I have been thinking a lot about the visibility of writing in the ancient world lately. And I have been watching a lot of Star Wars. And you know when your work life and your fandom life get a bit entangled? Well, watching the new Obi Wan Kenobi series has been helping me to think through some issues related to social literacy and I thought I would share some of those thoughts.
Please beware spoilers below if you haven’t seen the series yet!
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.
We are excited to announce the launch of our free teaching materials on Writing in the Ancient World, which includes teaching packs on five writing systems, cartoons and ideas for play sessions. They were designed with age 8-11 children in mind (i.e. roughly Key Stage 2 in the UK), but we hope that they will be useful for a wide range of people and will reach an international audience. If you are interested in learning more, please click through to the links below.
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.
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.
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.
Etruscan 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.
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.
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)