Writing on High

I have been meaning to post something about the Bisitun (or Behistun) inscription for ages now, but never seem to get round to it. Noticing that today is International Mountain Day has finally spurred me to action – though this will have to be a short post for now because I don’t have time at the moment to do this wonderful monument the justice it deserves.

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The inscription can be found 100m up a cliff, on Mt Behistun in present-day Iran. It’s huge (15 x 25 m) and incorporates images as well as trilingual text in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. All three languages are written in different types of cuneiform, i.e. wedge-shaped writing that was adapted and developed by different societies of the Near East. By the time of this inscription (late 6th or early 5th C BC), cuneiform had already been in use for thousands of years, so what we are seeing here are very late manifestations of a multi-stranded tradition of writing with a very long history. Continue reading “Writing on High”

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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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Continue reading “The Dolphin Stone and the Cretan Alphabet”

Cats in the Aegean Scripts

I just discovered that it is International Cat Day – which is unusually relevant to my research at the moment! But why should someone who works on ancient writing be so interested in cats all of a sudden? Well, we need to travel back in time to the ancient Aegean to discover the reason.

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Cretan Hieroglyphic seal made of carnelian, showing a cat figure. Image from HERE. Continue reading “Cats in the Aegean Scripts”

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”

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.

Continue reading “Talking objects”

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)

 

 

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)

Inscription Spotlight: An Etruscan Cockerel

For this post I wanted to focus on just one inscription, and say a little about how it plays into some of the themes I have been highlighting in previous posts – especially how its social context helps us to understand it as an object.

The inscription is on a ceramic vessel in the shape of a cockerel, made from a black glazed ware known as bucchero. This type of pottery is typical of ancient Etruria, an area of Italy to the north of Rome where the now little-understood language Etruscan was spoken. Incised around the body of the vessel is an abecedarium, listing the signs of the alphabet in A,B,C order.

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Bucchero vessel in the shape of a cockerel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1924. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251482.

Continue reading “Inscription Spotlight: An Etruscan Cockerel”