Ancient accounting practices in the modern world

Guest post by Fernando Toth (Professor of Anthropology, University of Buenos Aires)

Token: an art piece that mixes anthropology, experimental archaeology, archival analysis and regional history

Token is a project by Carlos Mustto (visual artist) and myself (anthropologist and musician), that links anthropology with art. It is mainly an exercise of translation of administrative systems, that was developed within the 2019 edition of the Barda del Desierto art residency, taking place in the public school of Contralmirante Cordero, a small town populated by less than four thousand people in Argentinean North Patagonia.

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Map of the Ballester Dam and Public School 135.
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Ancient Mesopotamian clay tokens. Image from here.

The core idea of the project was to identify and process a selection of information from the administrative records of the construction and operation of the Ballester Dam (one of the most important engineering structures in Patagonian history), in order to translate it into clay tokens, the oldest known system of countability and administration, and direct predecessor of cuneiform writing, as studied by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Clay tokens were used for several thousand years before writing first appeared, but it was in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC that their use as an accounting system began to develop features that would eventually come to denote language as well as commodities and numbers. Continue reading “Ancient accounting practices in the modern world”

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Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.

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Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.

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Anatolian hieroglyphs, and our first CREWS Visiting Fellow

Guest post by Dr Willemijn Waal

My name is Willemijn Waal and I have been lucky enough to be the first visiting fellow of the CREWS project, which is of course a great honour! Let me start out by briefly introducing myself. I am a Hittitologist/classicist working as a lecturer at Leiden University, at the department of Classics and Ancient Civilizations. My main research interests include the origins and materiality of writing and cross-cultural contacts between the Late Bronze Age Anatolia and the Aegean. I am further working on literacy and orality in the ancient world, in particular the links between classical and Near Eastern epic and literature.

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Map showing Anatolia (the large peninsula occupying the right-middle of the image) and the Aegean sea to its west and south-west (bounded by mainland Greece on the west side and Crete on the south side).

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Writing and Society in Ancient Cyprus – Pippa’s new book

A couple of months ago my new book, Writing and Society in Ancient Cyprus, was published with Cambridge University Press. This was a long-term project, beginning with a series of lectures given at All Souls College, Oxford, in 2014 and culminating in a work that underpins the research undertaken at CREWS. In fact, it was in writing this book that the whole idea for the CREWS project began…

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Alpha and Omega

ἐγὼ τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ἡ ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ τέλος.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

(Rev. 22:13, Tyndale Greek New Testament)

These words may look familiar – a quotation from Jesus in the very final chapter of the Bible, in the book of Revelation. Particularly striking is the use of the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe Jesus. What is going on here? This seems like an interesting question to explore in the middle of the festive period. (Readers who want to pursue the question further might be interested in reading the articles given in the references below, which I have used in the preparation of this post.)

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Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla (C4th AD). Image from HERE.

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The CREWS inscription advent calendar 2018

Following the success of last year’s Inscription Advent Calendar, which we ran on Twitter, we have decided to do it all over again, but with a set of new inscriptions (well, very old inscriptions, but you know what I mean).

You can follow the advent calendar by following us on Twitter, or by checking the blog regularly – our Twitter feed appears down the right-hand side of the page. Continue reading “The CREWS inscription advent calendar 2018”

Aššurbanipal at the British Museum

DgCt-puW0AU9TK6Last weekend I finally got a chance to visit the British Museum’s exhibition on the Assyrian king Aššurbanipal. There’s been a lot of good word-of-mouth about it so I was looking forward to it, and while it wasn’t perfect, the exhibition didn’t disappoint.

Although no-one on the CREWS Project directly works on first-millennium Assyria, Aššurbanipal’s a name that’s cropped up a few times on this blog because of his strong interest in writing and scholarship. He’s one of the few Mesopotamian rulers known to have been literate – in fact, this was a source of great pride for Aššurbanipal, who claims in one inscription:

‘I learnt the lore of the wise sage Adapa, the hidden secret, the whole of the scribal craft. I can discern celestial and terrestrial portents and deliberate in the assembly of the experts. I am able to discuss the series “If the liver is a mirror image of the sky” with capable scholars. I can solve convoluted reciprocals and calculations that do not come out evenly. I have read cunningly written text in Sumerian, obscure Akkadian, the interpretation of which is difficult. I have examined stone inscriptions from before the flood, which are sealed, stopped up, mixed up.’

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What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean

My research has taken a fun turn towards practical experiments lately, as some of our Twitter followers may have noticed. It isn’t just because I wanted to get away from the computer (though I did…); it’s because I have been working on a problem where direct evidence is scarce and/or difficult to interpret, and where experimentation is surprisingly elucidating.

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My work on a replica Cypro-Minoan tablet.

We know that during the Bronze Age a number of civilisations around the eastern Mediterranean were using clay to write on. From Mesopotamian cuneiform to Linear A and B in the Aegean, people found that this reusable natural resource provided a vital tool for making records. But they didn’t all use it in the same way, and they didn’t all use the same implements or methods to write on it – instead traditions of writing display considerable regional differences, whether or not there might have been any influences from one place to another. Continue reading “What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean”

Scribes and Spooks: Exorcists in Ancient Mesopotamia

A little while ago an unexpected thing happened to me. While happily going about my research, I recalled something I’d read not long after I started working for the CREWS Project – a reference to a Mesopotamian family who worked as exorcists. I’d always found this a fun concept and tweeted about it. And, well… it turned out a lot of other people liked this idea too.

For a while now I’ve been meaning to dig up the original reference and write something about Mesopotamian exorcists that had a more solid foundation than my off-the-cuff and hazy memories. This is good material for a CREWS Project blog post, because the link between writing and exorcism in ancient Mesopotamia was much closer than you might expect. And what better time than Hallowe’en? Draw the curtains, make your incantations against Pazuzu and rotate your heads 360 degrees (don’t really do this) as we take a trip into the demon-haunted and bewitched world of Mesopotamian exorcism.

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