Inscription Advent Calendar

Over on our Twitter feed (@crewsproject) we’re posting an inscription advent calendar – which we hope you will enjoy as a nice way of finding out about some of the exciting texts that we come across in our research. There will be a post a day up to 24th December.

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The Dolphin Stone and the Cretan Alphabet

Did you know that between the 8th and 5th/4th centuries BC, there was more than one alphabet used in ancient Greece? Each region had its own alphabet – all similar to each other but with a few distinctive features (e.g. extra letters, or a special value for a letter that had a different value elsewhere). In this post I want to talk about the island of Crete, which was one of the areas that had its own unique alphabet.

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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies

The ancient world was a dangerous place, with potential enemies at every turn, as well as a wide array of monsters, demons and illnesses waiting to prey on the unwary. Fortunately, there were many ways to fight back, including writing and related practices. By coincidence, I recently learned about three of these in two days. Continue reading “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies”

Learning about ancient writing

We recently had the pleasure of being involved in a number of outreach events organised through the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. That meant talking to the public about our work and showing people (especially groups of children) how to write in ancient writing systems. These are more than ‘just’ outreach events for us – they are a valuable opportunity to put our theoretical work into practice and share it with others!


You don’t have to be present at these events to join in! If trying your hand at ancient writing appeals to you, have a look at our ‘write your name’ sheets HERE. Currently available are the ‘standard’ Greek alphabet, the Cretan alphabet, Phoenician, Ugaritic cuneiform, Linear B and Egyptian hieroglyphics. They can be downloaded and used for free so please do have a look and try writing your name or a message.

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First up was the Prehistory and Archaeology Day organised by the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. This was a big event with all sorts of different activities, where the opportunity to learn an ancient writing system was just one of the possibilities on offer. Philip helped to run a drop-in stall (alongside colleagues from Archaeology and Classics) showing people how to write in Ugaritic and Akkadian cuneiform as well as other scripts. The practical element to this was not only learning to write in these scripts but also using a stylus to write something on a clay tablet.

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Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft


Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother… and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge.

M. R. James – ‘Casting the Runes’

Writing has always had an association with magic. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s easy to see how in a world of limited literacy, people might attribute supernatural qualities to these strange signs that allow initiates to recall the lore of times past or speak things they had never personally been told. It’s likely that abecedaries sometimes had magical significance in the ancient world, and we have examples of magical spells written down as early as Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

People have also often looked back to the writing systems of earlier periods, believing them to have special powers and connections to the lost secrets of elder times. As the title of this article suggests, Germanic runes have been one of the more popular examples, having enjoyed a particular resurgence in the 18th to early 20th centuries and being especially associated with divination. They’re not the only one, though. Unsurprisingly, given the particular affinity many modern would-be mages feel for Celtic traditions, the Ogham script of early mediaeval Ireland has also been widely embraced, as have Mesopotamian cuneiform and, of course, Hebrew. The use and reception of these ancient systems in modern magical beliefs could easily fill a lengthy blog post, if not an entire book, but it’s not what I’m going to focus on today. Instead I want to look in particular at those writing systems created specifically for magical purposes.

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Writing in the Sand: An upcoming event celebrating Coptic writing, language and culture

Writing and society go hand-in-hand: almost all writing is intended to be read by another person or by a group of other people. That is to say, that writing presupposes that people want to communicate with each other, and that they want, in some way, to relate to one another. It is no surprise, then, to find that writing is often used as a means of identifying oneself in respect of another group. This may be in terms of national, ethnic or linguistic identity, but it may also be in terms of religious identity.


In an earlier post, I looked at the Ancient Egyptian writing system, that we know as hieroglyphics. In a future post I will be talking about how vowels are (occasionally) represented in that writing system. However, for now I want to look at another writing system also used to write the Egyptian language, but a much later variety, known as Coptic. Unlike other Egyptian writing systems (hieratic, demotic), which are related to hieroglyphics, Coptic is based on the Greek alphabet, with some letters added in for Egyptian sounds that did not exist in Greek. This is particularly interesting for my own research project in CREWS, since it means that, unlike the other Egyptian scripts, the vowels are written down. Continue reading “Writing in the Sand: An upcoming event celebrating Coptic writing, language and culture”

Making Ancient Tablets 5 – Further stylus improvements

Philip’s post about the Prehistory and Archaeology Day last Saturday – and the problem of finding the right stylus for writing Ugaritic cuneiform in clay.


Ancient Worlds

About a year ago I posted a series following my attempts to write Ugaritic cuneiform, first in plasticine and then in clay. I ended up using the square end of a chopstick for a stylus, and this is what I’ve been doing ever since, including in my cuneiform baking. It works, but it’s fiddly – the stick has to be held just right to make the wedge-shaped prints, and it takes practice to stop them being large and clumsy.

Last weekend I took part in a Prehistory and Archaeology Day as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Hosted by Cambridge Archaeological Unit, this offered hundreds of members of the public – mostly children – the chance to try their hands at a wide range of archaeology-related activities, from spear-throwing and archery to excavation and osteology. The ancient writing systems stall was particularly eclectic, with academics from the Faculty of…

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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.


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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Writing Gods & Myths V: East Asia

Since Robert and I attended last August a special symposium on Japanese, Chinese and Korean writing during the AWLL workshop in Japan, I think it would be fair to continue this series of posts with these cultures.


Fuxi and Nüwa with measuring tools

We will start with Fuxi, the first of the mythical emperors of China. He is often pictured as half man and half snake, like his wife Nüwa, and he is a mythical civilising character who brought hunting, fishing, cooking and marriage rituals among other things to his descendants: the Chinese people.  Although it was never used as a real means of written communication, he created the written signs of pa kua or ba gua, the trigrams used as the base of the I Ching, the most important divination text in Chinese culture. According to legend he was inspired to create the trigrams by the marks on the back of a tortoise he saw by the Yellow river. Continue reading “Writing Gods & Myths V: East Asia”