CREWS Conference Presentations #5 – Writing and Identity

Welcome to the final instalment of this series collecting talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems‘, which was held last March at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge. Our final two talks are:

Dr Katherine McDonald, University of Exeter – Connectivity and competition: alphabets as identities in Italy

Natalia Elvira Astoreca, CREWS, University of Cambridge – Names and authorship in the beginnings of Greek alphabetic writing

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we did. It was a wonderful conference and we’re very grateful to everyone who came and participated, including those speakers who weren’t able to share their talks in video form. We hope that the proceedings book will be available in the second half of next year.

If you’d like to revisit any of the talks from this conference, the full playlist is available here.

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CREWS Conference Presentations #3 – Writing for Display

It’s Thursday so we have three more wonderful talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’ for you to enjoy.

Sophie Heier, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität Munich – The visibility of runic writing and its relation to Viking Age society

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Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

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Mohamed Moursal working at Ugarit

Ninety years ago today, on 14 May 1929, a workman at the excavations of the newly-discovered Syrian archaeological site of Ras Shamra made one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century for the study of ancient writing systems – a number of clay tablets inscribed in a previously unknown version of cuneiform. Typically for the colonial context and the hierarchical nature of archaeology at the time, it’s usually the French director of the excavations, Claude Schaeffer, who gets the credit for this discovery but the actual discoverer’s name was Mohamed Moursal. Writing some years later, Schaeffer records the moment of the discovery as follows (translated from the French):

At five o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun transformed the Alawite mountains east of the tell into a golden fringe, I observed one of my workmen who stopped his work to examine what at a distance had the appearance of a small brick. Mohamed Moursal, a Turk from Bourj Islam, a good workman, but preferring effort rather than the delicate work of releasing fragile objects, spat on his find and with the palm of his right hand rubbed on it to remove the film of earth that masked the surface.

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Ugaritic tablets in situ.

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Arranging and navigating text

Pippa’s recent adventure in Oxford at the Navigating the Text conference (Merton/Queens Colleges) and Babel exhibition (Bodleian Library), featuring some beautiful books and objects

When you write something down, how do you arrange the information in the writing space? This is actually not a straightforward question to answer, and it can be affected by all sorts of contextual considerations. What is the medium being written on, and what are its physical features and dimensions? Does your society have conventions about how to write down and arrange information? Are you writing it down for other people to read and consult, or just for yourself? Is your message clear in the linguistic content of what you are writing, or do you need to add illustrations? How can you visually break down complex information to make it easier to navigate?

These were the sorts of questions on the agenda at the Navigating the Text conference I was attending in Oxford this weekend.

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Detail from p46 of the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving Mayan books. Image from the digitised version here.

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An incomplete guide to epigraphy in Greece

This year I spent four and a half months in Greece doing some epigraphical fieldwork, as a visitor to the British School at Athens. This offered me the chance to see many museums and archaeological sites in the country. From my visits I have prepared a small guide of where to find different kinds of inscriptions typical in Greek epigraphy. Please, note that it is incomplete, since it only accounts for the museums and sites that I have visited in the last months during my research and a short vacation in Greece. Feel free to leave comments to let other readers know about wonderful pieces of epigraphy in other Greek museums.

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The tomb of Clytemnestra in Mycenae. Photo from HERE.

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Indiana Jones and the Ancient Inscriptions

When I was little, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I grew up on those films, and archaeology was the first profession I dreamed of. The more I watched them, the more I was drawn to some particular scenes that involve pieces of writing – looking back, it feels as though my career began when I became curious about how to become someone who could look at an ancient inscription and work out what it meant.

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In the world of Indiana Jones, being able to read an inscription tends to be linked with cracking codes and solving mysteries. In some ways, that is what I do for a living now (how lucky am I?) – although not usually in life-or-death situations or while being chased by Nazis. Continue reading “Indiana Jones and the Ancient Inscriptions”

The unofficial guide to epigraphic fieldwork: what is it and how to enjoy it?

I am very lucky to be able to spend a few months in the British School at Athens (BSA) and to travel around Greece to do some epigraphic fieldwork for my Thesis. But when I was organising my stay here, many friends and relatives asked me what it is exactly that I was going to do here and why I needed to see the inscriptions for myself if there are editions and photographs. I write this post to answer those questions and to explain the whole process of the epigraphic fieldwork before, during and after the visits to the museums.

The reality is that sometimes there are no photographs for the inscriptions that you work with. The edition may be old and, if no one else cared to take photographs, you are left with only a drawing that may be more or less trustworthy. Even with some photographs it is difficult to see the text clearly and that is precisely why they are accompanied by a drawing (not the other way around). The importance of epigraphic photographs and drawings is that they show what the editor sees, so they are in the end an explanation to how he reads and interprets the inscription. However, I was taught not to trust drawings or photographs (if you keep reading you will see why), so I decided to go and see for myself some of the most problematic and important inscriptions of my Thesis.

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Archaeological site of the Athenian Agora.

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A CREWS-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum: installation day

We have been dying to tell you all about a new display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, focusing on some of the writing systems we are working on in the CREWS project. It started today (Tuesday 16th January) and will run until Sunday 10th June, which gives you plenty of time to come and see it! Here is the Fitzwilliam’s web page on the display: Writing in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The objects in the display are written in a number of different ancient writing systems, with Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Demotic, Babylonian and Ugaritic cuneiform, Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, Cypro-Minoan, the Cypriot Syllabary, Phoenician and the Greek alphabet.

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Learning about ancient writing

We recently had the pleasure of being involved in a number of outreach events organised through the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. That meant talking to the public about our work and showing people (especially groups of children) how to write in ancient writing systems. These are more than ‘just’ outreach events for us – they are a valuable opportunity to put our theoretical work into practice and share it with others!

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You don’t have to be present at these events to join in! If trying your hand at ancient writing appeals to you, have a look at our ‘write your name’ sheets HERE. Currently available are the ‘standard’ Greek alphabet, the Cretan alphabet, Phoenician, Ugaritic cuneiform, Linear B and Egyptian hieroglyphics. They can be downloaded and used for free so please do have a look and try writing your name or a message.

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First up was the Prehistory and Archaeology Day organised by the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. This was a big event with all sorts of different activities, where the opportunity to learn an ancient writing system was just one of the possibilities on offer. Philip helped to run a drop-in stall (alongside colleagues from Archaeology and Classics) showing people how to write in Ugaritic and Akkadian cuneiform as well as other scripts. The practical element to this was not only learning to write in these scripts but also using a stylus to write something on a clay tablet.

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