Deciphering writing, ancient and modern

Philip has just had an article published on Eurogamer looking at writing systems, and the problem of decipherment, in computer games and the ancient world. You can read the whole thing here:

Imagining and deciphering writing systems for games

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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.

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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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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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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)

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