Dr Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist at The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany.
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My current research focuses on the relationship between people, language and graphic codes.
A great many studies of graphic codes are concerned with writing, a specific variety of semiotic communication that associates visual elements with linguistic units. Writing is certainly the most culturally successful graphic code to date, yet it is both rare and recent in human history having been invented first in ca. 5000 B.P. and a mere three times since.
While written codes are an important focus of my research, I argue that the relevant context for understanding writing is much wider than the standard typologies of linguistically organised graphic systems. To better understand the nature and importance of graphic codes, my research centres on people and their lived experiences.
In every society, linguistic and non-linguistic graphic codes have performed a surprising diversity of tasks. On a functional level, graphic codes are seen to assist in the resolution of complex coordination problems over time and distance, but they are also used to extend the ordinary scope of spoken language in ritual, to circumscribe group and individual identities, or to notate and organise cultural categories. The visual systems at play are similarly diverse, ranging from compact linear forms to diagrammatic or multi-textural techniques. Far from amounting to ‘noise’, a patient examination and comparison of these practices in their ethnohistorical contexts is a revelatory exercise in its own right and is essential groundwork before we can make meaningful universalising claims about graphic communication.
View my current projects here.
Some of the texts that have informed my research direction and general intellectual outlook are here.
I have recently taken up a fellowship at The Mint, a new research group at the Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte in Jena, Germany. Under the direction of Olivier Morin, I am working with James Winters, Barbara Pavlek, Thomas Müller, Lidiia Romanova and Olena Tykhostup to investigate the evolution of graphic codes and the rise of writing. Collaborators on the project are Alberto Acerbi, Nicolas Baumard and Helena Miton.