A Cypriot art project: Guest post by Charles (Pico) Rickleton

Hello, I’m Pico and I’m very excited to be joining the CREWS project in Cambridge for Michaelmas term. I am coming to CREWS through a fairly unusual route, as my practice is primarily that of an art director and designer not an academic. I can usually be found working at Flying Object, a creative studio based in London, as their in-house art director or at Studio Forage, an experimental design collective, focussed on storytelling through critical design. My personal practice is concerned with reading experiences, language, ethnographic objects and speculative thinking. During my time with CREWS I will be working on a research project that deals with the confluence of these interests in the context of an extinct writing system.

Limestone fragment with a Cypriot syllabic inscription, c.5th C BC. Met Museum New York.
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Depicting writing

The overwhelming tendency to talk about writing systems as linguistic codes (which they usually are in some sense) has often ignored other important aspects of writing. For instance, one way way we can study writing is as a practice or action, because writing is a thing you do. At CREWS we have been particularly interested in developing the ways we look at writing practices, because this is an area with important ramifications for the way writing looks and the place of writing in a society (and in fact you can hear me speaking about some of these issues at the beginning of this seminar video).

Fourth Dynasty Egyptian statue of a seated scribe: close-up detail. Image from here.

But how can we reconstruct the ways in which writing was done, accomplished or performed in the ancient world? The nature of the act of writing is extremely dependant on a whole range of factors, from cultural attitudes and social setting to technical expertise and interactions with oral traditions. And choices about the kinds of things you write on, the kinds of things you write with and the techniques you use to ‘apply’ the writing are central to these practices. There are a number of different ways of approaching the question, one of which is by looking at ancient visual depictions of the act of writing. This is what we will focus on in this post. Continue reading “Depicting writing”

Ancient accounting practices in the modern world

Guest post by Fernando Toth (Professor of Anthropology, University of Buenos Aires)

Token: an art piece that mixes anthropology, experimental archaeology, archival analysis and regional history

Token is a project by Carlos Mustto (visual artist) and myself (anthropologist and musician), that links anthropology with art. It is mainly an exercise of translation of administrative systems, that was developed within the 2019 edition of the Barda del Desierto art residency, taking place in the public school of Contralmirante Cordero, a small town populated by less than four thousand people in Argentinean North Patagonia.

Map of the Ballester Dam and Public School 135.

Ancient Mesopotamian clay tokens. Image from here.

The core idea of the project was to identify and process a selection of information from the administrative records of the construction and operation of the Ballester Dam (one of the most important engineering structures in Patagonian history), in order to translate it into clay tokens, the oldest known system of countability and administration, and direct predecessor of cuneiform writing, as studied by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Clay tokens were used for several thousand years before writing first appeared, but it was in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC that their use as an accounting system began to develop features that would eventually come to denote language as well as commodities and numbers. Continue reading “Ancient accounting practices in the modern world”

Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.


Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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Visuality of text, a workshop at Warwick University

pic.jpgLast Saturday 20th October, our colleagues from Warwick University organised the workshop “Visuality of Text: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Display of the Word”, an opportunity that the CREWS project could not miss. What made this workshop especially interesting was the truly interdisciplinary nature of this event, which brought together academics researching material writing and professionals and artists whose work involves the display of texts.

The workshop started with three historical case studies from very different periods that showed the use of text on objects. Archaic Greek sculpture was covered by Nick Brown, Harry Prance presented on Byzantine eucharistic objects and Katherine Cross focused on Anglo-saxon weaponry.

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