Introduction: Robert Crellin

Hello!

My name is Robert Crellin, and I am very excited to have joined the CREWS project at the start of April. Up to now my research has mainly focused on the mechanics of verb systems in various ancient languages, but in this project my goal will be to look at the relationship between the writing systems used to write two ancient Semitic languages, Ugaritic and Phoenician. Ugaritic, as suggested by the name, was the language of the state of Ugarit, now Ras Shamra in Syria (a site that also forms the focus of research of my colleague Philip, see HERE). Phoenician was spoken, at least initially, in the Phoenician city states, including places like Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, but later, by virtue of the colonising activities of these city states, across much of the Mediterranean.

Ugaritic alphabet

An abecedarium from Ugarit.

The strange thing about the Ugaritic and Phoenician writing systems is that they share certain characteristics, such as the order of the letters, and the fact that both only very seldom write vowels, yet the forms of the letters and the means used for writing are very different: Ugaritic is written in a form of cuneiform, while the Phoenician that survives is written using letter shapes inscribed or written in the same way as we might write. I want to try to illuminate the processes by which this situation might have arisen, and in the first instance, I will focus on the phenomenon of vowel writing. Continue reading “Introduction: Robert Crellin”

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:

nuevodocumento-1

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.

Continue reading “Learning the alphabet”

Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca

Hello everyone! My name is Natalia Elvira Astoreca and I’m the new PhD student of the CREWS project. I just started two weeks ago but this new adventure looks very exciting already. During the next three years I will be focusing my research on the origins of the Greek alphabet – or rather the Greek alphabets, because in the early years there were numerous different local systems used in different areas. The other day I was talking with an old friend about Classics and my field of research and she told me “it is so interesting and exciting to know where words come from!” And so I answered “well, I’m trying to find out where letters come from.”

I know it sounds like I’m doing research in something that has been studied before, but I believe that we don’t understand in depth how the invention of the Greek alphabet really was – if we ever get to understand it. Most of the previous studies about the Greek alphabet tried to figure out when it was created, where or how Greeks adapted the Phoenician letters and their shapes to write their own language. The Greeks themselves were very conscious about where their alphabet was taken from: Herodotus called it φοινικήια γράμματα, that is, Phoenician letters.

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Phoenician writing. Kilamuwa inscription, 9th century B.C. (Image taken from: University of Southern California)

What we want to know in the CREWS project is actually how the adaptation happened from a contextual point of view. So some questions I would like to approach are, how did this contact happen and what did the Greeks use writing for? But even more puzzling than this is how and why the Greeks developed different kinds of Greek alphabets so similar and different at the same time. To answer these and other questions we have to look at the earliest Greek inscriptions and at the cultures that were in contact with them.

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Dipylon Oinochoe, 8th century B.C. (Photo taken by author)

In my previous research I have already worked with another writing system: the Paphian syllabary. This is one of the syllabaries used in ancient Cyprus to write Greek and it was in use from the 8th to the 3rd century B.C. I studied its contact with other scripts, its social context and most importantly the political consequences of its use once the standard Greek alphabet arrived in the island. I did this by bringing together linguistic, epigraphical, historical, archaeological and even numismatic approaches.

I hope that this new research will bring exciting answers about the origin of the Greek alphabets. My colleagues and I will keep you up-to-date on the results of our investigations. Enjoy the CREWS project blog!

 

~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)

CREWS News: New team members!

 

Finally the time has come for the exciting project news that I have been waiting to tell you all about! I am delighted to announce that the CREWS project is welcoming two new team members.

 

Dr Philip Boyes will be joining the team on 1st November as a Research Associate, and will work on the social context of writing at the Late Bronze Age city of Ugarit. Coming from a background of Levantine history and archaeology, the project will benefit greatly from his interdisciplinary approach to developments in writing and their relationship with other sorts of social change.

 

Natalia Elvira Astoreca just joined the team a few days ago as the project’s PhD student, and is going to be working on the early development of the Greek alphabet. With previous experience of research on Cypriot writing and Greek epigraphy, she is going to consider questions such as why and how the early Greek alphabet displayed such a high degree of regional diversity, and how it was related to other alphabetic systems.

 

I am very excited to be working with Philip and Natalia, and looking forward to see the project grow and develop as we conduct our research together. In the meantime you can read about Philip and Natalia on the project’s ‘About’ page HERE.

 

We will be back soon with more posts about writing in the ancient world, including one from Philip introducing his research. Fun times are ahead for the CREWS project!

 

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Alphabetical Order (Again)

Since CREWS started up, the issue of alphabetical order has reappeared a few times, starting with the initial press release, which you can read about in more detail here (CREWS in the Press).

The French magazine article that I linked to last time (here) is also related to the concept of alphabetical order – but did you know that there are two different types of alphabetical order?

Continue reading “Alphabetical Order (Again)”

CREWS Interview in French Magazine

Those of you who read French may be interested to read a brief interview that I gave for the magazine Science et Vie:

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L’invention de l’alphabet: 3 questions à Philippa Steele, responsable du projet CREW de l’université de Cambridge

The interview is part of a longer feature on the development of alphabetic systems, which appears in full in the print version of the magazine.

In the near future there will be another blog post on this topic – watch this space.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

CREWS in the Press

The CREWS Project has been running for a couple of weeks now, and I was very pleased to see all the enthusiastic responses to the press release that went live during the first week. You can read the original release here (arranged kindly by my colleague Ryan Cronin):

Easy as Alep, Bet, Gimel

I hope that the anecdote concerning alphabetical order in the press release was interesting to read about. The sheer longevity of this idea, and its relationship with not only writing but also the social context of writing, is very striking – and this will be just one aspect of ‘contexts’ and ‘relations’ in ancient writing that the project will look at over our five year period of research.

Some websites reported the ancient origins of alphabetical order as a new discovery, but actually this is not new at all: we have known about alphabetical order in Latin, Greek, Phoenician, Ugaritic and other ancient writing systems for many years. What is new, however, is the way in which we will study it as part of the project. We know that alphabetical order as an idea was passed on from one society to another – but what we do not know is exactly how or why this happened.

 

Ugaritic alphabet
Figure 1. Ugaritic cuneiform abecedarium on a clay tablet from Ras Shamra, Syria. http://www.csah.cam.ac.uk/images/ugarit-hi-res/view

Continue reading “CREWS in the Press”