Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS) is a European Research Council funded project hosted at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge.

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The aim of the CREWS project is to take an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the history of writing, developing new methodologies for studying writing systems and their social context. The project researchers will be working on specific case studies relating to inscriptions of the ancient Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Levant (c.2000-600 BC). By looking at the ways in which writing systems were developed and used, we can study not only the systems themselves and the languages written in them, but also the cultural settings in which they were adapted and maintained.

By focusing on the Mediterranean in 2nd and 1st millennia BC, the project will be able to investigate writing during a period when we know there were high levels of contact between different areas. Against this backdrop of linguistic and cultural interconnections, a study of how writing was passed on and adapted for new uses has the potential to give new insights into social history. Writing is more than just a vessel for recording language: it is a tool that is shaped by and contributes to the society in which it exists.

For an introduction to the concepts underpinning the project see the welcome post here.

The CREWS project begins on 1st April 2016 and runs for five years, until 2021. The project’s page on the Faculty of Classics website is here.

You can now also follow us on Twitter (@crewsproject): see here.


Principal Investigator: Dr Philippa M. Steele

Pippa Steele

As Principal Invesitigator, Pippa Steele is working primarily on the writing systems of Middle-Late Bronze Age Crete and Greece for her project research. This involves studying the Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B scripts, looking at the contexts in which they were used and aiming to reconstruct the ways in which they are related to each other. Another aspect of this research involves studying the adaptation of writing systems for a new language from a theoretical point of view, and to aid this research she is also working on the development of the Greek alphabet from Phoenician and the spread of alphabetic systems around the Mediterranean. Linear B and the Greek alphabet provide a particularly useful point of comparison because they are both scripts that were borrowed and adapted to write the same language, Greek.

Following a doctorate focusing on the non-Greek languages of ancient Cyprus, Pippa has held a Henry Lumley Junior Research Fellowship (Magdalene College) and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, both at Cambridge. Her books include A Linguistic History of Ancient Cyprus (CUP 2013) and Society and Writing in Ancient Cyprus (CUP – coming out later this year), the latter a publication of her Evans Pritchard Lectures series given at All Souls College, Oxford, in 2014. She has also edited conference volumes and written numerous articles and book chapters on languages and writing systems. Her other research interests include ancient multilingualism and language contact (a field of study that is very much relevant to the propagation of ancient writing because writing systems were often adapted in multilingual situations) as well as the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus and the development of the Greek language over time in the eastern Mediterranean. She is a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

You can view Pippa’s Classics Faculty web page here.


Research Associate: Dr Philip Boyes

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Philip Boyes is a Research Associate working on the context of writing at Ugarit, a Late Bronze Age city at the site of Ras Shamra in modern Syria. A new form of wedge-shaped cuneiform writing, the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, was used at this site, and represented an important innovation in adapting an earlier cuneiform syllabary to write the local Semitic language. An important aspect of this research involves thinking about how the innovation in writing relates to, and is embedded in, other forms of social change taking place at about the same time. An interdisciplinary approach is essential, and this research will draw heavily on archaeological and historical evidence as well as linguistic and epigraphic.

Philip has previously worked extensively on East Mediterranean and Levantine archaeology, with a doctoral thesis exploring the nature of social change in Phoenicia during the transition from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age. Before that, he has worked on early Phoenician expansion into the Mediterranean and contacts between the Aegean and Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age. He has excavated at sites in Carthage, Turkey and extensively within the UK. One of his main research interests is social change – including change in writing and language, cultural contacts and how these relate to social identity. Since completing his PhD, Philip has also worked for Cambridge University Library as an Open Access Research Adviser, helping ensure that Cambridge research is available to anyone who wants to access it.

Philip has a personal blog, Ancient Worlds, here.


PhD student: Natalia Elvira Astoreca

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Natalia Elvira Astoreca is a PhD student working on the early development of the Greek alphabet under Pippa’s supervision. This includes looking at the adaptation of the Greek alphabetic system from a Phoenician predecessor, as well as considering the relationship between Greek and other alphabets that first appear around the same time in the 9th-8th centuries BC, including Etruscan and Phrygian. She is particularly interested in tackling the question of how varying forms of the Greek alphabet developed in different areas of the Greek-speaking world. For example, how did these local alphabets come to share the innovation of vowel signs but differ in other aspects of their repertoire? This problem requires a combined epigraphic, linguistic and contextual approach.

Natalia has previously researched syllabic writing on Cyprus during her undergraduate degree at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. During her MA at Leiden University she wrote a thesis on the use of the imperative in Athenian decrees as well as studying other aspects of Classical civilisation including papyrology and Greek epigraphy, the latter during a course taken in  Athens


Still to come

Another postdoctoral researcher will join the project team in 2017. Further details will be added here when the new team member has been elected.


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This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677758).