It is time to talk about another item from our CREWS display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. This one is an inscription in the Greek alphabet on the foot of a cup.
This alphabet looks very straightforward compared to the other writing systems present in our display. That’s because our own alphabet comes indirectly from the Greek one.
The cup is dated in the second half of the 5th century BC and, although it was made in an Athenian pottery workshop, its find spot is in Naukratis. This was a Greek colony in Egypt granted by the Pharaoh Amasis II so that Greek populations could settle and trade here (Her.2.178-9).
When studying inscriptions, we come across many difficulties trying to find out by whom, when and how they were made. In this case, the inscription has a few clues that allow us to reconstruct the story behind it and the cup it was inscribed on.
The inscription, found in a shrine dedicated to Aphrodite, is read Ἀ]φροδίτης, which means “of Aphrodite”. The cup was made in Athens, already famous for its production of pottery in the 5th century. It was exported from there and traded in the Greek colony of Naukratis, where another Greek must have purchased it. Presumably, the cup was used in the symposia that the owner celebrated in his house, although maybe he bought it with the intention of leaving it in the shrine as a dedication to the goddess Aphrodite straightaway.
The text was written using the graffito technique, which consists of scratching the ceramic with a sharp tool. Since the clay is covered with a coat of black paint, there is a nice contrast between the colours of the paint and the clay which makes it very easy to read the inscription. To get this result, the text must be inscribed after the vessel has been fired and the clay becomes a strong and unperishable material. This means that the inscription could have been done at any point in time after the firing of the clay. However, the letters in the inscription tell us that it was most probably written already in Naukratis.
When alphabetic writing started to develop in Greece, there was no unified alphabet for all of them. Instead, different variants appear in several regions around the 8th and 7th centuries BC. All of these regional alphabets seem to be derived from the Phoenician script; they share some of the letters, while they have different solutions for others (addition, absence or change of phonetic value).
The Attic script does not have the letter eta <H> for long e (above left), which appears in our inscription, but this was used by the Ionians, who were a big part of the Greek community established in Naukratis according to Herodotus’ account (you can read more about Naukratis in this essay on the British Museum website). The shape of the rho <R> we see here (above right) is also not common in Attica, where it is preferred to write it with the shape <P>. You can see the Attic P-shaped rho in the inscription below (a piece of pottery used in the practice of ostracism), reading Themistokle Phrearios. The Roman alphabet (and modern descendants used today), however, ended up with the R-shaped rho, which was originally probably developed to avoid confusion with a curved pi used in some regional alphabets (i.e. one that looked closer to P than Π).
Coming back to the owner of the cup, whether he commissioned someone to write the dedication for him or did it himself, he thought that this cup was a nice present for the goddess. By inscribing her name in the genitive case (which denotes possession), the new owner of the vase is Aphrodite. This kind of offering is clearly a Greek habit, since cups and other objects dedicated to different gods or with the name of the person who offers them have been found in many Greek sanctuaries. You can see more examples of Greek votive inscriptions in the post Talking Objects.
If you visit the display, you’ll find this inscription beneath a Phoenician arrowhead and above a bilingual Greek/Demotic mummy label (circled in white below).
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)