Material Mediates Meaning: Exploring the artefactuality of writing utilising qualitative data analysis software

Kathryn Piquette (University College London)

Digital Classicist and Institute of Classical Studies Seminar 2010

Friday August 6th at 16:30, in room STB9, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

In this seminar I will discuss the ways in which qualitative data analysis (QDA) software facilitates the interpretation of writing from a material cultural perspective. I will focus on selected case studies of early inscribed objects from the Lower Nile Valley dating to the period of Egyptian ‘state’ emergence under a single ruler (c.3200-2750 BCE). My interest in past writing materialities is motivated by sociological and archaeological theories which posit that the construction of meaning takes place through material practice, embodied experience and sensory perception in particular temporal, spatial and social contexts. Where traditional textual analyses focus on decipherment and sign-signified meanings, often from institutional perspectives, these inevitably provide accounts that are partial and ill-equipped to explain meaning in relation to individual experience and wider social processes. Motivated by such shortcomings in previous approaches, my research takes a micro-scale perspective as its point of departure and centres on the nuances of scribal production, namely material choice, tools and techniques and their influences on composition and physical expression. However, the quantity of variables requiring analysis in such a detailed study presents certain challenges with regard to data management.

I will outline the ways in which I am deploying QDA software in order to address these challenges and undertake study in a systematic yet reflexive way. The primary tool for collation and analysis of my data is the computer software programme ATLAS.ti (Archiv für Technik, Lebenswelt und Alltagssprache). Developed by Thomas Muhr of Scientific Software, this powerful workbench aids the qualitative analysis of digitised multi-media sources including, text, audio, video and graphic files. My use has primarily involved digital images of inscribed artefacts together with the use of those software features which enable graphic file encoding and analysis. The software’s interface is ideal for grounding the study of inscriptions in the immediate context of the artefacts themselves. My analysis integrates observations concerning object and script materiality with archaeological associations. Emergent patterns and meanings are interpreted for what they reveal about past makers and viewers/users. I demonstrate that inscriptions do not simply exist, but are entangled in material, lived worlds and must therefore be conceptualised as both process and outcome.

Looking beyond my particular study, I am interested in the wider implications of a dynamic notion of writing as material practice and situated social experience. If we accept that writing is not only about linguistic meaning and processes of cognition, but is bound up with material intentions, practices and the experiences of embodied writers, readers and other users, how might we change and adapt the ways in which we deploy digital technologies in the study of ancient writings? Moreover, do we currently possess the theoretical and methodological toolkit(s) to do so effectively and meaningfully?


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.

Audio recording of seminar (MP3)