Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit

How does writing work as a part of society and culture? That was the question I set out to address when I joined CREWS in 2016. It’s not a complete question, though. Society and culture are specific things, particular to a given place at a given time. No two societies operate in the same way, and culture is arguably even more prone to differences, not just by time and society, but even within societies themselves. As long-term followers of this blog will know, my specific case study has been the kingdom of Ugarit, a small but important Syrian trading power in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries BC. Now, after four years of research, I’ve finally been able to offer up some answers in the form of a book, Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, just published by Oxbow books.

Since excavations began over 90 years ago, Ugarit has been an extremely important site in Near Eastern studies because of its large corpus of surviving clay tablets. Many of these are written in the Akkadian language and the logosyllabic cuneiform script that was used across much of the Near East and East Mediterranean in this period. However, just over half the tablets from Ugarit are written in a different script and language: an alphabetic form of cuneiform used to write the local Ugaritic language. In addition, there are relatively small collections of written material in other scripts and languages such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cypro-Minoan.

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Animating the Alphabet – in Lego!

Today is International Lego Classics Day on Twitter, an annual occasion when classicists all over the world dive into their Lego collections to build models related to their research. We’re big Lego fans here at CREWS and every year we try and do a couple of things for ILCD. As this year will be the last when the Project is running, we wanted to pull out all the stops. This is the result, a short film telling the history of alphabetic writing through the medium of Lego stop-motion.

I’ve wanted to try my hand at a CREWS-related stop-motion video for a while but the timing has never worked out. Fortunately this year I had just sent off proofs for two forthcoming CREWS publications so had enough leeway in my diary to get stuck in to a little Lego project for a few days.

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Lego Cleopatra, and writing in Ptolemaic Egypt

We wish you all a very happy International Lego Classicists Day! As official partners this year, we have been getting very excited and we have two big treats for you – Lego Cleopatra (this post) is by me, and the stop-motion Lego history of the alphabet is by Philip.

It’s hard to avoid that very striking popular cultural image of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, with almond eyes and sleek black hair, made most famous perhaps by Elizabeth Taylor in a 1963 Hollywood epic (or Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo if you prefer!) – and immortalised in series 5 of Lego’s collectable sets of minifigures. A lot has been said about what she might really have looked like, but are looks everything? For instance, did you know that it is quite widely believed that we have a signature on a piece of papyrus that could be in Cleopatra’s very own hand?

Cleopatra and Marc Antony as played by Elizabeth Taylor (note the embroidered hieroglyphs on her dress!) and Richard Burton in the 1963 film epic ‘Cleopatra’ (left) and by my Lego figures (right).
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On a PhD, CREWS and Brexit: a vital experience

On 22nd of June 2016, one day before the Brexit referendum, I had the interview for my studentship at the CREWS Project. I still don’t know where I got the courage to apply for a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Probably from my mum, who told me: “Imagine how many people won’t even apply just because they feel as intimidated as you are right now.” She was right, and I had nothing to lose.

I remember asking my interviewers how a supposed Brexit would change the situation of the project and mine if I were the chosen candidate, as I am a Spanish national and CREWS is fully funded by the European Research Council. They told me not to worry about it, that most probably it wouldn’t happen. While Britain was voting, I got the good news: I was successful in the competition and was invited to do my PhD as part of this project. The bad news came the following morning: the UK had voted to leave the EU. But that would take quite a long time to materialise, in fact, as much as my thesis.

So there I was, in September 2016, arriving for the first time in Cambridge. The months and years to come were happy ones. Although I missed my family, my people, my Madrid, I was feeling truly independent in my personal and professional life. I owned my work and my time, which wasn’t easy at first, but very rewarding once I managed to visualise clearly what I wanted my thesis to look like and how much time I had to finish it.

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Beyond Cyprus conference – with videos

Back in December we had to pleasure to be involved in a conference organised by CREWS Visiting Fellow Giorgos Bourogiannis, Beyond Cyprus: Investigating Cypriot Connectivity in the Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the End of the Classical Period. This was an impressive four-day event, organised as part of Giorgos’s project on Cypriot Connectivity in the Mediterranean (CyCoMed), which is affiliated with the CREWS project.

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Word processing then, now and in the future…

Word processing has become such an essential part of our daily lives, particularly for those of us who write for a living, that we tend to take its presence there, and indeed its existence as an activity in itself, for granted. Yet the tool we use for this activity, namely word processing software is, of course, like the personal computer on which it depends, a very recent innovation in the story of the written word. Indeed, the modern incarnation of the word processor, such as Microsoft Word, was by no means an inevitability, and could, in principle at least, have taken a different form.

The essential component of what we would now call a word processor is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor, which displays your work on screen as it will look on the printed page, in real time. In this way, the word processor brings together meaning and form in much the same way that we would if we sat in front of a piece of paper and began writing and/or drawing. In so doing, the word processor gives us the illusion of an experience akin to physically writing.

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Free teaching materials! Writing in the Ancient World

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Illustrations by Katie Idle

We are excited to announce the launch of our free teaching materials on Writing in the Ancient World, which includes teaching packs on five writing systems, cartoons and ideas for play sessions. They were designed with age 8-11 children in mind (i.e. roughly Key Stage 2 in the UK), but we hope that they will be useful for a wide range of people and will reach an international audience. If you are interested in learning more, please click through to the links below.

Writing in the Ancient World teaching materials

You may also be interested in these resources:

Write with CREWS videos

Write your name in an ancient writing system worksheets

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CREWS Visiting Fellows, coming soon

I am delighted to announce the outcome of the third and final round of the CREWS Visiting Fellowship, which will see a further three scholars coming to spend time with us here in Cambridge working on ancient writing systems. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused some delays with our fellowship programme, and there is sadly still some uncertainty about when Visiting Fellows from our second and third rounds will be with us – but we are very much looking forward to welcoming them when circumstances allow. In the meantime, you can read a bit more about the new fellows and their research below. Featuring ancient Byblos, Old Phrygian and machine-learning tools for restoring Greek, Latin and other inscriptions!

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Depicting writing

The overwhelming tendency to talk about writing systems as linguistic codes (which they usually are in some sense) has often ignored other important aspects of writing. For instance, one way way we can study writing is as a practice or action, because writing is a thing you do. At CREWS we have been particularly interested in developing the ways we look at writing practices, because this is an area with important ramifications for the way writing looks and the place of writing in a society (and in fact you can hear me speaking about some of these issues at the beginning of this seminar video).

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Fourth Dynasty Egyptian statue of a seated scribe: close-up detail. Image from here.

But how can we reconstruct the ways in which writing was done, accomplished or performed in the ancient world? The nature of the act of writing is extremely dependant on a whole range of factors, from cultural attitudes and social setting to technical expertise and interactions with oral traditions. And choices about the kinds of things you write on, the kinds of things you write with and the techniques you use to ‘apply’ the writing are central to these practices. There are a number of different ways of approaching the question, one of which is by looking at ancient visual depictions of the act of writing. This is what we will focus on in this post. Continue reading “Depicting writing”