CyCoMed-iation (or why are we so fond of ancient Cyprus)

Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Giorgos Bourogiannis

After three weeks in Cambridge, I am still feeling delighted to have been given the chance to work closely with the research team of the CREWS project. I am particularly thankful to the project’s director and principal investigator, Dr Pippa Steele for her hospitality and kindness. I am an archaeologist, rather than a linguist or epigraphist by training, but there is something I share with all members of the CREWS team: a very strong scholarly interest in ancient Cyprus.

This post has two main goals: The first one is to briefly view Cyprus through archaeological spectacles and to explain the island’s eminent position in the archaeology of the Mediterranean. The second goal is to present a summary of my own research project, CyCoMed (Cypriot Connectivity in the Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the end of the Classical Period), which is what generated my visit to Cambridge and my collaboration with the researchers of the CREWS project.

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Map of the Mediterranean marking the position of Cyprus.

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Pepys’s diary at 350: Leaving behind his secretive shorthand

The 350th anniversary of the last entry in Samuel Pepys’s diary seemed a good occasion for a Twitter thread (with emojis). Here is the thread for those of you not on Twitter:

(The blog post referred to is HERE)

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Map of the Ballester Dam and Public School 135.
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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.

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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.

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