We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how important it is to think about ancient writing in its physical capacity – as part of an object – not just as text. This is why we’re so keen on trying out ancient writing techniques for ourselves. But it’s not just making new things; it’s looking at real ancient tablets with an eye for their material characteristics and the practical techniques used to make them.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the British Museum for a hands-on study session with some of the most famous tablets of the Near Eastern Bronze Age – the Amarna Letters.

In the fourteenth century BC the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV seems to have had something of a religious epiphany and became particularly focused on the worship of the sun-disc, the Aten, in place of the traditional religion. History has viewed him in many ways: as a proto-monotheist, a heretic, a peculiar aberration in Egypt’s normally slow-changing culture. As well as the official cult, he changed his name, becoming Akhenaten, he instituted new artistic styles, and most importantly for us, he established a new capital – Akhetaten – in the desert at what is now Tell el-Amarna. This city was only in use for a short time – after Akhenaten’s death his innovations were swiftly reversed and his new capital abandoned – but its out-of-the-way location in the desert meant it was well preserved. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a collection of Akkadian cuneiform tablets was found there which proved to be Akhenaten’s diplomatic archive – hundreds of letters from all over the ancient world, giving us an insight into the great and petty matters of Late Bronze Age international diplomacy.

Akhenaten worshipping the Aten.

I’ve known about and worked with these letters for a long time in my research. As well as being exceptional sources for the history and elite culture of the mid-fourteenth century, they’re also often very lively. The personalities of the senders often shine through very vividly, giving a rare humanity to the squabbling rulers of more than three thousand years ago. My particular favourite is Ribaddi (or Rib-Haddu), king of the Phoenician city of Byblos, a terrible fusspot who plagues the pharaoh with innumerable letters pestering him for help in the Levantine internecine conflicts of the day. If you get a chance, I do recommend finding a translation (William Moran’s is the standard work) and having a look at some of them – they can often be very entertaining.

Amarna letter from Alašiya. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Not all of these letters are in the British Museum, but a good number are, so it was very exciting to be able to handle and study them first-hand for an article I’m working on. I was especially interested in letters from Cyprus – ancient Alašiya – and in comparing the techniques used by the Cypriot scribes with those in letters from elsewhere.

Cyprus was a bit of an odd case in the Bronze Age diplomatic network: geographically it was something of an outlier, and cuneiform culture wasn’t well-established there like it was elsewhere in the Near East (as we’ve discussed a few times, Cyprus had its own writing system), but its control of the essential copper supply gave it leverage and status well above what we might expect for a small island – its king was counted the equal of the Great Kings of Egypt, Babylon or the Hittite Empire. We might see it as the Bronze Age equivalent of a small, wealthy, oil-producing country today. I was interested to see whether Cyprus’s unusual status was reflected in the material characteristics of the tablets and in the practices the scribes adopted. I wanted to look especially at things like the shape and texture of the cuneiform wedges to see what they can tell us about what kind of stylus the scribes used, and how these compared to those of their neighbours.

British Museum 127.jpgAs it happened, two of the three Cypriot tablets the British Museum has are on display, so I wasn’t able to handle them; but I did get the third, as well as a selection from kingdoms in the Levant (of course, I couldn’t resist asking for one of Ribaddi’s). It was fascinating to compare them in detail, and showed up a lot of interesting features that I simply wouldn’t have been able to get from even good-quality published photographs. One of the things about publishing collections of ancient inscriptions is that they have to be useful to as many people as possible. So if there are photos or drawings, they’re generally just straightforward face-on views of the whole tablet – there’s not really space to focus on details, and even if there were, it would be impossible for the editors to anticipate every detail every researcher might want to look at. Apart from that, what you can see depends a lot on things like the angle of light and shadow – especially in a writing system like cuneiform. So it really is essential to handle the tablets in person, to be able to look at them as close as I like, and from whichever angle I like, as well as to be able to take my own photos highlighting exactly the features I’m interested in.


All in all, it was an extremely productive and enjoyable day, which I’m sure will be of great use to my research. I’d like to thank the staff at the British Museum, who were very friendly, helpful and efficient even on a very busy and swelteringly hot day.


~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)



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