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.

2600971646_c11ba3eacc_k
Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

Continue reading “Why do scripts and writing practices die out?”

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.

Continue reading “Deciphering Invented Scripts in Computer Games: Heaven’s Vault and Sethian”

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.

Continue reading “Learning Etruscan”

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)

Continue reading “CREWS Conference Presentations #4 – Agency, Personhood and Elite Culture”

CREWS Conference Presentations #3 – Writing for Display

It’s Thursday so we have three more wonderful talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’ for you to enjoy.

Sophie Heier, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität Munich – The visibility of runic writing and its relation to Viking Age society

Continue reading “CREWS Conference Presentations #3 – Writing for Display”

CREWS Conference Presentations #2 – Archaeology and Materiality

We’re back with more talks from last March’s CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems‘. Today’s papers come from our sessions on the archaeology and materiality of writing.Remember you can subscribe to our YouTube channel to be kept up to date with the release of more videos like these.

Dr Philip Boyes, CREWS, University of Cambridge – The Social Archaeology of Writing Systems

Continue reading “CREWS Conference Presentations #2 – Archaeology and Materiality”

Watch Presentations from the CREWS Conference!

DSC_0185

Back in March we held our second CREWS Conference, ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’. As you’ll know if you read Pippa’s article about it, it was a very exciting three days where we heard from speakers with a very diverse set of specialisms and approaches on different aspects of how writing practices are shaped by – and shape – the social contexts in which they’re carried out. This is an important topic because all too often we think about writing systems as abstract things which can be understood purely on their own terms, rather than as part and parcel of human action and culture that encompasses everything from cookery to art. Continue reading “Watch Presentations from the CREWS Conference!”

Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

Picture1
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.

Picture2
Ugaritic tablets in situ.

Continue reading “Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies”

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?
Continue reading “Writing in Time and Space: the writing ‘systems’ of Doctor Who”