Introduction: Robert Crellin

Hello!

My name is Robert Crellin, and I am very excited to have joined the CREWS project at the start of April. Up to now my research has mainly focused on the mechanics of verb systems in various ancient languages, but in this project my goal will be to look at the relationship between the writing systems used to write two ancient Semitic languages, Ugaritic and Phoenician. Ugaritic, as suggested by the name, was the language of the state of Ugarit, now Ras Shamra in Syria (a site that also forms the focus of research of my colleague Philip, see HERE). Phoenician was spoken, at least initially, in the Phoenician city states, including places like Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, but later, by virtue of the colonising activities of these city states, across much of the Mediterranean.

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An abecedarium from Ugarit.

The strange thing about the Ugaritic and Phoenician writing systems is that they share certain characteristics, such as the order of the letters, and the fact that both only very seldom write vowels, yet the forms of the letters and the means used for writing are very different: Ugaritic is written in a form of cuneiform, while the Phoenician that survives is written using letter shapes inscribed or written in the same way as we might write. I want to try to illuminate the processes by which this situation might have arisen, and in the first instance, I will focus on the phenomenon of vowel writing.

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The Kilamuwa stele, written in a 9th century BC Semitic alphabet.

Perhaps one of the most important innovations in the Greek alphabet (which my colleague Natalia is working on, see HERE) is the writing of vowels, but Greek was not alone in the ancient world in doing this. Other writing systems of the late second millennium, notably Hittite and Akkadian syllabic cuneiform, and syllabic Linear B for Greek (one of the project director Pippa’s specialisms; read more about the writing system HERE), recorded vowels, albeit without bespoke vowel letters. Then early in the first millennium Aramaic and Hebrew, which were written in alphabets in the same tradition as Phoenician, recorded at least some vowels. Seen in this context, the initial decision to use cuneiform and a linear alphabet without vowels appears novel, and the persistence of consonant-only writing in Phoenician for much longer than the writing systems of other languages is noteworthy.

I will tackle this question from two angles. First, to understand how the system behind the Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems first developed, I will look at the phenomenon of vowel writing in these languages, in order to understand the exact circumstances under which vowels were written, on the few occasions when this was done. I will then compare this with the practice of the earliest Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions. Secondly, I will look at better attested writing systems from more recent contexts to understand why and how vowels were written. Included in this will be the development of the writing of vowel points in Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac, use of the Roman alphabet to write Punic, a later form of Phoenician spoken in Carthage, as well as more contemporary examples such as text messaging. I’ll keep you updated on my progress on this blog!

~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS Project)

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The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets

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Last week the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge played host to the CREWS Project’s first international conference, Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets.[1] This was a wonderful opportunity for us to bring together experts on ancient writing systems from around the world and discuss each other’s research.

As with all good academic conferences, despite having a unifying theme – early alphabets – the range of papers was extremely broad. We heard about writing systems from across thousands of years of history and thousands of miles, from the earliest probable alphabetic inscriptions from the Sinai peninsula or the Egyptian desert at Wadi el-Hol, through the Phoenician and Ugaritic alphabets of the Levant, to ancient Greece, Italy and Spain. We heard from epigraphers, linguists and archaeologists, and people who stand somewhere in between. Continue reading “The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets”

Thank you ERC!

This week, the European Research Council is celebrating its 10th anniversary. As a body that provides large-scale funding for researchers and their projects, the ERC has made a staggering difference to the world of academia. A project like CREWS simply wouldn’t be possible without this type of funding – and when you multiply that by all the other wonderful projects funded by the ERC in both the arts/humanities and sciences, it adds up to a huge impact on our knowledge and understanding of the world.

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Today, I’ve been at an event based in Cambridge where the Principal Investigators of ERC grants in the arts, humanities and social sciences gave presentations to explain the work they are doing with their projects. Hosted at the McDonald Institute (the home of archaeology in Cambridge), it was a very jolly and incredibly enjoyable event. Just to hear the advances that have been possible with ERC funding was a joy – and it was a privilege to speak as one of the Principal Investigators.

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We were fortunate to be joined by the President of the European Research Council, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, who later spoke at another related event and expressed his thanks to everyone taking part in today’s presentations, as well as explaining his hopes and expectations for the future of ERC funding. You can learn more about the ERC’s 10th anniversary celebrations HERE (as you will see if you follow the link, the ERC has made a huge impact on research in countries across the world, not only across Europe).

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ERC funding has made the CREWS project a reality – without funding of this type or on this scale, it would simply be impossible to attempt the sorts of ambitious combined and comparative analyses of different areas that form the crux of the project. The presentation I gave today lasted 15 minutes and went into some detail on the different areas we will be focusing on as our research progresses. Unfortunately I can’t recreate that here, but if you would like to hear some snippets about what we are doing at the CREWS project,  have a look at the video at the bottom of the page.

I’d just like to finish by wishing the ERC a very happy birthday – and by thanking everyone involved in this incredible organisation for all the work they do to support excellent research.

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca

 

Hello everyone! My name is Natalia Elvira Astoreca and I’m the new PhD student of the CREWS project. I just started two weeks ago but this new adventure looks very exciting already. During the next three years I will be focusing my research on the origins of the Greek alphabet – or rather the Greek alphabets, because in the early years there were numerous different local systems used in different areas. The other day I was talking with an old friend about Classics and my field of research and she told me “it is so interesting and exciting to know where words come from!” And so I answered “well, I’m trying to find out where letters come from.”

 

I know it sounds like I’m doing research in something that has been studied before, but I believe that we don’t understand in depth how the invention of the Greek alphabet really was – if we ever get to understand it. Most of the previous studies about the Greek alphabet tried to figure out when it was created, where or how Greeks adapted the Phoenician letters and their shapes to write their own language. The Greeks themselves were very conscious about where their alphabet was taken from: Herodotus called it φοινικήια γράμματα, that is, Phoenician letters.

 

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Phoenician writing. Kilamuwa inscription, 9th century B.C. (Image taken from: University of Southern California)

 

What we want to know in the CREWS project is actually how the adaptation happened from a contextual point of view. So some questions I would like to approach are, how did this contact happen and what did the Greeks use writing for? But even more puzzling than this is how and why the Greeks developed different kinds of Greek alphabets so similar and different at the same time. To answer these and other questions we have to look at the earliest Greek inscriptions and at the cultures that were in contact with them.

 

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Dipylon Oinochoe, 8th century B.C. (Photo taken by author)

 

In my previous research I have already worked with another writing system: the Paphian syllabary. This is one of the syllabaries used in ancient Cyprus to write Greek and it was in use from the 8th to the 3rd century B.C. I studied its contact with other scripts, its social context and most importantly the political consequences of its use once the standard Greek alphabet arrived in the island. I did this by bringing together linguistic, epigraphical, historical, archaeological and even numismatic approaches.

 

I hope that this new research will bring exciting answers about the origin of the Greek alphabets. My colleagues and I will keep you up-to-date on the results of our investigations. Enjoy the CREWS project blog!

 

~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)

CREWS Research Associate Post 2

I am pleased to announce that the job advert for the second Research Associate on the CREWS project has now appeared. You can find all the details here:

University of Cambridge Job Opportunities: Research Associate on the CREWS Project (Fixed Term)

Like the first Research Associate post, this has a fixed term of four years, beginning in March (or at the latest 1st April) 2017. Again the successful applicant will conduct research on a pre-determined aspect of the project, in this case the development of writing systems used to write North West Semitic languages in the second and early first millennia BC. This will involve using a variety of methods to study Ugaritic, Phoenician and related writing systems with a view to developing our understanding of their inception, structure and usage. This may include, for example, comparison of their sign inventories in relation to the phonological systems they represented, analysis of palaeographic variation, typological study of inscribed objects and consideration of features such as alphabetical order and direction of writing.

 

The closing date is 12.00 noon (GMT) on Monday 21st November. Please consult the Further Particulars, which can be found from the page linked to above, for more details on how to apply.

 

We are looking forward to welcoming a new member to the CREWS team!

 

 

 

 

Introduction: Philip Boyes

 

Hello! I’m Philip Boyes and I’m absolutely delighted to be joining the CREWS Project as a Research Associate from November 2016. I’m going to be looking at the Ugaritic writing system, its emergence and its context of use. Ugaritic is a fascinating Late Bronze Age adaptation of the existing cuneiform writing systems used across the Near East. Instead of each sign representing a syllable, as had traditionally been the case, Ugaritic is an alphabetic system (though one where only consonants are represented and not vowels) and was used to represent the local language of the city of Ugarit.

 

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An abecedarium from Ugarit.

 

At the heart of my approach is the idea that we should explore changes in writing systems like this as we would any other example of social change – and that means getting to grips with the social context in as much detail we can, looking at how the creation and use of the Ugaritic script is linked to every aspect of society and culture, from politics and the economy to social status, gender and other forms of social identity. The only way to do this is to draw on every kind of evidence that’s available to us – not just the texts found at Ugarit, but also the archaeological evidence, iconographic representations, historical documents and more..

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Ruins at Ugarit – Photo by Loris Romito, from Wikipedia. CC BY-SA

 

This bringing-together of different kinds of evidence is for me one of the most exciting aspects of the CREWS Project. In my more recent academic career I’ve mainly been an archaeologist and ancient historian: my PhD research was on social change in Phoenicia (the coastal region south of Ugarit, roughly equivalent to modern Lebanon) and I’ve been lucky enough to excavate at the Hittite site of Kilise Tepe in Turkey and at the Phoenician African colony of Carthage, as well as a spell as a commercial archaeologist based in Salisbury (you can spot me in a couple of episodes of Time Team!). Before that, though, my background was in Aegean prehistory, Linear B epigraphy and comparative linguistics, and I’ve maintained my interest in linguistics and writing systems even when they haven’t been my main research topics. Archaeology and linguistics aren’t studied together all that often and I’ve always been extremely interested in how they can shed light on each other and improve our understanding of both. I’m really looking forward to being able to bring together these different strands of my career on this project.

 

I’ll be writing again soon, once I’ve started my research. In the meantime, if you’d like more from me, I’ve blogged for Res Gerendae on things as diverse as lettuce in Sumerian love poetry, Greek and Roman sea monsters, and Classics in Doctor Who. My own blog, which will cover similar things that don’t fall directly within the scope of the CREWS Project, is Ancient Worlds.

 

~ Philip Boyes (soon to be Research Associate on the CREWS project)