Alien’s ‘Standard Semiotic’, Pictograms and Icons

For one reason or another, we’ve had a bit of a fantasy writing systems theme lately in our blogging. Not so long ago I wrote something about the various invented writing systems of the Legend of Zelda games, and Pippa has told us about Aurebesh, from the Star Wars series. Just one more for now. Since there’s a new Alien movie out, we thought it’d be nice to take a look at the influential ‘Semiotic Standard’ pictographic system developed for use in spaceship signage in Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film.

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Hands-on with Cuneiform

When I joined the CREWS Project and started my research on the context of writing at Ugarit, one of the challenges was getting to grips with Akkadian. Ugarit was a tremendously cosmopolitan and multilingual city, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Anatolia and this means that the writing we have from the city comes in a wide range of languages and scripts. The most common are Ugaritic – usually written in a form of alphabetic cuneiform  – and Akkadian. Continue reading “Hands-on with Cuneiform”

Learning the alphabet

When someone I’ve known for a short time gave me this Secret Santa present, I realised how the work I just started a few months ago, now defines me completely:

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This is a CD with songs to learn the alphabet and the sounds of the letters. Although this CD is meant to teach the English alphabet and I study the ancient Greek alphabet, it made me think about the different – or maybe similar – methods that modern and ancient cultures used to learn how to write.

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How to make a cylinder seal

In the ancient world, if you wanted to sign something you used a seal. They came in various shapes and sizes – stamps, seals, signet rings – but the general idea was always the same: you had a small object that you could press into clay or wax to mark it with a design unique to you – just like a signature. This could be used in various ways. In the Near East, for example, legal decisions or transactions might be recorded on a tablet, and then all the witnesses would press their seals into the clay next to their names. In other cases it could function as an official lock – a door or container-lid could have a blob of clay pressed over the join and this would be marked with an official’s seal. If the clay was broken – or if it had been replaced with one without the seal – then people would know it had been tampered with. Here’s one of the most famous examples of this: the unbroken clay seal on the tomb of Tutankhamun, photographed before it was opened in 1922.

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The oldest book from the Americas?

I read an article today about the Grolier Codex, a collection of pages from a 13th century AD Mayan book that has had a speckled history in scholarship. It was long thought to be a fake, but over the years a team led by Professor David Coe at Yale has demonstrated the document’s authenticity.

You can read a much fuller account at Yale News HERE. A shorter piece was also published by the Smithsonian last September HERE.

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The pages of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.

‘Codex’ is a word used to describe an early, hand-written book, with pages made from any of a range of different perishable materials (e.g. papyrus or vellum). In the case of the Grolier Codex, the pages are made from bark paper, and each one was coated with stucco before being painted on. The paint used is one of the features that strongly suggests its authenticity, because it contains pigments that were used by ancient Mayans and that could not have been replicated in the 1960s when the document was found.

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Page 6 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

It is an unfortunate fact that the codex was found not by a team of archaeologists, who would have been able to record its location and context, but by looters who came across it in a cave in Mexico and then sold it to a Mexican collector called Josué Sáenz. This is a factor that made it all the easier to argue that the manuscript might have been a fake, since its original context could not be verified. Luckily, however, Professor Coe and his colleagues have been able to show via a range of analytical methods that, despite the circumstances of its discovery, we have many reasons to believe that the codex is real.

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Page 11 of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.

This makes the Grolier Codex the oldest known example of its kind, and one of only four Mayan codices to have been discovered. The other three (the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex and the Paris Codex) are rather more elaborate and were clearly executed by skilled artists. The Grolier Codex, on the other hand, is a little different from the others.

 

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Page 4 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

Most noticeably, whoever drew the glyphs on the surviving pages has made sketches first and then painted over them. But the artist did not follow the sketch-lines perfectly when painting the final versions of the glyphs, and did not remove the sketch-lines afterwards. To a modern eye at least, this makes the drawings look relatively amateurish, especially compared with the more elaborate decoration of the other three surviving codices.

 

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Page 5 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

The sketch-lines were one of the arguments used by those convinced the Grolier Codex was a fake. But this doesn’t seem very convincing. For one thing, why would a modern forger include such ‘imperfections’ if he/she wanted to make the document look authentic? And there are lots of possible reasons why a real ancient document could include what we might think of as imperfections today. The Grolier Codex is perhaps 100-200 years older than the other surviving Mayan codices, and it is perfectly possible that techniques changed over the years, or that when it was made there were other influences on its creation (for example Mixtec codices, some of which had quite similar drawings). Another possibility is that the artist of the Grolier Codex was not as skilled as the artists of the other Mayan codices – but ‘skill’ is difficult to quantify when we have so little information about the context in which such documents were used, displayed or consulted. Perhaps artistic perfection, or a ‘finished’ quality, was less of a concern to the author than eventually achieving precision in the representations, for example.

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Page 3 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

Can we really fault the artist on his/her ‘skill’ after creating such intricate images? The figures in the above picture of the third page, for example, seem to me a considerable achievement in representing human facial expressions. And despite the very pictorial nature of the glyphs, we have to remember that this is writing as well as art: conveying a message successfully is another achievement of the artist. Although we do not have very many surviving pages, we know that the codex is intended to give some sort of information about the Mayan calendar, with glyphs representing days and numerals that seem to refer to the movement of the planet Venus in the sky.

I hope you have enjoyed another foray into the world of Mayan writing. Although not geographically or chronologically close to the writing systems we are working on at the CREWS project, we have touched on some important themes here that are relevant to the study of any ancient document: context and content, analysing authenticity, techniques and ‘skill’ of execution and the relationship between writing and art, among others.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Talking objects

In Ancient Greece people would write on almost any kind of object. For example, votes to send a politician to exile for 10 years were written on pottery sherds! This practice of the Athenian democracy was called ostracism because the name for “sherds” in Ancient Greek is ὄστρακα (ostraka).

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Fragments of ceramic with votes for ostracism. Picture taken by the author: Agora Museum, Athens.

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Letter-Writing: Postage stamps featuring ancient writing systems

We’re well into December and the postal services are enjoying their busiest time of the year as parcels and cards fly backwards and forwards. What better time to share this little gem I came across during my research.

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That’s a 1956 postage stamp from Syria featuring the Ugaritic abecedarium KTU 5.6, well-known to regular readers of this blog. I was curious about it, and a few minutes’ research showed that this wasn’t the only Ugarit-themed stamp Syria has issued.

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This one from 1964 isn’t writing-based, but features this famous sculpture of a head, made of ivory and adorned with gold, silver, copper and lapis lazuli. It’s usually assumed to be a statue of a prince or princess, since it was found in the city’s Royal Palace.

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This got me wondering what other countries have featured ancient writing-systems on their stamps. Here are some of the ones I found: Continue reading “Letter-Writing: Postage stamps featuring ancient writing systems”