Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit

How does writing work as a part of society and culture? That was the question I set out to address when I joined CREWS in 2016. It’s not a complete question, though. Society and culture are specific things, particular to a given place at a given time. No two societies operate in the same way, and culture is arguably even more prone to differences, not just by time and society, but even within societies themselves. As long-term followers of this blog will know, my specific case study has been the kingdom of Ugarit, a small but important Syrian trading power in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries BC. Now, after four years of research, I’ve finally been able to offer up some answers in the form of a book, Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, just published by Oxbow books.

Since excavations began over 90 years ago, Ugarit has been an extremely important site in Near Eastern studies because of its large corpus of surviving clay tablets. Many of these are written in the Akkadian language and the logosyllabic cuneiform script that was used across much of the Near East and East Mediterranean in this period. However, just over half the tablets from Ugarit are written in a different script and language: an alphabetic form of cuneiform used to write the local Ugaritic language. In addition, there are relatively small collections of written material in other scripts and languages such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cypro-Minoan.

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Animating the Alphabet – in Lego!

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.

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Elven Vowels

As regular readers of this blog will by now know, the focus of much of my work for the CREWS project has been on the notation of vowels. In this post, to coincide the 65th anniversary of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, I’m going to have a look at how vowels are notated in some of Tolkien’s invented languages.

sauron ring

Pippa has already given a great introduction to Elven writing in general here, in the first of today’s celebratory posts. As she points out, studying fictional writing systems can be of great value in the study of real-world ones. This is because fictional writing systems provide the possibility of studying their real-world counterparts ‘from a distance’, so to speak. A fictional writing system provides a canvas on which the inventor (in this case Tolkien) asks the question, “How could a writing system be designed?” When we then compare these with real-world writing systems, we can ask, “Why is it not that way?” This is analogous to the role that fantasy and fairy tale in general have in providing an external perspective on the world in which we live. It enables us to shed the cultural assumptions by which we run our lives, and to consider alternative ways of thinking. Continue reading “Elven Vowels”

Tolkien and Elvish Writing

Today is the 65th anniversary of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. To celebrate, we’re going to have a look at Elvish writing and its remarkably analytical structure: the Tengwar signs provide a very close fit for the sounds of the Elvish languages, which is unusual among the world’s ‘real’ writing systems.
The doors of the Mines of Moria, with inscription in Sindarin, as shown in the film ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’.

The languages invented by JRR Tolkien are at the centre of his tales of Middle Earth, occasionally quoted directly but ever-present too in the names of places and people throughout his stories. Along with the languages, he created a number of writing systems to go with them, fleshing out the linguistic and cultural practices of the characters he had invented, and constructing a complex linguistic history for Middle Earth that was reflected also in script developments. Continue reading “Tolkien and Elvish Writing”

Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

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.

Ugaritic tablets in situ.

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Alpha and Omega

ἐγὼ τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ἡ ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ τέλος.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

(Rev. 22:13, Tyndale Greek New Testament)

These words may look familiar – a quotation from Jesus in the very final chapter of the Bible, in the book of Revelation. Particularly striking is the use of the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe Jesus. What is going on here? This seems like an interesting question to explore in the middle of the festive period. (Readers who want to pursue the question further might be interested in reading the articles given in the references below, which I have used in the preparation of this post.)

Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla (C4th AD). Image from HERE.

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Indiana Jones and the Ancient Inscriptions

When I was little, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I grew up on those films, and archaeology was the first profession I dreamed of. The more I watched them, the more I was drawn to some particular scenes that involve pieces of writing – looking back, it feels as though my career began when I became curious about how to become someone who could look at an ancient inscription and work out what it meant.


In the world of Indiana Jones, being able to read an inscription tends to be linked with cracking codes and solving mysteries. In some ways, that is what I do for a living now (how lucky am I?) – although not usually in life-or-death situations or while being chased by Nazis. Continue reading “Indiana Jones and the Ancient Inscriptions”

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.


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”

CREWS Display: A Bilingual Mummy Label

The next item in our CREWS display series takes us back to Roman Egypt, where the co-existence of different languages had important ramifications for writing.


This is mummy label, and hails from between the first century BC and the early third century AD. It is a bilingual, with Greek on one side, and Egyptian Demotic on the other. Continue reading “CREWS Display: A Bilingual Mummy Label”