We recently had the pleasure of being involved in a number of outreach events organised through the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. That meant talking to the public about our work and showing people (especially groups of children) how to write in ancient writing systems. These are more than ‘just’ outreach events for us – they are a valuable opportunity to put our theoretical work into practice and share it with others!


You don’t have to be present at these events to join in! If trying your hand at ancient writing appeals to you, have a look at our ‘write your name’ sheets HERE. Currently available are the ‘standard’ Greek alphabet, the Cretan alphabet, Phoenician, Ugaritic cuneiform, Linear B and Egyptian hieroglyphics. They can be downloaded and used for free so please do have a look and try writing your name or a message.

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First up was the Prehistory and Archaeology Day organised by the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. This was a big event with all sorts of different activities, where the opportunity to learn an ancient writing system was just one of the possibilities on offer. Philip helped to run a drop-in stall (alongside colleagues from Archaeology and Classics) showing people how to write in Ugaritic and Akkadian cuneiform as well as other scripts. The practical element to this was not only learning to write in these scripts but also using a stylus to write something on a clay tablet.

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Trying to work out how people in the ancient Near East wrote on clay tablets is not as easy as it looks, and in fact there has been some debate about the shape of the stylus used for some types of cuneiform – was it square at the end, or triangular? In fact this has led Philip down some new avenues of research, as he discusses in his own blog write-up of the event.

The next event was called Script Detectives, held in the Museum of Classical Archaeology in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics (i.e. right outside the CREWS office!). The point of this was not only to introduce the ancient writing systems we work on, but also to show how they work as a sort of code. In fact, if you want to write some secret messages, an ancient writing system makes a good choice! The image below shows the Cretan alphabet, which makes a particularly good code because of some bizarre-looking or unexpected letter shapes as well as the fact that it was often written boustrophedon – i.e. one line can read right to left but then the next line is left to right, alternating in direction line-by-line (‘boustrophedon’ is a term taken from Greek and refers to the back-and-forth motion of an ox ploughing a field).


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For this event we wrote on papyrus, which was quite a widely-used material around the Mediterranean – if it is most famous in Egypt, that is not only because it was made there but also partly because some Egyptian sites provide ideal soil conditions for papyrus to survive. Great numbers of written documents from the ancient world must have been lost because they were written on such ephemeral materials that do not survive today.

The writing systems we demonstrated on this occasion were Linear B, the Cretan alphabet, Phoenician and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Each of them has its own peculiarities. Linear B, for example, has separate signs for each open syllable (vowel only, like ‘a’, or consonant + vowel, like ‘ke’), which means that you cannot write a consonant on its own. On the other hand, the Phoenician alphabet and the ‘alphabetic’ signs used to spell out words in Egyptian hieroglyphs only represent consonants. The scripts also reflect the sounds that existed in the language for which they were used – what we call ‘phonemes’ in linguistics, i.e. sounds perceived as distinct from each other that make the building blocks of a given language. Sometimes they do not even reflect those very well! Linear B, for instance, does not distinguish between ‘r’ and ‘l’, or between ‘k’ and ‘g’ – even though in early Greek we know that these were distinct phonemes.


So, writing your name in one of these writing systems can sometimes be a challenge. My name, Pippa, is quite straightforward, as you can see in my attempts on the right here (from top to bottom: Cretan alphabet, Linear B, Phoenician, Egyptian hieroglyphic) – although in the consonantal scripts it is not very satisfying to only be able to write PP! And if you only have one consonant in your name (e.g. Lee or Eve) then you would have to think seriously about whether writing a single sign in Phoenician or Egyptian hieroglyphs is enough to convey to a reader what your name is. If not, then in these consonantal writing systems you might consider using a ‘mater lectionis’ – i.e. a consonant sign used in an ad hoc way for a vowel (e.g. one that usually represents ‘y’ as in ‘yet’ to represent an ‘ee’ sound as in the name Lee). This is actually an issue that Rob is looking at in his CREWS research.

And these are not just modern problems. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for a speaker of one language to have to write down the name of a speaker of a different language. In doing so, he or she might have faced the difficulty that every language has a different set of phonemes, which might mean that the writing system being used was not very well suited to writing down the name. In such a situation, how do you make it clear what the name is? Confusion in such cases could often arise. Below you can see a bilingual gravestone from Kition in Cyprus, with text in Greek above and Phoenician below, which pertains to a man called Smyrnos. While the Greek half is competently written, the translation into Phoenician (which was spoken locally in this part of the island) is hasty, and writes the man’s names as MNRS – not SMRNS as you might expect if you remove the vowels and just write the consonants.

Smyrnos stele Kition.jpg

We learned a lot from trying to write the names of children who attended our events – it really helps to put our theory into practice. This goes for the third event too, Codes in Clay, which was held at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in conjunction with a new exhibition there called Codebreakers and Groundbreakers. The exhibition looks at the efforts of two men to solve complex problems – Alan Turing, who cracked the Enigma code used in WWII, and Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B. It is on until February, so if you have a chance to visit Cambridge then do have a look! Our colleague Dr Anna Judson has written about the exhibition in two blog posts here and here.

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At the Codes in Clay event we looked at how to get a good writing surface on your clay tablet, as well as trying to write names and longer messages. Mostly we were writing in Linear B (as in the picture above), but we tried Ugaritic cuneiform too. Again we found that transcribing names could be challenging, depending on the structure of the name and the sounds we were trying to represent.

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For Linear B, I had thought that a newly bought plastic toothpick might turn out to be a better stylus than ones I had tried before, but actually it was a bit too flimsy and my tablet was not as neat as I would have liked. It reads “Pippa , Cambridge , SWORDS 100” – Pippa is a relatively simple name to write in Linear B because it consists of two open syllables, but Cambridge (here written ka-pi) is much more difficult!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these events and the way they relate to our research. But what you might enjoy more is having a go at ancient writing yourself – and we happen to have some useful resources for you. If you go and have a look at this page, you can find copies of all our ‘write your name’ sheets:

Write Your Name in an Ancient Writing System

These are just the first of our public resources, and we are aiming to add more as the project goes on. And we would love to hear more from you. Do you have requests for other writing systems or other resources? Have you tried using them and have feedback for us (we’d love to see pictures of your efforts too!)? Would you like to use our resources for a school class, or would you like to organise a school visit to come and meet us?

To get in touch, please send us an email (crews@classics.cam.ac.uk), or you can comment on this post or find us on Twitter (@crewsproject).

Happy writing!


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)


One thought on “Learning about ancient writing

  1. Pingback: Writing on High

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