Friday, March 06, 2009

Southwest Script

...has nothing to with Arizona or New Mexico. It is a script found on stones in southern Portugal and some neighboring parts of Spain. And I had never heard of it before I was directed to this AP story by Explorator. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned:

For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found.

About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words which usually read from right to left.

The first attempts to interpret this writing date from the 18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.

Almodovar, a rural town of some 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows punctuated by whitewashed towns, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.

Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.

"We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.

Southwest Script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, according to Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words.

It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts — one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby — but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.

Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.

Experts have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. But eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, have confounded attempts at comprehension.

There is more at the Yahoo news site.

Image: one reconstruction of Southwest script.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Crusade pageants in New Spain

Note this from Tyerman's God's War, pp. 672-3.

In faraway Central America, local allies in the conquistadors that Tlaxcala, a state city state east of Mexico, marked the Treaty of Aigues Mortes between Charles V and the French king Francis I in 1538 at the lavish pageant showing the anticipated conquest of Jerusalem by the King of Spain. On Corpus Christi Day 1539 in the presence of the consecrated host, the lavish display included two Christian armies laying siege to the holy city, 11 compromising Europeans, the other commanded by the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza with the Tlaxcalans and other "New Spaniards" in their own war costumes, complete with "feathers, devices and shields." Seemingly a good time was had by all. A few weeks earlier, the Mexicans to the east had laid on a similar show depicting the Turkish siege of Rhodes. Through these traditional images of past future crusading, New Spain was being assimilated into the culture of the old.

Tyerman calls these "bizarre consequences" of the appropriation of crusading as an element in national identity and imperialism (Spanish). But how is this any more bizarre than other aspects of crusading?

It is pretty colorful, though.

Image: Cortez and Dona Marina negotiate with the Tlaxcalans.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tour Barcelona on foot with a medievalist

Long ago I had a day in Barcelona in the spring; it was indeed a beautiful city, and I remember people doing circle dances before the medieval cathedral.

Now Jonathan Jarret, who researches this area specifically and blogs about it at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, is enjoying the city, even if he is missing all the hot nightspots. If you want a happier cityscape than Baghdad's, have a look at his most recent post, In Marca Hispanica II.

Image: Barcelona's other, modern cathedral.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Lessons in imposed democracy

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article by Shankar Vedantam entitled Lessons in Enforced Democracy (a title less accurate than the one I've chosen for this post). Vedantam has got hold of an unpublished study by Andrew Enterline and J. Michael Greig on the fate of democratic regimes imposed by foreign countries. (Unfortunately he doesn't say where this study will be published and whether it will be an article or a book. But I will keep an eye out.)

The study suggests that this usually works out badly because the countries on which democracy has been imposed lack the appropriate civic institutions. The traditional generation seems to be a turning point. Weak democracies with elections but no institutional infrastructure fail in large numbers in the first 30 years. Strong new democracies that reach 30 seem to have become very well established by that point.

I am tempted to say DUH! but really I'm pleased that this serious matter has appeared in a major American newspaper. It's an improvement over what often appears in the WP, not to speak of lesser forums like the discredited NYT. However, I wonder how much systematic thinking is behind the study. Here, for instance, is the study's recipe for success as reported by Vedantam:

...large occupation forces early on to stamp out nascent insurgencies; a clear message that occupation forces were willing to spend years to make democracy work; an ethnically homogenous population, where politics was less likely to splinter along sectarian lines; and finally, the good fortune to have neighbors that also were democratically minded, or at least neighbors who could be kept from interfering.

Is this just an ad hoc argument for a long-term US commitment to Iraq?

One thing that makes me wonder is this paragraph from the article:

Enterline and Greig said there is one large exception to their finding: India, with its myriad internal divisions, but which still has become a strong democracy. Civic culture and a strong desire for representative government undoubtedly play a role in whether stable democracies emerge, Greig said -- meaning that Iraq might yet defy the odds.

Indian democracy is a remarkable achievement, but perhaps success there indicates that civic institutions are far more important than ethnic homogeneity. After all, neither the USA nor Canada has ever had any such thing. There's always been some new wave of immigration to mix things up. Political science has known for years that having a tradition of British justice and an independent judiciary gave freed British colonies a better head start on stability than colonies of other countries. In the partition, the Republic of India got the vast bulk of the institutional inheritance of the Raj, while Pakistan just got the army. Even so, the Pakistani judicial system has shown itself recently the biggest organized force for reform.

The Vedantam article cites the problems that the Philippines have had maintaining democracy after independence from American rule; it might be interesting to compare American-imposed institutions in the Philippines to British ones in India, at a detailed level of analysis.

While we are wishing, what about a good study of Spain -- model backward Fascist state to model European democracy in less than a generation? All while suffering from domestic terrorism! Long-established democratic countries -- you know who you are -- should bow their heads in shame in the face of this example.

Update: Thanks to Will McLean, I now have a link to the Enterline and Grieg paper. Alas, the briefest of looks makes me question the analytical judgment of the authors. To term the 19th century democratization of Canada and New Zealand cases "imposed democracy" similar to the cases of Germany and Japan and now Iraq shows a profound ignorance of the internal dynamics of Canada and New Zealand in that era.

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