Literacy in Ancient Pompeii… in Lego!

It’s time to say happy International Lego Classicism Day again! Our special treat this year is a brief excursion to ancient Pompeii, to consider the nature of literacy at the site. Who could write in Pompeii, and what sorts of writing might a resident of the city have encountered in their day-to-day life? Let’s explore this through a small Lego street scene.

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CREWS events in February and March

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Egyptian model granary with scribes, Met Museum.

I am delighted to present a very exciting programme of events here in Cambridge with the CREWS project this term. Egypt and Mesopotamia, Cyprus and Crete – we have got it all covered! If you are in Cambridge, please come and join us.

The talks are mainly given by CREWS Visiting Fellows, with a couple of others thrown in by colleagues speaking on relevant research themes. If you are interested in ancient writing, this is turning into a very exciting term!

Please note that due to the coming UCU strike, there have been changes to some of these dates/locations, which have been marked in red below. There is also a note at the end regarding the strike.

 

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Elven Vowels II

In a previous post for the CREWS blog, I explored the way in which vowel signs are used in the Tengwar to write various Elven languages. In this post, I want to focus on the question of the way in which vowel writing develops, as envisaged in Tolkien’s Legendarium.

According to Tolkien, by the Third Age, that is, the period described in The Lord of the Rings, the Elven scripts “had reached the stage of full alphabetic development, but older modes in which only the consonants were denoted by full letters were still in use” (Appendix E II). In other words, in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, contemporary scripts write vowels like any other letter, but archaic scripts continued to write vowels above and below the consonantal letters, using marks known as tehtar. We see the former approach in use in the inscription on the West-gate of Moria, while we see the latter on the ring inscription. The difference is plainly visible in the relative lack of markings above the letters in the West-gate inscription.

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pedo mellon a minno

“Speak friend and enter”

Section of West-gate inscription (Typeset using the TengwarScript package in LaTeX, https://ctan.org/pkg/tengwarscript?lang=en, using the Tengwar Annatar font designed by Johan Winge)

 

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Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Ring Inscription (image from here).

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Why do scripts and writing practices die out?

The death of scripts is something Pippa and I have been thinking about a fair bit recently. We gave a talk about it at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas back in the autumn, and presented a poster at a couple of recent conferences. Why do people stop writing in a particular script? It’s a simple question but one that’s received surprisingly little academic attention, perhaps because almost by definition, evidence for why something stops happening will be scarce. This is true with any tradition or cultural practice, and relates to a broader discussion of how we conceptualise and reconstruct ancient social change. But since writing is one of our key sources of evidence as well as the practice we’re investigating, the problem of evidence is particularly acute there.

The first thing we need to be sure of is that a script really has died out, rather than people merely changing what they use it for or the materials on which they write it. The ancient East Mediterranean offers a good example of this with the case of hieroglyphic Luwian. In the Late Bronze Age, this seemed like a script (and associated language) on the rise. It was widely spoken in Anatolia and seemed to be gaining ground, perhaps even among the Hittite royal elite by the end of the thirteenth century BC. The Hittites used Luwian writing alongside their usual cuneiform script, and it’s best preserved now in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, such as those from the capital, Hattuša. As CREWS Visiting Fellow Willemijn Waal has argued, it may also have been written on wooden tablets.

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Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

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Deathly inscription thread

I’m very sorry for missing Halloween. I was hoping to complete a script death post in time, but it’s been a long week with no time for writing. So for now, I’m just relaying my Twitter thread on ancient inscriptions that involve deathly, spooky or otherwise horrible themes (click on the tweets to view the thread) – but look out for that script death post some time in November!

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Deciphering Invented Scripts in Computer Games: Heaven’s Vault and Sethian

Earlier this year a game came out which is right up CREWS’s street. Heaven’s Vault is a narrative sci-fi archaeology game where the central mechanic sees the player attempting to decipher a writing system found in ancient inscriptions. It justifiably received a lot of praise from reviewers, offering up a pleasingly thoughtful alternative to the usual video-game portrayal of archaeologists as gung-ho action heroes who negotiate traps and fight mercenaries, Nazis and wild animals. Its developers, Inkle, are well-known for crafting careful and well-written branching narratives, so the exploration and decipherment elements are wrapped up in an appealing choose-your-own-adventure structure.

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New Visiting Fellows at CREWS

We are delighted to announce the new CREWS Visiting Fellows, who will be coming to spend some time with us here in Cambridge next year. When we launched the visiting fellowship scheme last year, we aimed to host scholars working on similar research themes, giving them a chance to spend time with access to our resources and us a chance to interact and exchange ideas with them as members of the CREWS team. The first results have been extremely stimulating and productive. This year’s visits from Willemijn Waal, Giorgos Bourogiannis and Cassandra Donnelly have been wonderfully successful, not to mention greatly enjoyable, and I am very much looking forward to welcoming new friends and colleagues to spend time with us next year.

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There were three main winners of our Visiting Fellowship competition, plus two who will spend shorter periods with us, all as CREWS Visiting Fellows. They are working on all sorts of wonderful things, including imaging techniques that help us to understand inscribed objects better, investigating distinctive traits in and social contexts of the epigraphic habits of different areas, new ways of trying to understand linguistic features underlying undeciphered scripts and the history of alphabetical ordering of information. Read more below! Continue reading “New Visiting Fellows at CREWS”