Celebrating women epigraphists

As a woman working on ancient epigraphy, I am ever aware of the great debt owed by everyone in my field to some outstanding female scholars of the past – women whose work paved the way for our understanding of ancient scripts today.

I will just mention two, in celebration of International Women’s Day:

alicekober

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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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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.

24.97.21ab

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

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Reitia, Venetic goddess of writing

I have been promising for a while to say something about the Venetic goddess of writing. Last term, my colleague Dr Katherine McDonald gave a short seminar series on the Venetic language, which was used in the Veneto area of Italy in the second half of the 1st millennium BC (at least, this is when most of the evidence for it dates from).

The Venetic language has clear affiliations with other Italic languages, which can be seen for example in some words that look very similar to what we find in Latin (such as ego for the first person pronoun “I”). It was written in an alphabet that seems to have been derived from an Etruscan alphabet (itself derived from the Greek alphabet), although it has some peculiarities of its own, including a complex system of punctuation for syllables.

You can see what the Venetic alphabet looks like in the ‘inscription’ shown in Figure 1 – which is not in fact the original inscription but a delicious cake version of it baked by my colleague Dr Anna Judson for the seminar!

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Figure 1. Venetic inscription cake, baked by Anna Judson – see more HERE.

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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.

Minotaurus 2

Figure 2. Minotaur graffito from Pompeii.

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CREWS in the Press

The CREWS Project has been running for a couple of weeks now, and I was very pleased to see all the enthusiastic responses to the press release that went live during the first week. You can read the original release here (arranged kindly by my colleague Ryan Cronin):

Easy as Alep, Bet, Gimel

I hope that the anecdote concerning alphabetical order in the press release was interesting to read about. The sheer longevity of this idea, and its relationship with not only writing but also the social context of writing, is very striking – and this will be just one aspect of ‘contexts’ and ‘relations’ in ancient writing that the project will look at over our five year period of research.

Some websites reported the ancient origins of alphabetical order as a new discovery, but actually this is not new at all: we have known about alphabetical order in Latin, Greek, Phoenician, Ugaritic and other ancient writing systems for many years. What is new, however, is the way in which we will study it as part of the project. We know that alphabetical order as an idea was passed on from one society to another – but what we do not know is exactly how or why this happened.

 

Ugaritic alphabet
Figure 1. Ugaritic cuneiform abecedarium on a clay tablet from Ras Shamra, Syria. http://www.csah.cam.ac.uk/images/ugarit-hi-res/view

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Welcome to CREWS

If you have found your way here, then you might already have an idea what the CREWS project is about. Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems – hence CREWS – is a new project that aims to shed new light on developments in the history of writing and the cultural settings in which those developments took place.

 

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The project has just started up in April 2016 and will run for five years until 2021, giving an ample span of research time that will result in several new publications, conferences, seminar series and a project website, all aimed at furthering research as well as engaging the public with the new discoveries made and methods forged by the project team. It is funded by the European Research Council, and based in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge.

At the moment, I am flying solo as the Principal Investigator of the project. Over time, however, a team will emerge: two post-doctoral researchers, a PhD student and a research assistant will be joining CREWS during its first year. You can look here for news on job vacancies when they are advertised, and more information on the team members will be added as the team grows.

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