A couple of months ago my new book, Writing and Society in Ancient Cyprus, was published with Cambridge University Press. This was a long-term project, beginning with a series of lectures given at All Souls College, Oxford, in 2014 and culminating in a work that underpins the research undertaken at CREWS. In fact, it was in writing this book that the whole idea for the CREWS project began…
The book is all about the distinctive writing systems and texts found in Cyprus from the Late Bronze Age to the late 1st millennium BC. The culture of ancient Cyprus is in many ways unique. The island was a catalyst for movement and communication around the eastern Mediterranean, positioned at a maritime juncture between the Aegean to the west, Anatolia to the north, the Levant to the east and Egypt to the south. But at the same time it was home to distinctive cultures, dialects, writing systems, artistic styles — all characteristically Cypriot.
The main scripts of Cyprus throughout this period were syllabic ones derived from the same tradition as Linear A and B in Bronze Age Crete and Greece, with the first inscriptions appearing in the mid-2nd millennium BC. Unlike in Greece, however, Cypriots kept using a writing system of this type throughout the 1st millennium BC, and it is only around the 3rd-1st centuries BC that it disappears from the archaeological record. Although the Bronze Age inscriptions from Cyprus remain undeciphered, many of the ones dating from the first millennium BC are in Greek and so can be understood, while others are in a local language (‘Eteocypriot’) that we don’t understand very well. The Phoenician language and alphabet originating from the Levant were also well established in Cyprus around the same time.
You can have a go at writing in the Cypriot syllabic script with our ‘write your name’ sheet HERE.
The lecture series I gave at All Souls was dedicated to the memory of Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, a pioneer in the developing field of social anthropology in the 20th century. I was not aiming to engage with his anthropological research (at least not in any meaningful sense) but rather proposed to speak on a topic that lay within his broader interests in the early Mediterranean. However, in preparing for the lectures I found myself reading some of his works and certain methodological principles piqued my interest and made me stop and think about the way I approached my own material. Even though it is now in part somewhat outdated, his work was instrumental in the development of studies of individual societies and their practices, focusing on their internal rationale and development rather than viewing them from the outside in comparison to other cultures (especially in moving away from notions of comparative ‘primitiveness’).
How does this apply to Cyprus? Well, it struck me that when people speak about ancient Cyprus, they very often either think of it as an outlier of the Classical world (the slightly strange Greek-speaking island in the east) or try to work out which other places its influences came from (the island as a recipient of ideas from visitors/settlers from other places). For example, concerning the outset of Cypriot literacy people often ask when and how Cyprus came to borrow the Linear A writing system of Bronze Age Crete, creating the system that we refer to as Cypro-Minoan; or why they looked to the Aegean to the west rather than the nearby cuneiform-literate Near East. The emphasis here has usually been on the external influences (e.g. when did Cypriots have a chance to meet Minoans?) while internal motivations are less commonly explored (e.g. why did Cypriots want to write and how did their use of writing affect the system they adapted?).
So what I wanted to do in the lectures and in the ensuing book was to look at writing in Cyprus from the inside, to think about how and why the distinctive Cypriot scripts were developed, how they were used and the role they played in Cypriot society. Why Cypriots chose to write the way they did, in other words. I also wanted to move away from the typical emphasis on particular periods (e.g. Cyprus in the Bronze Age, or the Classical period, or the Hellenistic period) and look at how things progressed over the long term. In fact there are some astonishing continuities in writing over the centuries, as well as changes.
Exploring the uses of writing in ancient Cyprus in my initial research for the lectures made me realise something: writing is utterly dependent on the people using it and the situation in which they use it. It responds to particular needs: for example the initial impetus for writing in the Late Bronze Age is entangled with changes in society and economy as Cyprus began to play a role in international trade networks, and especially as Cypriot copper became a dominant natural resource. But these relationships are not predictable ones. According to the theory that alphabets are in some way intrinsically ‘better’ than syllabic scripts (because they have a smaller number of signs to represent each phoneme of a language), Cyprus should have abandoned syllabic writing in the earlier 1st millennium and started using the Greek alphabet – or so some scholars say. But clearly this was not an important factor for Cypriots at the time, who continued using syllabic writing and associated it strongly with their Cypriot identity. They knew about the alphabet, they just weren’t very keen on it.
But attitudes to writing, and what writing was good for, clearly changed and fluctuated over the years. New types of inscriptions could appear (e.g. gravestones, the earliest of which is a Phoenician example from the 9th C BC) and old types could disappear (e.g. clay tablets go out of fashion by the end of the Late Bronze Age). Already in the Bronze Age writing began to make appearances outside of the administrative sphere, beginning to be found for example in religious spaces and on objects related to ritual. This was an innovation that started a new trend, and one that lasted in different forms right up to the last days of the Cypriot syllabic script.
In fact the image I chose for the cover of the book (see below) is a nice illustration of the close relationship between writing and social norms and expectations. This is a religious dedication from Golgoi in the eastern part of the island and dates to the 3rd C BC, a time when Cyprus was under a new political regime – the Ptolemies, who took over parts of Alexander the Great’s empire after his death. Under Ptolemaic rule Cyprus found itself in a situation where official writing followed a wider Mediterranean standard, and official inscriptions were written in the Greek alphabet and in a non-local Greek dialect, the Koine. This didn’t ‘kill’ the local syllabic writing system, but it did leave it with a reduced range of uses – at this time we primarily know it from gravestones and religious dedications like this one, set up by a man called Diaithemis to honour Apollo.
(I admit, I also chose it because I love the two guys in the bottom left, who kind of look like they’re fighting but are actually mine or quarry workers carrying what look like stones.)
While I was working on this book, I was also working on a big funding application to the European Research Council, picking up ideas from my work on Cyprus and thinking about how they could be applied more widely and to other areas of the ancient world. And I am very glad that that application was successful, because that was what brought the CREWS project into existence – and now I am lucky enough to be working with a team pursuing the sorts of ideas (and many other new ones!) that began to grow when I was asked to give the Evans-Pritchard Lectures back in 2014.
I’m pleased to say that Cambridge University Press have allowed me to release the first chapter (the one I developed and finalised under the CREWS project, making it a direct output of CREWS research) in open access, and there is just a short period to go before that will be available – I will let you know when it is. In the meantime you can find the publisher’s listing for the book HERE if you are interested in reading more.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)