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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Deathly inscription thread

I’m very sorry for missing Halloween. I was hoping to complete a script death post in time, but it’s been a long week with no time for writing. So for now, I’m just relaying my Twitter thread on ancient inscriptions that involve deathly, spooky or otherwise horrible themes (click on the tweets to view the thread) – but look out for that script death post some time in November!

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Deciphering Invented Scripts in Computer Games: Heaven’s Vault and Sethian

Earlier this year a game came out which is right up CREWS’s street. Heaven’s Vault is a narrative sci-fi archaeology game where the central mechanic sees the player attempting to decipher a writing system found in ancient inscriptions. It justifiably received a lot of praise from reviewers, offering up a pleasingly thoughtful alternative to the usual video-game portrayal of archaeologists as gung-ho action heroes who negotiate traps and fight mercenaries, Nazis and wild animals. Its developers, Inkle, are well-known for crafting careful and well-written branching narratives, so the exploration and decipherment elements are wrapped up in an appealing choose-your-own-adventure structure.

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Learning Etruscan

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be able to go to Etruscan classes, run by my colleague Prof. James Clackson with a group of graduate students (including our own Natalia) and other colleagues. Etruscan is one of those great mysteries — a well-attested ancient language that we don’t really understand very well. And I have no intention of trying to solve any mysteries in this post. Instead I want to say a few things from my recent experiences about what we do and don’t know about Etruscan, as well as thinking about the way it was written.

800px-Etruscan_civilization_map.pngEtruscan is evidently a non-Indo-European language, and one that does not have a close relationship with any other ancient languages we know. While the rest of the Italian peninsula during the 1st millennium BC was filled with Indo-European languages of the Italic branch (Latin, Faliscan, Oscan, Umbrian, Venetic, etc), the unrelated Etruscan language was spoken in quite a large area of central-northern Italy and is found on a wide range of inscription types. In fact there are something in the region of 9,000 surviving inscriptions – so why don’t we understand the language better? Well, we do and we don’t.

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CREWS Conference Presentations #5 – Writing and Identity

Welcome to the final instalment of this series collecting talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems‘, which was held last March at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge. Our final two talks are:

Dr Katherine McDonald, University of Exeter – Connectivity and competition: alphabets as identities in Italy

Natalia Elvira Astoreca, CREWS, University of Cambridge – Names and authorship in the beginnings of Greek alphabetic writing

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we did. It was a wonderful conference and we’re very grateful to everyone who came and participated, including those speakers who weren’t able to share their talks in video form. We hope that the proceedings book will be available in the second half of next year.

If you’d like to revisit any of the talks from this conference, the full playlist is available here.

CREWS Conference Presentations #4 – Agency, Personhood and Elite Culture

Welcome back to the this series sharing talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’. Today we have two papers focusing on the ancient Aegean.

Professor James Whitley, University of Cardiff – Why με? Personhood and agency in Greek inscriptions (800-550 BCE)

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