Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit

How does writing work as a part of society and culture? That was the question I set out to address when I joined CREWS in 2016. It’s not a complete question, though. Society and culture are specific things, particular to a given place at a given time. No two societies operate in the same way, and culture is arguably even more prone to differences, not just by time and society, but even within societies themselves. As long-term followers of this blog will know, my specific case study has been the kingdom of Ugarit, a small but important Syrian trading power in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries BC. Now, after four years of research, I’ve finally been able to offer up some answers in the form of a book, Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, just published by Oxbow books.

Since excavations began over 90 years ago, Ugarit has been an extremely important site in Near Eastern studies because of its large corpus of surviving clay tablets. Many of these are written in the Akkadian language and the logosyllabic cuneiform script that was used across much of the Near East and East Mediterranean in this period. However, just over half the tablets from Ugarit are written in a different script and language: an alphabetic form of cuneiform used to write the local Ugaritic language. In addition, there are relatively small collections of written material in other scripts and languages such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cypro-Minoan.

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Animating the Alphabet – in Lego!

Today is International Lego Classics Day on Twitter, an annual occasion when classicists all over the world dive into their Lego collections to build models related to their research. We’re big Lego fans here at CREWS and every year we try and do a couple of things for ILCD. As this year will be the last when the Project is running, we wanted to pull out all the stops. This is the result, a short film telling the history of alphabetic writing through the medium of Lego stop-motion.

I’ve wanted to try my hand at a CREWS-related stop-motion video for a while but the timing has never worked out. Fortunately this year I had just sent off proofs for two forthcoming CREWS publications so had enough leeway in my diary to get stuck in to a little Lego project for a few days.

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Lego Cleopatra, and writing in Ptolemaic Egypt

We wish you all a very happy International Lego Classicists Day! As official partners this year, we have been getting very excited and we have two big treats for you – Lego Cleopatra (this post) is by me, and the stop-motion Lego history of the alphabet is by Philip.

It’s hard to avoid that very striking popular cultural image of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, with almond eyes and sleek black hair, made most famous perhaps by Elizabeth Taylor in a 1963 Hollywood epic (or Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo if you prefer!) – and immortalised in series 5 of Lego’s collectable sets of minifigures. A lot has been said about what she might really have looked like, but are looks everything? For instance, did you know that it is quite widely believed that we have a signature on a piece of papyrus that could be in Cleopatra’s very own hand?

Cleopatra and Marc Antony as played by Elizabeth Taylor (note the embroidered hieroglyphs on her dress!) and Richard Burton in the 1963 film epic ‘Cleopatra’ (left) and by my Lego figures (right).
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Word processing then, now and in the future…

Word processing has become such an essential part of our daily lives, particularly for those of us who write for a living, that we tend to take its presence there, and indeed its existence as an activity in itself, for granted. Yet the tool we use for this activity, namely word processing software is, of course, like the personal computer on which it depends, a very recent innovation in the story of the written word. Indeed, the modern incarnation of the word processor, such as Microsoft Word, was by no means an inevitability, and could, in principle at least, have taken a different form.

The essential component of what we would now call a word processor is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor, which displays your work on screen as it will look on the printed page, in real time. In this way, the word processor brings together meaning and form in much the same way that we would if we sat in front of a piece of paper and began writing and/or drawing. In so doing, the word processor gives us the illusion of an experience akin to physically writing.

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Depicting writing

The overwhelming tendency to talk about writing systems as linguistic codes (which they usually are in some sense) has often ignored other important aspects of writing. For instance, one way way we can study writing is as a practice or action, because writing is a thing you do. At CREWS we have been particularly interested in developing the ways we look at writing practices, because this is an area with important ramifications for the way writing looks and the place of writing in a society (and in fact you can hear me speaking about some of these issues at the beginning of this seminar video).

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Fourth Dynasty Egyptian statue of a seated scribe: close-up detail. Image from here.

But how can we reconstruct the ways in which writing was done, accomplished or performed in the ancient world? The nature of the act of writing is extremely dependant on a whole range of factors, from cultural attitudes and social setting to technical expertise and interactions with oral traditions. And choices about the kinds of things you write on, the kinds of things you write with and the techniques you use to ‘apply’ the writing are central to these practices. There are a number of different ways of approaching the question, one of which is by looking at ancient visual depictions of the act of writing. This is what we will focus on in this post. Continue reading “Depicting writing”

Video: Pippa speaking on writing systems and practices, and writing in Bronze Age Cyprus

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the SCRIBO seminar this week, a virtual seminar series on ancient writing hosted in Bologna by Silvia Ferrara, who runs the ERC-sponsored INSCRIBE project.

You can view the whole talk on YouTube here:

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Literacy in Ancient Pompeii… in Lego!

It’s time to say happy International Lego Classicism Day again! Our special treat this year is a brief excursion to ancient Pompeii, to consider the nature of literacy at the site. Who could write in Pompeii, and what sorts of writing might a resident of the city have encountered in their day-to-day life? Let’s explore this through a small Lego street scene.

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Elven Vowels II

In a previous post for the CREWS blog, I explored the way in which vowel signs are used in the Tengwar to write various Elven languages. In this post, I want to focus on the question of the way in which vowel writing develops, as envisaged in Tolkien’s Legendarium.

According to Tolkien, by the Third Age, that is, the period described in The Lord of the Rings, the Elven scripts “had reached the stage of full alphabetic development, but older modes in which only the consonants were denoted by full letters were still in use” (Appendix E II). In other words, in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, contemporary scripts write vowels like any other letter, but archaic scripts continued to write vowels above and below the consonantal letters, using marks known as tehtar. We see the former approach in use in the inscription on the West-gate of Moria, while we see the latter on the ring inscription. The difference is plainly visible in the relative lack of markings above the letters in the West-gate inscription.

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pedo mellon a minno

“Speak friend and enter”

Section of West-gate inscription (Typeset using the TengwarScript package in LaTeX, https://ctan.org/pkg/tengwarscript?lang=en, using the Tengwar Annatar font designed by Johan Winge)

 

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Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Ring Inscription (image from here).

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Why do scripts and writing practices die out?

The death of scripts is something Pippa and I have been thinking about a fair bit recently. We gave a talk about it at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas back in the autumn, and presented a poster at a couple of recent conferences. Why do people stop writing in a particular script? It’s a simple question but one that’s received surprisingly little academic attention, perhaps because almost by definition, evidence for why something stops happening will be scarce. This is true with any tradition or cultural practice, and relates to a broader discussion of how we conceptualise and reconstruct ancient social change. But since writing is one of our key sources of evidence as well as the practice we’re investigating, the problem of evidence is particularly acute there.

The first thing we need to be sure of is that a script really has died out, rather than people merely changing what they use it for or the materials on which they write it. The ancient East Mediterranean offers a good example of this with the case of hieroglyphic Luwian. In the Late Bronze Age, this seemed like a script (and associated language) on the rise. It was widely spoken in Anatolia and seemed to be gaining ground, perhaps even among the Hittite royal elite by the end of the thirteenth century BC. The Hittites used Luwian writing alongside their usual cuneiform script, and it’s best preserved now in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, such as those from the capital, Hattuša. As CREWS Visiting Fellow Willemijn Waal has argued, it may also have been written on wooden tablets.

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Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

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