Late Bronze Age Clay Time!

Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Cassandra Donnelly

During the last week of April the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP) hosted its first ever “Late Bronze Age Clay Time! Study Break” in the Classics Lounge in Waggener Hall at the University of Texas at Austin. Approximately twenty  undergraduate and graduate students, along with some staff and their children, produced a veritable archive of Late Bronze Age (LBA) tablets.


We provided attendees with the clay (local-fire “Longhorn Red” clay from Armadillo Clay), three types of styluses, and one of three different instruction packets. The first type of instruction packet pertained to Mycenaean Greek and Linear B, the second to Ugaritic, and the third to Cypro-Minoan. Each packet included instructions for how to make one of three tablet types, a signary in the corresponding script, and a model text to write in the corresponding language. Each of the texts, once combined, tells the story of the Late Bronze Age copper trade as mediated by Cypriot traders. Continue reading “Late Bronze Age Clay Time!”


Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

Mohamed Moursal working at Ugarit

Ninety years ago today, on 14 May 1929, a workman at the excavations of the newly-discovered Syrian archaeological site of Ras Shamra made one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century for the study of ancient writing systems – a number of clay tablets inscribed in a previously unknown version of cuneiform. Typically for the colonial context and the hierarchical nature of archaeology at the time, it’s usually the French director of the excavations, Claude Schaeffer, who gets the credit for this discovery but the actual discoverer’s name was Mohamed Moursal. Writing some years later, Schaeffer records the moment of the discovery as follows (translated from the French):

At five o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun transformed the Alawite mountains east of the tell into a golden fringe, I observed one of my workmen who stopped his work to examine what at a distance had the appearance of a small brick. Mohamed Moursal, a Turk from Bourj Islam, a good workman, but preferring effort rather than the delicate work of releasing fragile objects, spat on his find and with the palm of his right hand rubbed on it to remove the film of earth that masked the surface.

Ugaritic tablets in situ.

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Notice: CREWS Cypro-Minoan seminar

This term we are running a Cypro-Minoan seminar, looking at writing and inscribed objects in Late Bronze Age Cyprus.

CREWS CM seminar poster

These are primarily intended for academics working on the ancient world, but are open to anyone with an interest. If you would like to attend any or all sessions and are not someone already on our radar, and/or are not based in Cambridge, please do contact Pippa so that she can put you on our mailing list for updates and advice (e.g. so that you know about room changes or timetable changes) and so that we can keep an eye on numbers.

No prior knowledge of Bronze Age Cypriot writing is expected, and we will be  approaching the topic from multiple viewpoints, both epigraphic and archaeological – so really anyone working in any discipline is welcome. At some point(s) there will also be practical experiments and themed cake!

Please note that there will be no seminar on Wednesday 5th June. The five sessions will take place on 15th May, 22nd May, 29th May, 12th June and 19th June.

Arranging and navigating text

Pippa’s recent adventure in Oxford at the Navigating the Text conference (Merton/Queens Colleges) and Babel exhibition (Bodleian Library), featuring some beautiful books and objects

When you write something down, how do you arrange the information in the writing space? This is actually not a straightforward question to answer, and it can be affected by all sorts of contextual considerations. What is the medium being written on, and what are its physical features and dimensions? Does your society have conventions about how to write down and arrange information? Are you writing it down for other people to read and consult, or just for yourself? Is your message clear in the linguistic content of what you are writing, or do you need to add illustrations? How can you visually break down complex information to make it easier to navigate?

These were the sorts of questions on the agenda at the Navigating the Text conference I was attending in Oxford this weekend.

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Detail from p46 of the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving Mayan books. Image from the digitised version here.

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Writing indigenous languages

Did you know that 2019 is the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages? There are thousands of languages spoken in the world today, but many of them are strongly localised and in danger of dying out because of the small size of their speech communities, and because their speakers often choose to use successful global languages over their local languages. IYIL sets out to raise awareness of indigenous languages in order to benefit their speakers and to bring about a better appreciation of their important contribution to the world’s cultural diversity.

What I want to talk about briefly in this post is the writing down of indigenous languages, in the ancient world as well as the modern – really just a few collected thoughts on diversity of experience.



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Ancient accounting practices in the modern world

Guest post by Fernando Toth (Professor of Anthropology, University of Buenos Aires)

Token: an art piece that mixes anthropology, experimental archaeology, archival analysis and regional history

Token is a project by Carlos Mustto (visual artist) and myself (anthropologist and musician), that links anthropology with art. It is mainly an exercise of translation of administrative systems, that was developed within the 2019 edition of the Barda del Desierto art residency, taking place in the public school of Contralmirante Cordero, a small town populated by less than four thousand people in Argentinean North Patagonia.

Map of the Ballester Dam and Public School 135.
Ancient Mesopotamian clay tokens. Image from here.

The core idea of the project was to identify and process a selection of information from the administrative records of the construction and operation of the Ballester Dam (one of the most important engineering structures in Patagonian history), in order to translate it into clay tokens, the oldest known system of countability and administration, and direct predecessor of cuneiform writing, as studied by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Clay tokens were used for several thousand years before writing first appeared, but it was in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC that their use as an accounting system began to develop features that would eventually come to denote language as well as commodities and numbers. Continue reading “Ancient accounting practices in the modern world”

Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.


Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.

2 Continue reading “Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!”

New CREWS Visiting Fellow announcement

It won’t be long now before we advertise the new round of our Visiting Fellowship competition, but in the meantime we have some other news – we are delighted to tell you that we will be welcoming Dr Giorgos Bourogiannis to Cambridge as an externally-funded CREWS Visiting Fellow next term! Read more about his project below.

Giorgos Bourogiannis (National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens)

gb.jpgGiorgos is an archaeologist and postdoctoral research associate at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. Since his PhD (2008) he has worked as a curator for the Naukratis project at the British Museum, Department of Greece and Rome, and has held the A.G. Leventis postdoctoral position at the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities (Medelhavsmuseet) in Stockholm, studying the unpublished evidence from the sanctuary of Ayia Irini on Cyprus (you can see a video about his work HERE).

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Teaching about money’s origins—and its possible cryptographic futures—with Proto-cuneiform

Guest post by Professor Bill Maurer

Richard Mattessich (1998) opened his paper in the Accounting Historians’ Journal on 3rd millennium BCE protocuneiform with a quotation from Leonard Bernstein: “The best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline” (Bernstein 1976: 3). For two weeks in January, 2019, a class of 114 undergraduate students at the University of California, Irvine, drew made-up protocuneiform tables based on Nissen et al. (1993) after reading Mattessich’s accountant’s perspective on them. They did so as part of a class on “The Future of Money.” The class is still going on, and is being conducted entirely online, except for an end-of-term in person meeting with a panel of payments industry experts and final exam.

Protocuneiform tablets were chosen as the earliest surviving examples of economic transactions utilizing a type of proto-writing that would later develop into the more abstract wedge-shapes of classic cuneiform.  The earliest examples date from the late 4th millennium BC (around 3200-3000), from the area of Uruk, and commonly include ‘pictographic’ signs denoting the goods being counted alongside numerals. (You can read more about ‘Proto-Cuneiform’ on the CDLI here and here.)

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Proto-cuneiform tablet, probably from Uruk, c.3100-2900 BC. Image from HERE.

Continue reading “Teaching about money’s origins—and its possible cryptographic futures—with Proto-cuneiform”