The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets

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Last week the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge played host to the CREWS Project’s first international conference, Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets.[1] This was a wonderful opportunity for us to bring together experts on ancient writing systems from around the world and discuss each other’s research.

As with all good academic conferences, despite having a unifying theme – early alphabets – the range of papers was extremely broad. We heard about writing systems from across thousands of years of history and thousands of miles, from the earliest probable alphabetic inscriptions from the Sinai peninsula or the Egyptian desert at Wadi el-Hol, through the Phoenician and Ugaritic alphabets of the Levant, to ancient Greece, Italy and Spain. We heard from epigraphers, linguists and archaeologists, and people who stand somewhere in between. Continue reading “The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets”

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.

Continue reading “CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!”

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”

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”

Introduction: Philip Boyes

Hello! I’m Philip Boyes and I’m absolutely delighted to be joining the CREWS Project as a Research Associate from November 2016. I’m going to be looking at the Ugaritic writing system, its emergence and its context of use. Ugaritic is a fascinating Late Bronze Age adaptation of the existing cuneiform writing systems used across the Near East. Instead of each sign representing a syllable, as had traditionally been the case, Ugaritic is an alphabetic system (though one where only consonants are represented and not vowels) and was used to represent the local language of the city of Ugarit.

 

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An abecedarium from Ugarit.

 

At the heart of my approach is the idea that we should explore changes in writing systems like this as we would any other example of social change – and that means getting to grips with the social context in as much detail we can, looking at how the creation and use of the Ugaritic script is linked to every aspect of society and culture, from politics and the economy to social status, gender and other forms of social identity. The only way to do this is to draw on every kind of evidence that’s available to us – not just the texts found at Ugarit, but also the archaeological evidence, iconographic representations, historical documents and more..

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Ruins at Ugarit – Photo by Loris Romito, from Wikipedia. CC BY-SA

This bringing-together of different kinds of evidence is for me one of the most exciting aspects of the CREWS Project. In my more recent academic career I’ve mainly been an archaeologist and ancient historian: my PhD research was on social change in Phoenicia (the coastal region south of Ugarit, roughly equivalent to modern Lebanon) and I’ve been lucky enough to excavate at the Hittite site of Kilise Tepe in Turkey and at the Phoenician African colony of Carthage, as well as a spell as a commercial archaeologist based in Salisbury (you can spot me in a couple of episodes of Time Team!). Before that, though, my background was in Aegean prehistory, Linear B epigraphy and comparative linguistics, and I’ve maintained my interest in linguistics and writing systems even when they haven’t been my main research topics. Archaeology and linguistics aren’t studied together all that often and I’ve always been extremely interested in how they can shed light on each other and improve our understanding of both. I’m really looking forward to being able to bring together these different strands of my career on this project.

I’ll be writing again soon, once I’ve started my research. In the meantime, if you’d like more from me, I’ve blogged for Res Gerendae on things as diverse as lettuce in Sumerian love poetry, Greek and Roman sea monsters, and Classics in Doctor Who. My own blog, which will cover similar things that don’t fall directly within the scope of the CREWS Project, is Ancient Worlds.

 

~ Philip Boyes (soon to be Research Associate on the CREWS project)

 

 

The first CREWS school visit!

There was a lovely opportunity to spread my enthusiasm about ancient writing this week as the CREWS project hosted its first school visit, when a group from Ardingly College came to see us in Cambridge.

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After a talk from me on how we can study ancient writing systems, my colleague Matthew Scarborough showed them some of the inscriptions in Classics Faculty’s Museum of Classical Archaeology (also known as the ‘Cast Gallery’).

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It’s always a pleasure talking about ancient writing and why it matters, and I’m looking forward to future school visits and activities as the project develops. Schools interested in visiting us are very welcome to get in touch to make arrangements!

Look out for further posts in the next few days with some exciting announcements about the project team – and in the near(ish) future some more information on school resources and how you can get involved in the project.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Handwriting in Roman London

A couple of months ago a major epigraphic discovery was announced: a number of wooden writing tablets, dated to the 1st century AD, had been found in an excavation in London. This was a considerable archive, with 405 tablets of which 87 have been analysed and translated by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford. A picture of one is shown in Figure 1 below.57 AD tablet

Figure 1. Wooden writing tablet from Roman London dated to 8th January 57 AD.

Why should we get excited about this find? Well, for one thing these objects allow us a rare chance to observe Roman handwriting. We have plenty of surviving Latin but the vast majority has come through one of two routes: either through being copied down over and over again since ancient times (which is why a lot of our earliest copies of Classical authors date from the medieval period) or through being written on a durable medium such as stone or pottery that has survived to be read today. Neither of these gives us access to what Latin looked like when it was written down by hand directly by an ancient Latin speaker him/herself.

One of the reasons why Roman handwriting is hard to find has to do with the materials that were usually written on. One place to look for handwriting is in graffiti, such as have been found on the walls of Pompeii – a favourite example of mine is shown as a drawing in Figure 2 (labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaurus written around a depiction of a labyrinth). But graffiti on walls are rare and you are much more likely to find a scrawled graffito on a sherd of pottery than on a wall, with Pompeii representing an unusual chance to observe mural graffiti.

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Figure 2. Minotaur graffito from Pompeii.

Continue reading “Handwriting in Roman London”