Writing beautifully

I just saw that it is World Calligraphy Day today (noticing all these “(inter)national days of X” seems to be a product of hanging out on Twitter!). This got me thinking about what we mean when we say ‘calligraphy’. The word comes from Greek and means simply “beautiful writing” – which in practice can mean a whole range of things.


Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Image from HERE.

Today we tend to think of calligraphy as an art that involves writing in ink with special pens on fancy paper. You can do it in any writing system from around the world – Wikipedia has a nice range of examples in its calligraphy entry HERE. The above page from the 8th century AD illuminated Lindisfarne gospels is a typical piece of monastic medieval calligraphy from northern England, while below is an 11th century AD work from the Chinese Song dynasty, On Calligraphy by Mi Fu. Continue reading “Writing beautifully”


Writing Gods & Myths IV. Norse mythology

We continue our journey through different mythologies to find all the stories about writing. This time it’s the turn of Norse mythology and the invention of runes. In the Poetic Edda, we are told that the god Odin (dedicated to wisdom and magic, among other things) hung himself on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights, not receiving any kind of food or drink. This was a kind of self-sacrifice to himself that granted him the revelation of the runes. Since then, runes were used not only as a writing system, but also in magic and divination.


Odin fan art, taken from: https://odindevoted.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/giving-blood-to-the-runes/

Continue reading “Writing Gods & Myths IV. Norse mythology”

Learning Hieroglyphics!

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Bloomsbury Summer School in Egyptology, where I developed my reading in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a very rich experience, and it certainly improved my knowledge of Middle Egyptian. I wanted to do this because Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics omits almost entirely the writing of vowels. This is the same characteristic in Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems that I am investigating for my part in the CREWS project.

DT257846 detail small.jpg

Detail from coffin of Khnumnakht, Middle Kingdom. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544326).

The fact that these three writing systems do not (in principle at least) record vowels is at odds with other notable second millennium BC writing systems, namely Linear B (for Greek) and (non-Ugaritic) cuneiform, which do record vowels. A priori it therefore seems plausible that there should be a link, either genetic or typological, between the Egyptian writing system and that of the early north-west Semitic alphabetic writing systems. Before exploring some possible links in future blog posts, for those who are not necessarily familiar with the Egyptian writing system, I thought in this blog post I would lay out some of the basic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. Continue reading “Learning Hieroglyphics!”

Happy Linear B Day!

On this day in 1952, 65 years ago, Michael Ventris made the announcement that he had deciphered Mycenaean Linear B. Against all expectations, he had discovered that these Late Bronze Age documents were written in Greek – making them some 400 years earlier than any other known Greek inscriptions.




The announcement was made on the radio, and luckily the recording still survives. You can hear it HERE in a post made by the BBC a few years ago.

You can read more about the decipherment process HERE in a resource made available by the Cambridge Mycenaean Epigraphy Group.



Writing Gods and Myths II: Mesopotamia

Today we will continue our journey through the myths about writing and its patron gods in Ancient Mesopotamia. This area is especially important, as it is in the Sumerian city of Uruk where we have the first attestations of writing in the form of pictographs c. 3200 BC. Later, Sumerians would develop from these pictographs what we call “cuneiform” writing (which consists of abstract wedge-shapes representing words or syllables).


Mesopotamian pictograms. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/329081

One of the Mesopotamian stories that talks about the creation of writing involves Enmerkar, one of the mythological kings of Uruk. According to the Sumerian King List he was the second king of the First Dynasty of Uruk and the builder of the city. In the epic poem that narrates the conquest of Aratta by king Enmerkar it is said that his messenger, who had the task to transmit the messages between the two kings (Enmerkar and the king of Aratta), was failing to remember these messages. Therefore, Enmerkar had the idea of writing them down on clay.

Continue reading “Writing Gods and Myths II: Mesopotamia”

Making and baking inscriptions – and the CREWSmas party!

Term-time has recently finished here, and the CREWS project team has been taking part in some rather jolly end-of-term activities.

The first was the final session of the ‘Linear A self-help group’, a series of seminars we have been running where a number of colleagues working on Linear A or related scripts have been presenting their work and discussing their ideas. For the final meeting, we decided to have a practical session, and to try making our own inscriptions using modelling clay. You also can read about it on our colleague Anna Judson’s blog HERE.

What are Linear A and Linear B?

Linear A was used around the 19th-15th centuries BC, in Crete and some of the islands, to write an unknown language that we label ‘Minoan’ (we know the values of many signs, but still do not understand the language).

Linear B was used around the 15th-13th centuries BC, in Crete and on the Greek mainland, to write an early form of Greek.

Why bother trying to make our own inscriptions? Well, actually there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the production of clay tablets in the ancient Aegean. How did the scribes achieve such detail in the more complex signs? What did they use to write with? How did they create the flat surface for writing on? Why are Linear B ‘palmleaf’ tablets (i.e. small elongated ones that can be held in the palm of the hand) curved on the back but flat on the top? We started off the session with an illuminating presentation by PhD student Ester Salgarella on some of these problems, and then we set about trying to answer some of them through a practical attempt at making our own tablets.


Continue reading “Making and baking inscriptions – and the CREWSmas party!”