CREWS Display: The Idalion Bilingual

Welcome to the first in a series of posts on the objects taking part in our display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. You can read more about the setting up of the display, which is an exciting collaboration with the Fitzwilliam and the British Museum, in our previous post. The idea is to use a small set of objects from these museums (plus two replicas made by the CREWS team) to highlight what we are working on and to tell some of the stories behind writing in the ancient eastern Mediterranean.

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One of the stars of the show is this limestone statuette base found in the remains of a religious complex at Idalion in Cyprus, known as the Idalion Bilingual, which is on loan from the British Museum for our display (you can see its BM listing HERE). This is inscribed with a dedication written in Phoenician (Phoenician consonantal alphabet) and Greek (Cypriot syllabic script). The Idalion Bilingual was the inscription that provided the vital key needed to decipher with Cypriot syllabic writing system, and is sometimes thought of as the ‘Rosetta stone’ of Cyprus. Continue reading “CREWS Display: The Idalion Bilingual”

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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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Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft

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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.

Continue reading “Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft”

Punic in Wales? An intriguing inscription

Punic is the name we give to a language spoken in north Africa, a continuation of the earlier Phoenician language (originating in the Levant, around modern Syria and Lebanon), and written for the most part in a developed form of the same writing system. Punic inscriptions have surfaced in several areas around the Mediterranean, but one of the furthest-flung examples comes from a less exotic location – Holt, a town on the Welsh border, a bit to the south of Chester. So what was Punic doing there?

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Image from A. Guillaume ‘The Phoenician Graffito in the Holt Collection of the National Museum of Wales’, Iraq 7 (1940), 67-8.

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What did Cypriots and Iberians have in common?

Did you know that Iberian and Cypriot scripts share the shapes of some signs? Although Iberian scripts do not really fall into the research of the CREWS project, they are fascinating and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make them appear in our blog. In spite of the long distance between the Iberian peninsula and Cyprus, which were not directly connected in the 5th century BC (approximate date of the first written samples in Iberian), indeed, there are some signs both in Iberian and Cypriot scripts that have the same shape, but with different values. How was this possible?

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Iberian inscription on lead from Ullastret.

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The Bulwer tablet, with Cypriot syllabic writing. Trustees of the British Museum.

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Writing Gods & Myths IV. Norse mythology

We continue our journey through different mythologies to find all the stories about writing. This time it’s the turn of Norse mythology and the invention of runes. In the Poetic Edda, we are told that the god Odin (dedicated to wisdom and magic, among other things) hung himself on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights, not receiving any kind of food or drink. This was a kind of self-sacrifice to himself that granted him the revelation of the runes. Since then, runes were used not only as a writing system, but also in magic and divination.

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Odin fan art, taken from: https://odindevoted.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/giving-blood-to-the-runes/

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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.

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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”

CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!

UntitledIt’s been a busy week for the CREWS Project. We’ve just held our first conference – Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets – which we’ll be writing more about soon, but before that, last weekend we took part in the Cambridge Science Festival at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The Science Festival is a major event giving the public the chance to find out more about the research that goes on at Cambridge. There are countless talks and events all across the University, aimed at a broad range of audiences. In particular, the Science Festival attracts families and small children, so we were keen to be involved and to share our enthusiasm for ancient writing.

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