Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

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Mohamed Moursal working at Ugarit

Ninety years ago today, on 14 May 1929, a workman at the excavations of the newly-discovered Syrian archaeological site of Ras Shamra made one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century for the study of ancient writing systems – a number of clay tablets inscribed in a previously unknown version of cuneiform. Typically for the colonial context and the hierarchical nature of archaeology at the time, it’s usually the French director of the excavations, Claude Schaeffer, who gets the credit for this discovery but the actual discoverer’s name was Mohamed Moursal. Writing some years later, Schaeffer records the moment of the discovery as follows (translated from the French):

At five o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun transformed the Alawite mountains east of the tell into a golden fringe, I observed one of my workmen who stopped his work to examine what at a distance had the appearance of a small brick. Mohamed Moursal, a Turk from Bourj Islam, a good workman, but preferring effort rather than the delicate work of releasing fragile objects, spat on his find and with the palm of his right hand rubbed on it to remove the film of earth that masked the surface.

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Ugaritic tablets in situ.

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Writing in Time and Space: the writing ‘systems’ of Doctor Who

doctor_who_season_11_logo_thumb800Anyone who’s followed the CREWS blog will know that we’re fond of a bit of sci-fi and fantasy. We’ve talked about the writing systems of Star Wars, Game of Thrones and Indiana Jones. But ever since I was a kid, my absolute favourite piece of science fiction has been Doctor Who. Since it’s finally back this weekend, what better time to look at how it handles writing?
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Writing in Carthage: the Punic Script

One of the topics that I have been working on a lot this year has been the development of the Punic script. This was the script used to write the variety of the Phoenician language spoken in the Western Mediterranean in the second half of the first millennium BC through to the early first millennium AD. It is descended from the Phoenician script, which was modified from an early alphabetic script to write the Phoenician language in the late second millennium BC.

The Punic language is perhaps not that widely known among languages in the ancient world. However, its speakers, the Carthaginians, including among their number the general Hannibal who famously took his elephants over the Alps to attack the Romans, are.

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Hannibal’s celebrated feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: detail of a fresco by Jacopo Ripanda, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Image from HERE. Continue reading “Writing in Carthage: the Punic Script”

Star Wars, Writing Systems and Rationalising Imaginary Worlds

We’re big Star Wars fans here on the CREWS Project, and with a new film out now seems like a good time to revisit the topic of writing in the Star Wars galaxy. Pippa’s written before about Aurebesh, the most well-known Star Wars writing system, but as she mentioned in that post there are actually a lot more, and they’re a nice illustration of the changing way popular media uses writing-systems in its world-building.

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Aurebesh

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Writing on High

I have been meaning to post something about the Bisitun (or Behistun) inscription for ages now, but never seem to get round to it. Noticing that today is International Mountain Day has finally spurred me to action – though this will have to be a short post for now because I don’t have time at the moment to do this wonderful monument the justice it deserves.

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The inscription can be found 100m up a cliff, on Mt Behistun in present-day Iran. It’s huge (15 x 25 m) and incorporates images as well as trilingual text in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. All three languages are written in different types of cuneiform, i.e. wedge-shaped writing that was adapted and developed by different societies of the Near East. By the time of this inscription (late 6th or early 5th C BC), cuneiform had already been in use for thousands of years, so what we are seeing here are very late manifestations of a multi-stranded tradition of writing with a very long history. Continue reading “Writing on High”

What’s in a name? Samuel Pepys and the problems of decipherment

Last week I had the pleasure of going on a tour around the Pepys Library at Cambridge’s Magdalene College, where the book collection of famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys is kept – including his famous diary itself. Pepys wrote his diary in a sort of code, which got me thinking about how we decipher coded texts, a problem closely related to working with undeciphered ancient writing systems.

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The bookplate Samuel Pepys carefully pasted into the books in his collection. By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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Ancient Literacy and Cypriot Mercenaries

Earlier this week, Natalia’s post on Cypriots and Iberians told us a little about the Cypriot Syllabic script, which up to now has not featured very much on the CREWS blog. In fact, as someone who has been working on the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus for years, this is a subject close to my heart! In this post I wanted to pick up on the question of literacy in ancient Cyprus – and as you will see, the movements of Cypriot mercenary soldiers are an important part of the puzzle.

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Relief sculpture with Cypriot Syllabic inscriptions. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/241924

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What did Cypriots and Iberians have in common?

Did you know that Iberian and Cypriot scripts share the shapes of some signs? Although Iberian scripts do not really fall into the research of the CREWS project, they are fascinating and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make them appear in our blog. In spite of the long distance between the Iberian peninsula and Cyprus, which were not directly connected in the 5th century BC (approximate date of the first written samples in Iberian), indeed, there are some signs both in Iberian and Cypriot scripts that have the same shape, but with different values. How was this possible?

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Iberian inscription on lead from Ullastret.

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The Bulwer tablet, with Cypriot syllabic writing. Trustees of the British Museum.

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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.

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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!”