What makes one clay tablet better than another?

As someone who works on the written documents of the ancient Aegean and Cyprus, I come across clay tablets a lot. Clay was a very useful medium for writing in the ancient world because it was quite easily available and could be formed into different shapes, and all you need in order to write on it is a stick. Luckily for us, a clay tablet also has a good chance of surviving for thousands of years provided it has been baked.

A while ago I posted a picture of one of my favourite clay tablets on Twitter, a Linear B document that we label PY Ep 704 (which is code for saying that it comes from Pylos and deals with landholdings). (Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.)

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Second CREWS Conference: Call for Papers

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We are pleased to announce the second CREWS conference, to take place in March 2019.

‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’ aims to look at writing systems’ place in society and culture.

Full details, including the call for papers, are available on the conference page.

Star Wars, Writing Systems and Rationalising Imaginary Worlds

We’re big Star Wars fans here on the CREWS Project, and with a new film out now seems like a good time to revisit the topic of writing in the Star Wars galaxy. Pippa’s written before about Aurebesh, the most well-known Star Wars writing system, but as she mentioned in that post there are actually a lot more, and they’re a nice illustration of the changing way popular media uses writing-systems in its world-building.

Aurebesh
Aurebesh

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The Writing Dead: Literacy in The Walking Dead’s apocalypse

Coming up to the season 8 finale of one of my favourite TV shows, The Walking Dead, my mind has been lingering on something other than the fear of main character deaths and the elusive potential for the good guys to find peace with the current bad guys. The curse of being an epigraphist is that I’m always looking out for signs of writing and the contexts in which writing is used – which is, of course, exactly what I’m working on in my day job (albeit for the ancient world rather than a post-apocalyptic alternative reality).

So as I’ve been watching The Walking Dead, I’ve started asking myself: in a world where the dead are everywhere and society has changed radically, what might that mean for reading and writing?

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For TWD fans, beware of a few (fairly mild) SPOILERS if you keep reading – including for season 8, but not the finale. All images in this post are copyright of AMC.

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Come and see the CREWS display!

Natalia and Philip have made a video about our special display on ancient writing at the Fitzwilliam Museum, to explain what it is about – and to encourage you to come and have a look while you can if you have a chance to visit Cambridge!

The display is free and is on until 10th June, and you can find it in the Cypriot Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Continue reading “Come and see the CREWS display!”

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies

The ancient world was a dangerous place, with potential enemies at every turn, as well as a wide array of monsters, demons and illnesses waiting to prey on the unwary. Fortunately, there were many ways to fight back, including writing and related practices. By coincidence, I recently learned about three of these in two days. Continue reading “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies”

Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft

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Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother… and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge.

M. R. James – ‘Casting the Runes’

Writing has always had an association with magic. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s easy to see how in a world of limited literacy, people might attribute supernatural qualities to these strange signs that allow initiates to recall the lore of times past or speak things they had never personally been told. It’s likely that abecedaries sometimes had magical significance in the ancient world, and we have examples of magical spells written down as early as Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

People have also often looked back to the writing systems of earlier periods, believing them to have special powers and connections to the lost secrets of elder times. As the title of this article suggests, Germanic runes have been one of the more popular examples, having enjoyed a particular resurgence in the 18th to early 20th centuries and being especially associated with divination. They’re not the only one, though. Unsurprisingly, given the particular affinity many modern would-be mages feel for Celtic traditions, the Ogham script of early mediaeval Ireland has also been widely embraced, as have Mesopotamian cuneiform and, of course, Hebrew. The use and reception of these ancient systems in modern magical beliefs could easily fill a lengthy blog post, if not an entire book, but it’s not what I’m going to focus on today. Instead I want to look in particular at those writing systems created specifically for magical purposes.

Continue reading “Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft”