The last couple of weeks here in Cambridge have been dedicated to the Festival of Ideas, which featured a few events focused on ancient writing.

9017d0f91b10520efc3af725377d9fda.pngCREWS had its own event on Friday 19th October as part of an evening of fun in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (AKA the Cast Gallery) at the Faculty of Classics: Raiders of the Secret Scripts, mostly aimed at an adult audience. Philip and Rob were on hand to guide people through an exercise in reading Ugaritic cuneiform, while anyone interested in Linear B could try their hand at counting animals in a clay tablet, with me and our CREWS-friend colleague Dr Anna Judson there to help with the hard bits.


Me and Anna showing off some Linear B. Photo by Jennie Thornber.

Anna and I reflected on how useful it is that an ancient Mycenaean scribe had occasion to record not one but four different animals, each one divided by sex into male and female, on a tablet.

This was a very nice opportunity to show the Linear B numeral system as well as the range of ideograms used to represent animals, which can at least sometimes look like stylised pictures of the animals in question but are often not very recognisable. Attempts to describe the shapes without naming the animals were not easy!


Cast of the Linear B tablet used in our exercise.

There were other activities too, including a trail of the Cast Gallery, looking for particular casts of Greek and Roman sculptures (a number of which also bear inscriptions), and an opportunity to make your own curse tablets.

DSCN4981.jpgAnother CREWS-friend colleague Dr Marie Besnier (who you may also remember as the creator of Esagil Games) ran an event at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on 23rd and 24th October, demonstrating how to read a Sumerian inscription.

Sumerian presents some unique challenges for the interpreter – the language is an isolate (i.e. not related to other known languages), its writing system (the earliest known form of cuneiform) has a large number of signs and the way in which words are spelt out can vary a lot. It is very impressive really that scholars have managed to make so much sense of the inscriptions.

The inscription in question was written on a statue of Gudea, the ruler of Lagash in southern Mesopotamia c. 2144-2124 BC, and consists of a religious dedication by Gudea himself. In fact several different statues with similar dedications were produced, and below you can see the reproduction of one of them that Marie was using to illustrate her exercise.


Finally, Anna Judson was in action again on 24th October, giving a lunchtime talk called ‘On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain’. She looked at all sorts of inscriptions, from stone gravestones and altars to lead curse tablets and wooden writing boards. Rather than giving a lot more details here, I will refer you to Anna’s excellent blog post that followed her talk – go there to learn a lot more about the sorts of things people were writing on and about in Roman-era Britain.

Vindolanda tablet with a birthday invitation, photo © Trustees of the British Museum.

It was great fun taking part in and/or hearing about all these events, and I hope they have roused some further interest in writing in the ancient world. I’d especially like to thank everyone at the Museum of Classical Archaeology for organising our event and making the handouts, and Anna for giving up her time to help.

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa for website


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