculiar to specific disciplines.  

Recent advances in the study of text-bearing objects, which has been aided by greater access to photographic reproductions of artifacts, has problematized traditional approaches and has exposed the need for a more clearly defined research methodology that is scalable enough to accommodate needs in disciplines dealing with different languages, scripts, and material substrates, but sufficiently nuanced to be sensitive to cultural and historical differences. Furthermore, these advances have created the opportunity to explore digital methods of analyzing signs of agency in large bodies of texts via, e.g., mapping techniques that connect individual linguistic elements in a piece of writing with their graphic counterparts on a corresponding reproduction. Ultimately, what this research promises is better understanding of circumstances surrounding the production of writing in pre-typographic societies, which can offer important insight into the communication and transmission of culture and knowledge, as well as methods of governance and administration, something that has significant implications for the social, political and economic history of a place.