We were delighted to be able to welcome one last round of new CREWS Visiting Fellows this term, and very excited to hear about their work on a range of different writing systems and research questions. You can read more about their research below.

Two of our Visiting Fellows, Annarita Bonfanti and Claudia Posani, are going to be giving a zoom seminar on Friday 20th May. Download the poster below for details.

Annarita Bonfanti

My name is Annarita Bonfanti, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Pavia (Italy), and my research is focused on different aspects of the Urartian culture: the adoption and adaptation of the cuneiform writing system by the Urartian royal class appear to be a particularly important and curiously understudied topic. The Urartian scribal culture is characterised by stone and rock epigraphs, extremely precise in their execution, usually located in highly inaccessible spots; the words of G.R. Cardona, used to describe the features of the Bisotun inscription, may relate also to the Urartian case: “The Achaemenid inscriptions of Bisotun, carved at a height of more than 70 m on a rock surface from which the grips were then removed, cannot be addressed to any mortal, but neither are they addressed to the deities. Here, we face an anomalous communicative act, which has no parallel in spoken communication, and in which the delivery of content in writing still has its full value” (Cardona, G.R., 2009. Antropologia della scrittura, Novara, 66, translation of the author). Social, linguistic and historical reasons are the base of this project of research: in Cambridge, as an introduction to this investigation, I intend to study the motives that lead a population, or a segment of it, to adopt a writing system, followed by an analysis of the literacy of the different social classes in the ancient Near East. The Urartian case study will be approached initially through an analysis of the use of writing in Urartu in the different phases of its history, creating a link between the Urartian cuneiform script and the socio-cultural context in which it was spread. I hope that the research would be a good fit for the still relatively unexplored field of contact and relations with cultures, which can shed light on many aspects of societies: I’m very excited to be part of the CREWS project, and I can’t wait to annoy you all with my Urartian stuff!

Urartian inscription at Erebuni fortress (picture of the author, June 2018)

Claudia Posani

Bi/trilingual Iron Age inscriptions: a new perspective

Ciao! I am Claudia Posani, and I am very excited to have been invited to join the CREWS Team in the next two months. I got a PhD in historical, archaeological and historical-artistic studies at the University of Turin. I am interested in Syro-Anatolian Iron Age history and in hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions. I have studied these inscriptions under different points of view: an analysis focused on figures of speech and communication strategies has recently appeared in my book “Le immagini testuali nelle fonti neo-ittite. Uno studio sulle modalità comunicative e sulla relazione testo-immagine nel mondo siro-anatolico dell’Età del Ferro” (EOTHEN 24), Firenze 2021.

As a CREWS Visiting-Fellow I am investigating Syro-Anatolian Iron Age bilingual/trilingual royal inscriptions from a new perspective, namely in order to recognize what the meaning of multilingualism was among the societies that produced those texts. What was the attitude of the king toward foreign languages? How was the image of such a king perceived by the audience? During my stay at Cambridge University, I will try to answer these questions.

The Çineköy bilingual, image from Wikipedia

Brien Garnand


Alphabetic writing commonly produces ellipses—the omission of letters, terms or phrases—in order to convey meaning with maximum efficiency. Taken to an extreme, certain intact and well-crafted stelae have just a single letter or a few initials that alone must convey a message similar to full inscriptions placed in the same archaeological and social contexts. My study focuses on Phoenician inscriptions from votive contexts in North Africa, namely Carthage and Cirta, with comparison to Greek and Latin initialisms and acronyms.

Lack of vocalic marking provides the clearest and most common example of omission in early Canaanite-Phoenician alphabetic inscriptions. Despite such omission, the alphabet still functions since the triconsonantal root system use within the Semitic language family makes vowel marking nonessential for expression (in contrast to Indo-European). The transition from hieroglyphic ideograms and from syllabic cuneiform into alphabetic writing was a revolution in which NW Semitic avoided vocalic marking for the sake of efficiency, both in the case of the Proto-Sinaitic script and in the case of Ugaritic (save for aleph). Just as today, when a fluent speaker of Arabic or Hebrew can navigate public signage that commonly lacks vowel markers, so too in antiquity a Phoenician reader could supply vocalization from context. In later inscriptions, however, some vowel marking would prove necessary for disambiguation (i.e. matres lectionis). Just as with vowels, when words or phrases were elided in antiquity, meaning could be suppled from context. Although abbreviation and omission could lead to confusion, more commonly a shared understanding could readily fill these gaps.

My research focuses on how restraint from unnecessary expression can aid efficiency and how gaps can be filled from context. In particular, we have a certain number of Phoenician-Punic inscriptions that use few or even single letters, yet these still convey a meaning that can be recovered due to regularly repeated syntactical patterns. My sample set includes certain votive inscriptions from the precinct of Ba‘al and Tinnit in Carthage, most from the 1920s excavations (see three examples illustrated here) and at least one from the current INP excavations, at the as well as further examples from the precinct of Ba‘al at Cirta / Constantine. We understand these abbreviated inscriptions as initialisms, or acronyms, which can only make sense within a system of rigidly formulaic expression. Again a Phoenician reader could supply meaning from context.

Another part of my program explores theories explaining how elliptical constructions still allow for understanding despite gaps (e.g. form-meaning correspondence). Such linguistic analyses normally apply to noun omission or verb omission (both common in Phoenician-Punic votive inscriptions), but initialism should serve as a related, albeit extreme, example of inscriptional efficiency.

Robert Martin

My Doctoral research began as an examination of the archaeological evidence that can be used to reconstruct maritime networks in the Bronze and Iron Age eastern Mediterranean. In particular the prototypical amphorae known commonly as the ‘Canaanite Jar’ provided a useful index of maritime network patterns, and thus the distribution and provenience analyses of this ceramic corpus was essential to my thesis. These maritime networks also became a vehicle for the transmission of certain technologies; in particular the dissemination of Early Alphabetic Writing, often credited to Canaanite/Phoenician mariners. During the course of my post-doctoral research, I have been preparing to publish a Late Bronze Age Canaanite Jar, also referred to as a Maritime Transport Container (MTC), and this vessel, like many other examples, bears symbols, often termed ‘pot marks’ that correspond to Early Alphabetic Writing (Canaanite). This revelation will allow us to better connect another region to the sphere of interaction and use of Early Alphabetic Writing—the LBA Aegean—originating from the coast of ancient Israel. The delivery of this inscribed artifact to Greece (a terminal LBA Canaanite Jar), and other examples of inscribed jar handles may suggest that historical paradigms describing the spread of alphabetic writing as a singularly Iron Age phenomenon must be reconsidered.

The Canaanite jar

Lavinia Giorgi

I am a PhD student in Mycenaean philology at Sapienza University of Rome, with an interest in Mycenaean philology and palaeography, Aegean archaeology, and Mediterranean Bronze Age philology and archaeology. My research focuses on the study of specific aspects of society, such as social hierarchy or ancient economy and resources management, through a combined analysis of ancient forms of writing/recording and archaeological evidence. My PhD project deals with the reconstruction of the bronze production chain through the analysis of Linear B tablets and the integration of data with other written sources, such as Hittite documents, Ugaritic texts and Amarnian letters.

I also currently collaborate with THE PAITO/PHAISTOS EPIGRAPHIC PROJECT, which intends to provide a new critical edition of the Knossos tablets that mention pa-i-to, adopting the digital photography technologies of RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) and 3D Laser Scanning. 

During the visiting fellowship I will work on a research project entitled “The Women of pa-i-to: a palaeographical approach” that aims to analyse the word pa-i-ti-ja recorded in the Knossos Linear B tablets from a palaeographic point of view. Pa-i-ti-ja is a female ethnic derivative of pa-i-to, Phaistos, located in southern Crete. The word is attested in 9 tablets, that refer to different topics, dating from different periods (15th-13th century BC), and written by different scribes. The selected tablets are a significant sample to investigate palaeographical issues related to Linear B writing. Indeed, the autopsy analysis of the tablets either from the RTI or directly, when possible, will allow to examine the ductus of the scribal hands, observing how each scribe engraved the signs. Doing so, it will be possible to understand the reason for the signs’ variant forms, especially when used by the same scribe, and to verify whether it is possible to assign documents to specific scribes. Furthermore, the focus on pa-i-ti-ja will allow to investigate the role of the Phaistian women in the socio-economic organization of Mycenaean Crete, as testified by the Knossos Linear B documents.

The results obtained will contribute to further develop the palaeographic and epigraphic research on the Knossos tablets dealing with pa-i-to, that might also help to clarify the issues of Linear B and ancient writing in general. Moreover, the pa-i-ti-ja women will improve our knowledge about the Mycenaean Crete economy and society.

The palace of Phaistos, photo by Lavinia Giorgi

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