Learning Hieroglyphics!

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Bloomsbury Summer School in Egyptology, where I developed my reading in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a very rich experience, and it certainly improved my knowledge of Middle Egyptian. I wanted to do this because Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics omits almost entirely the writing of vowels. This is the same characteristic in Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems that I am investigating for my part in the CREWS project.

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Detail from coffin of Khnumnakht, Middle Kingdom. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544326).

The fact that these three writing systems do not (in principle at least) record vowels is at odds with other notable second millennium BC writing systems, namely Linear B (for Greek) and (non-Ugaritic) cuneiform, which do record vowels. A priori it therefore seems plausible that there should be a link, either genetic or typological, between the Egyptian writing system and that of the early north-west Semitic alphabetic writing systems. Before exploring some possible links in future blog posts, for those who are not necessarily familiar with the Egyptian writing system, I thought in this blog post I would lay out some of the basic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. Continue reading “Learning Hieroglyphics!”

Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralLet me tell you a story of the forgotten wisdom of the ancients, preserved in secret libraries of elder ages and deciphered by visionary sages, let me tell you about men who became gods and gods who became men. Let me tell you the strange mythology linking the origins of the Phoenician alphabet with the birth of the Western occult tradition.

The origins of writing systems are fascinating, but sometimes it can be just as interesting to lay the reality to one side and look at where the people of the ancient world thought their writing systems came from. My colleague Natalia has been doing this with her series of blog-posts looking at myths about writing. Here, though, I want to look in a bit more depth at the stories told about the development of the Phoenician alphabet.

Because they get a bit weird. Continue reading “Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet”

Writing and Literacy in Game of Thrones

With the new season of Game of Thrones starting, I have been thinking about writing and literacy in the world of the show.

NB This post contains NO SPOILERS FOR SEASON 7! Please note also that copyright for the books belongs to George R R Martin, for the show to HBO and for the created languages to David J Peterson.

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Image from HERE.

The novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin give lots of hints at linguistic diversity in both Westeros and Essos. In the books, very occasionally a word or short phrase appears from one of the other languages (i.e. ones other than the ‘Common Tongue’, represented by English in the show). Probably most famous is valar morghulis, meaning “all men must die” in High Valyrian. But for the most part the books only signal the existence of the languages without giving any details. The show, made by HBO under the direction of David Benioff and D B Weiss (see the official website), takes the languages of Essos a great deal further. They employed a linguist, David J Peterson (see more HERE), to develop George R R Martin’s hints into fully fledged, constructed languages that could be used in the show with subtitles to show us what the characters are saying.

This post, however, is going to focus not on languages specifically but on writing. I hope these thoughts on various aspects of writing and literacy, drawn from my watching of Game of Thrones over the last few years, will prove interesting!

Continue reading “Writing and Literacy in Game of Thrones”

Aegean scripts and undecipheredness

Readers may be interested in a post I’ve written over on the Oxbow Books blog. It ties in with a recently published book, but I hope it’s interesting in its own right as a brief introduction to the syllabic writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean and Cyprus (Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, Linear B, Cypro-Minoan).

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The main point is to show that what we mean by ‘undeciphered script’ can vary quite a lot, from writing systems where we have no idea about the values of signs to ones where we know what many of the signs stand for but do not understand the underlying language. And it’s also just a little bit about how I live up to my lifelong dream to be Indiana Jones…

You can read the post HERE.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Invesitgator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele

New Roman writing tablets from Vindolanda

Recent excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, have turned up some wonderful finds – some of the most exciting of which are newly discovered writing tablets. This week a press release revealed some juicy details about the new inscriptions, which have yet to undergo conservation and careful palaeographic study.

All pictures in this article are ones made available by the Vindolanda Trust in their press release and on Twitter, unless otherwise stated.

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Continue reading “New Roman writing tablets from Vindolanda”

Writing Gods and Myths III: Egypt

Legend has it that it was the Egyptian god Thoth who created writing or, as the Egyptians called it, medu netjer “the words of the gods” (this is what we refer to as hieroglyphics, after the Greek ἱερός “holy” and γλύφω “to carve”). His intention was to give wisdom and a better memory to the Egyptians, but the god Re thought that writing would have the opposite effect, making people rely on written documents for wisdom and memory. However, Thoth still gave writing to a restricted group: the scribes. For this reason, scribes honoured Thoth as their patron.

 

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The god Thoth with writing tools.

Continue reading “Writing Gods and Myths III: Egypt”

Happy Linear B Day!

On this day in 1952, 65 years ago, Michael Ventris made the announcement that he had deciphered Mycenaean Linear B. Against all expectations, he had discovered that these Late Bronze Age documents were written in Greek – making them some 400 years earlier than any other known Greek inscriptions.

 

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The announcement was made on the radio, and luckily the recording still survives. You can hear it HERE in a post made by the BBC a few years ago.

You can read more about the decipherment process HERE in a resource made available by the Cambridge Mycenaean Epigraphy Group.

 

 

Learning Ugaritic and Making Tablets

DSCN0025Since I joined the CREWS Project last November, I’ve been teaching myself Ugaritic. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to put that knowledge to work. It’s traditional among Cambridge’s classical linguists to spend the last term of the academic year learning a language outside the usual repertoire of Greek and Latin. This year it was my turn to lead the group in Ugaritic. Continue reading “Learning Ugaritic and Making Tablets”

Learning about Cuneiform Tablets Behind the Scenes at the British Museum

We’ve talked before on this blog about the importance of hands-on experience with inscriptions. Seeing and handling the real thing gives a much clearer idea of the practical realities of reading and writing an ancient script than working from a transcription or even a drawing or photograph.

So I was very lucky this week to be able to visit the British Museum with Cambridge’s Assyriologists, for a behind-the-scenes tour and a hands-on session with some of their many cuneiform tablets.

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Continue reading “Learning about Cuneiform Tablets Behind the Scenes at the British Museum”