Another School Visit

We’ve been doing a bit more outreach this week on the CREWS Project as Queen Elizabeth School, Barnet came to visit the Faculty of Classics. After a morning looking round the Museum of Classical Archaeology they joined us for a talk about writing in the ancient world.

I kicked things off with a look at some of the different types of writing systems that exist and an introduction to Mesopotamian and Ugaritic varieties of cuneiform and the early history of the alphabet.

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Hands-on with Cuneiform

When I joined the CREWS Project and started my research on the context of writing at Ugarit, one of the challenges was getting to grips with Akkadian. Ugarit was a tremendously cosmopolitan and multilingual city, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Anatolia and this means that the writing we have from the city comes in a wide range of languages and scripts. The most common are Ugaritic – usually written in a form of alphabetic cuneiform  – and Akkadian. Continue reading “Hands-on with Cuneiform”

Learning the alphabet

When someone I’ve known for a short time gave me this Secret Santa present, I realised how the work I just started a few months ago, now defines me completely:

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This is a CD with songs to learn the alphabet and the sounds of the letters. Although this CD is meant to teach the English alphabet and I study the ancient Greek alphabet, it made me think about the different – or maybe similar – methods that modern and ancient cultures used to learn how to write.

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How to make a cylinder seal

In the ancient world, if you wanted to sign something you used a seal. They came in various shapes and sizes – stamps, seals, signet rings – but the general idea was always the same: you had a small object that you could press into clay or wax to mark it with a design unique to you – just like a signature. This could be used in various ways. In the Near East, for example, legal decisions or transactions might be recorded on a tablet, and then all the witnesses would press their seals into the clay next to their names. In other cases it could function as an official lock – a door or container-lid could have a blob of clay pressed over the join and this would be marked with an official’s seal. If the clay was broken – or if it had been replaced with one without the seal – then people would know it had been tampered with. Here’s one of the most famous examples of this: the unbroken clay seal on the tomb of Tutankhamun, photographed before it was opened in 1922.

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The oldest book from the Americas?

I read an article today about the Grolier Codex, a collection of pages from a 13th century AD Mayan book that has had a speckled history in scholarship. It was long thought to be a fake, but over the years a team led by Professor David Coe at Yale has demonstrated the document’s authenticity.

You can read a much fuller account at Yale News HERE. A shorter piece was also published by the Smithsonian last September HERE.

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The pages of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.

‘Codex’ is a word used to describe an early, hand-written book, with pages made from any of a range of different perishable materials (e.g. papyrus or vellum). In the case of the Grolier Codex, the pages are made from bark paper, and each one was coated with stucco before being painted on. The paint used is one of the features that strongly suggests its authenticity, because it contains pigments that were used by ancient Mayans and that could not have been replicated in the 1960s when the document was found.

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Page 6 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

It is an unfortunate fact that the codex was found not by a team of archaeologists, who would have been able to record its location and context, but by looters who came across it in a cave in Mexico and then sold it to a Mexican collector called Josué Sáenz. This is a factor that made it all the easier to argue that the manuscript might have been a fake, since its original context could not be verified. Luckily, however, Professor Coe and his colleagues have been able to show via a range of analytical methods that, despite the circumstances of its discovery, we have many reasons to believe that the codex is real.

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Page 11 of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.

This makes the Grolier Codex the oldest known example of its kind, and one of only four Mayan codices to have been discovered. The other three (the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex and the Paris Codex) are rather more elaborate and were clearly executed by skilled artists. The Grolier Codex, on the other hand, is a little different from the others.

 

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Page 4 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

Most noticeably, whoever drew the glyphs on the surviving pages has made sketches first and then painted over them. But the artist did not follow the sketch-lines perfectly when painting the final versions of the glyphs, and did not remove the sketch-lines afterwards. To a modern eye at least, this makes the drawings look relatively amateurish, especially compared with the more elaborate decoration of the other three surviving codices.

 

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Page 5 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

The sketch-lines were one of the arguments used by those convinced the Grolier Codex was a fake. But this doesn’t seem very convincing. For one thing, why would a modern forger include such ‘imperfections’ if he/she wanted to make the document look authentic? And there are lots of possible reasons why a real ancient document could include what we might think of as imperfections today. The Grolier Codex is perhaps 100-200 years older than the other surviving Mayan codices, and it is perfectly possible that techniques changed over the years, or that when it was made there were other influences on its creation (for example Mixtec codices, some of which had quite similar drawings). Another possibility is that the artist of the Grolier Codex was not as skilled as the artists of the other Mayan codices – but ‘skill’ is difficult to quantify when we have so little information about the context in which such documents were used, displayed or consulted. Perhaps artistic perfection, or a ‘finished’ quality, was less of a concern to the author than eventually achieving precision in the representations, for example.

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Page 3 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.

Can we really fault the artist on his/her ‘skill’ after creating such intricate images? The figures in the above picture of the third page, for example, seem to me a considerable achievement in representing human facial expressions. And despite the very pictorial nature of the glyphs, we have to remember that this is writing as well as art: conveying a message successfully is another achievement of the artist. Although we do not have very many surviving pages, we know that the codex is intended to give some sort of information about the Mayan calendar, with glyphs representing days and numerals that seem to refer to the movement of the planet Venus in the sky.

I hope you have enjoyed another foray into the world of Mayan writing. Although not geographically or chronologically close to the writing systems we are working on at the CREWS project, we have touched on some important themes here that are relevant to the study of any ancient document: context and content, analysing authenticity, techniques and ‘skill’ of execution and the relationship between writing and art, among others.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Talking objects

In Ancient Greece people would write on almost any kind of object. For example, votes to send a politician to exile for 10 years were written on pottery sherds! This practice of the Athenian democracy was called ostracism because the name for “sherds” in Ancient Greek is ὄστρακα (ostraka).

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Fragments of ceramic with votes for ostracism. Picture taken by the author: Agora Museum, Athens.

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Letter-Writing: Postage stamps featuring ancient writing systems

We’re well into December and the postal services are enjoying their busiest time of the year as parcels and cards fly backwards and forwards. What better time to share this little gem I came across during my research.

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That’s a 1956 postage stamp from Syria featuring the Ugaritic abecedarium KTU 5.6, well-known to regular readers of this blog. I was curious about it, and a few minutes’ research showed that this wasn’t the only Ugarit-themed stamp Syria has issued.

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This one from 1964 isn’t writing-based, but features this famous sculpture of a head, made of ivory and adorned with gold, silver, copper and lapis lazuli. It’s usually assumed to be a statue of a prince or princess, since it was found in the city’s Royal Palace.

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This got me wondering what other countries have featured ancient writing-systems on their stamps. Here are some of the ones I found: Continue reading “Letter-Writing: Postage stamps featuring ancient writing systems”

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.

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One thing we discovered was that it isn’t easy to make very detailed small signs unless you have a very sharp and pointed object. Picking up on a suggestion made a while ago by Professor John Killen, our colleague Dr Sarah Finlayson had brought along some thorns for us to try. These proved much better than the improvised bamboo skewers we started with. The picture above shows the inscriptions I made, with an acacia thorn (courtesy of Sarah, middle left) and a bamboo skewer (courtesy of our seminar leader Dr Torsten Meissner, middle right).

Using the bamboo skewer I started with, I had a go at replicating a Linear A tablet, HT 86 (which is our way of saying that it is tablet no. 86 from the site of Haghia Triada, where an important set of Linear A archives were found): see the picture below where it is next to a photo of the real thing. I’m not sure I did very well but trying to replicate a tablet told me a lot about trying to make the signs look right and fit into the space left for them. You can probably tell from the photo that the real thing was inscribed with something much sharper than my bamboo skewer.

 

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I was also keen to try making a type of inscription found in Late Bronze Age Cyprus, where another related writing system was used (‘Cypro-Minoan’): the clay ball. Despite years of work on Cypriot inscriptions, I am still not at all sure what these items were used for, but they are absolutely characteristic of Cypriot epigraphy in this period (especially the 14th-12th centuries BC). I’ve written about them HERE.

The little clay balls are on average about 2cm in diameter and have signs written around the outside (see below). I always thought it would be hard to add the inscription without squashing the ball, but when I tried it I found this wasn’t much of a problem (although the top and bottom can get a bit flattened). The really hard thing is to add the inscription in a straight line around the ball without sloping downwards as you go. It took me a couple of tries to get this right!

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Meanwhile Natalia (CREWS project PhD student) tried her hand at some different inscriptions including a Cretan Hieroglyphic label (pictured below), a Linear A tablet and a clay ball.

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And Philip (CREWS project research associate) made an exceptionally chocolatey Linear A inscription cake – I am told that writing Linear A is even harder to do with icing! Around the edge at the top you can also see some biscuits he made in the form of a common Minoan symbol, the ‘horns of consecration’.

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Philip has also blogged about the clay inscriptions he made HERE.

So our practical session was an excellent way to round off the Linear A seminar series – you can’t try to understand ancient writing without trying to understand what issues ancient writers were facing when they wrote!

The next day it was then time for our end-of-term party, dubbed the CREWSmas party, which gave us a lovely chance to talk to colleagues about the project’s progress over a drink… and of course over some writing-themed snacks. Philip had been busy again and made many inscription cookies, which were much admired by all the party-goers. Here’s a selection before firing (I mean baking!):

 

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As you may be able to tell, there are several different writing systems represented among these cookies, including Ugaritic cuneiform, Linear A and B and the Phoenician and Greek alphabets. Here’s another picture of the batch fresh out of the oven:

 

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I am not much of a baker myself, but I did do some cake inscribing. Taking some pre-iced mince pies, I added single-sign marks. They’re based on single-sign marks found at the sites of Eretria and Methone, where some of the earliest surviving Greek alphabetic inscriptions have also been found. Natalia has been studying them lately as part of her PhD research – some look like alphabetic letters, while others do not, which makes it very hard to understand what they are supposed to represent although they seem to be some sort of reflex of writing.

 

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I hope you’ve enjoyed having a look at our creations, both edible and inedible. Don’t forget (have I mentioned this before?) that having a go at baking your own inscriptions or even inscribing some pre-bought cakes is really easy – and if you have a go at it we would love to hear from you! As always you can find us on Twitter (@crewsproject) or send us an email at crews@classics.cam.ac.uk.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Eating more ancient artefacts

Well, there is a pleasant trend emerging for the baking of edible forms of ancient artefacts! Małgorzata Zadka at the University of Wroclaw sent us pictures of some gluten-free vegan cookies she had made with Linear A inscriptions:

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These are replicating a particular type of Linear A text found on small, round clay documents known by modern scholars as nodules and roundels. They often bear a single sign (as in the examples shown here) that seems to have functioned in some way logographically – which is to say that it stood for a whole word or concept. Here are some close-ups:

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I was also pleased to notice last week that there was a news story in the New York Times about the efforts of Katy Blanchard (who works with the Near Eastern collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania) to create cuneiform cookies. Here is a picture of some of her creations:

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And finally, CREWS project researcher Philip has found some images of previous ancient baking endeavours, including biscuits and a pie featuring Minoan iconography and a Phoenician jug cake. I feel lucky to work with someone so talented!

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Don’t forget that we would love to see your own creations if you have a go at making ancient inscription cookies or anything else like this! You can share them with us on Twitter (we are @crewsproject and use the hashtag #ancientbaking) or you can email us at crews@classics.cam.ac.uk. You could even look for inspiration on ancient writing systems you could use on some previous CREWS blog posts, e.g. this Ugaritic Cuneiform one, this Greek Alphabet one or this Linear B one. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

 

Edit: I couldn’t resist adding these pictures of cupcakes inspired by black figure pottery, made for an open morning at the Classics Department of Bolton School Girls Division, shared with us on Twitter today. I love the colours – channelling Exekias right there!

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