The CREWS Project has been running for a couple of weeks now, and I was very pleased to see all the enthusiastic responses to the press release that went live during the first week. You can read the original release here (arranged kindly by my colleague Ryan Cronin):

Easy as Alep, Bet, Gimel

I hope that the anecdote concerning alphabetical order in the press release was interesting to read about. The sheer longevity of this idea, and its relationship with not only writing but also the social context of writing, is very striking – and this will be just one aspect of ‘contexts’ and ‘relations’ in ancient writing that the project will look at over our five year period of research.

Some websites reported the ancient origins of alphabetical order as a new discovery, but actually this is not new at all: we have known about alphabetical order in Latin, Greek, Phoenician, Ugaritic and other ancient writing systems for many years. What is new, however, is the way in which we will study it as part of the project. We know that alphabetical order as an idea was passed on from one society to another – but what we do not know is exactly how or why this happened.

 

Ugaritic alphabet
Figure 1. Ugaritic cuneiform abecedarium on a clay tablet from Ras Shamra, Syria. http://www.csah.cam.ac.uk/images/ugarit-hi-res/view

What is alphabetical order for? A modern answer might be ‘a way of learning the alphabet’ or ‘a useful tool for putting things in order’. But what was it used for in the ancient world? This is actually quite difficult to reconstruct, because although we have some inscriptions that consist of ancient alphabets written out in order (called ‘abecedaria’), we do not have any ancient descriptions that tell us how abecedaria might have been used. Could they have been used for teaching the writing system? Almost certainly – but this is unlikely to have been their only use.

The clay tablet in Figure 1 is an abecedarium, giving the signs of the Ugaritic cuneiform writing system in order (14th-13th century BC). Many of the surviving inscriptions written in Ugaritic cuneiform are on clay tablets, and were written by professional scribes and kept in archives. It seems quite likely that this abecedarium could have been used as a teaching aid in such a context, helping new scribes to learn the script’s signs.

By contrast, the abecedarium shown in Figure 2 seems to be from a very different context. This is the Greek alphabet, painted around the shoulder of a vase found at Metaponto in Italy (5th-4th century BC). This not the sort of document that exists only to be read – for one thing, the signs are written on a ceramic pot that would have been used primarily as a container. The line of writing around the vase appears to be used in a decorative way, spaced out evenly so that the first half of the alphabet appears at the front and the second half at the back. This is no teaching aid or scribal exercise, and we may wonder whether this decorative use of the alphabet has more to do with demonstrating literacy as a mark of erudition or prestige.

Metaponto abecedarium - K McDonald
Figure 2. Greek alphabetic abecedarium on a vase from Metaponto, Italy. Photo courtesy of Katherine McDonald.

 

What is striking is that alphabetical order is maintained not only in the context of teaching but also in very different situations, such as the decoration of the vase above. Instead of using writing to convey a message, it is used in the vase simply to display writing as a concept. Clearly, using the correct order of signs was seen as a property of the script itself – which is to say that the order of the letters seems to have been as important an element of the writing system as the individual letters themselves and their phonetic values.

This leaves us with a puzzle concerning the relations between different scripts. Ugaritic cuneiform (composed of wedge-shaped signs as seen in Figure 1) and Phoenician (composed of linear letters, the ancestor of the Greek alphabet shown in Figure 2) are two writing systems that are formally unrelated to each other. If the alphabetical order of signs is a part of the writing system, how come these two very different-looking systems share the same order of signs? This is a question that I will start working on soon, and I hope to be able to shed some light on the problem some time in the future…

Those of you reading this who know a bit about the history of writing will realise that we are only scraping the surface here. There is a great deal more evidence for early alphabets and alphabetical order than I have been able to hint at in this short post – including, for example, a different alphabetical order that appears in some unexpected places. Research on the problem outlined in a very basic way above is going to involve working on several different languages and scripts from different periods. We will undoubtedly keep coming back to alphabets (along with other types of writing system) in these blog posts, and I hope this brief excursus has left you hungry for more.

Next time, however, the Linear B writing system used in Mycenaean Greece will be making an appearance as we turn our attention to the first line of the CREWS logo.

CREWS 8 cropped

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

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