If you have found your way here, then you might already have an idea what the CREWS project is about. Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems – hence CREWS – is a new project that aims to shed new light on developments in the history of writing and the cultural settings in which those developments took place.

 

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The project has just started up in April 2016 and will run for five years until 2021, giving an ample span of research time that will result in several new publications, conferences, seminar series and a project website, all aimed at furthering research as well as engaging the public with the new discoveries made and methods forged by the project team. It is funded by the European Research Council, and based in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge.

At the moment, I am flying solo as the Principal Investigator of the project. Over time, however, a team will emerge: two post-doctoral researchers, a PhD student and a research assistant will be joining CREWS during its first year. You can look here for news on job vacancies when they are advertised, and more information on the team members will be added as the team grows.

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For this first blog post I want to start by sharing some basic ideas about what CREWS is and what it aims to discover. What do we mean by ‘Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems’? Those five highlighted words that make up our acronym, CREWS, are a good place to start explaining the ideas behind the project…

Contexts

One of the innovative aspects of the project is the idea of studying writing within its context. That can be interpreted in several ways. Writing has a material context – that is to say that it has a physical dimension, and it appears on physical objects that can be studied in their own right (e.g. the clay tablet in Figure 1 and jug in Figure 2). Where a text was found and the type of object on which it appears are both important factors in understanding the text itself. Placement is important too – writing is often used as a vehicle to send a message, not only through the words it uses but also through being displayed in a particular way or in a particular place. More broadly, writing also has a social context – every group or society that possesses the technology of writing has ideas about what writing should be used for, and what kind of writing is appropriate to what kind of situation. These are all aspects that have shaped the development of writing across the world, but up to now have usually been studied separately from the development of writing itself.

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Figure 1. Mycenaean clay tablet from Knossos, Crete, written in the syllabic Linear B writing system. It is a bureaucratic document recording numbers of sheep. Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum, no. 1910,0423.2.

 

Relations

There are very few writing systems that look like completely ex novo creations (and indeed there is still plenty of debate on which ancient systems were entirely new creations). Most known writing systems are related to other ones. Did you know, for example, that the Roman alphabet that is used for modern English and many other languages is also closely related to the modern Hebrew, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets? Looking back at historical developments, we can reconstruct how they are related to each other, creating a picture somewhat akin to a ‘family tree’ – for instance the Greek alphabet is an ancestor of the Roman alphabet, while the Hebrew alphabet is more like a cousin to the Greek one, and so on. These relations tell us about other sorts of relationships too, because in order for a new writing system to be developed from an old one, there must also be contact between groups of people. Why and how did one group decide to adopt writing from another, and how did they make it their own? The relations between different writing systems give evidence for connections between different cultures and societies across the world.

Early

How early are our early writing systems? Well, one thing that CREWS does not intend to do is to look at the very earliest examples of writing in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. Instead, it is going to focus on a period when writing was flourishing around the Mediterranean during the 2nd millennium and the first half of the 1st millennium BC. At this time, we know that the Mediterranean was a very interconnected area, with international trade and diplomacy thriving and a great deal of movement of smaller and larger groups around the coastal areas and islands of southern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. Focusing on this period maximises the potential to study connections between population groups alongside the relationships between the writing systems themselves, which in turn will help us to understand how writing was passed on and in what context its users were talking to each other in the first place.

Writing

We often talk about writing as if it were a single, coherent entity. Certainly we have a strong idea of the concept: writing is a way of encoding language, so that one person can encode a message through a series of marks or signs, and then theoretically another person can decode the message without the first person having to tell them what it says. In fact, there are lots of ways of encoding language in written signs. The Egyptian hieroglyphic use of ‘picture writing’ (with a sign for a whole word or concept) is perhaps the most famous example of a type of writing that is quite different from the alphabet we use to write English (where each letter stands for a single sound, not a whole word). There are many other types of writing system, for example consonantal alphabets or ‘abjads’ (like an alphabet, but representing only consonants and not vowels: e.g. Phoenician as in Figure 2), ‘abugidas’ (where consonants are the main signs and marks to represent vowels are added to them) and syllabaries (where each sign stands for a whole syllable, like ti or an: e.g. Linear B as in Figure 1). In other words, writing is actually quite diverse and flexible as a concept, and the different systems adopted by different societies or groups were often adapted to make them more suitable to the language or purposes they would be used for.

 

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Figure 2. Terracotta jug with an inscription in the Phoenician consonantal alphabet (or ‘abjad’) marking ownership or a dedication, 7th century BC. Copyright: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (www.metmuseum.org), no. 74.51.1401.

 

Systems

One aspect of writing that is crucial to its function is its emergence in whole systems. In order for the second person to decode the first person’s message, both the author and the reader need to have knowledge of the same system (i.e. what each sign represents) – otherwise the message will not be conveyed. As the previous paragraph (‘Writing’) highlighted, there are various possibilities for the system type, and in fact one common feature of writing systems is the existence of mixed elements within the system. For example, we generally write English in an alphabetic system, but we also have numerals (which convey whole words/concepts, e.g. the sign 1 represents the concept of a single entity or the whole word ‘one’). In recent times, other types of signs such as emoticons have also become a part of a writing system that we might use, but only in certain contexts – you might use a smiley in an e-mail or instant message but you are unlikely to see it in a legal letter or a bank statement. To take an ancient example, the Linear B writing system shown in Figure 1 uses a mixed system with a basic syllabary to spell out words (po-ro is visible on the left side of the document and pa-i-to on the bottom line) alongside ‘ideograms’ to represent items or commodities (sheep in this document) and numerals.

The development of writing systems by different societies, and the contexts in which those systems were used, are vital parts of the overall picture of the ancient world that the CREWS project seeks to uncover.

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I hope that this introductory post has whetted your appetite for studying ancient people and their writing. You may be left wondering ‘But which writing systems and cultures will the project deal with?’ Well, there are some clues to some of them in the project logo, which you can see at the top of the post and in the sidebar. The composition of the logo, and the different writing systems we will be working on, will be the subject of future posts.

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

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