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:


The first  is Alice Elizabeth Kober,  who worked on the Linear B writing system in the 1930s and 1940s, before it was deciphered. She famously observed patterns in sequences of signs that reflected inflectional morphology in Mycenaean words – i.e. the different noun and verb endings that another scholar, Michael Ventris, later managed to decode as Greek inflection.

You can read more about Alice Kober HERE, on a website hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. If you look around the site, you will discover that you can even read some of her correspondence about Linear B with other scholars who were working on the script at the same time.

lilian jeffery

The second is Lilian (Anne) Hamilton Jeffery, who worked on the different types of Greek alphabet that appeared all around the Greek-speaking world in the Archaic period (8th to 5th centuries BC). Her careful documentation and study of ancient inscriptions resulted in a 1961 publication titled The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece – a book that I still use every day when I am working on the Greek alphabet.

You can read more about Anne Jeffery HERE, on the Poinikastas website hosted by the University of Oxford. The website also hosts some very useful resources for the study of Greek inscriptions, based on Jeffery’s archives.

I feel lucky to follow in the footsteps of such women – and I will add that I have many wonderful female colleagues today, who no doubt will one day be equally famous for their epigraphic discoveries!

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele

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).



Fragments of ceramic with votes for ostracism. Picture taken by the author: Agora Museum, Athens.


But often the text inscribed on these objects was composed in the first person, so that the object talks to the reader. These texts were even more effective in Antiquity, as ancient sources suggest that reading was always done out loud (silent reading was not practised until Late Antiquity!). The result was that the object was actually speaking through the reader, who would say, for example, “I was dedicated by [name]”. So try to read out loud the following inscriptions, as an ancient Greek would do.



Tataie’s aryballos ©Trustees of the British Museum.


We have many examples of objects claiming to have an owner. One of my favourites is this one, which also curses whoever dares to steal the vase: I am Tataie’s lekythos, may he who steals me go blind. (I feel especially attached to this one because they asked me to read it in the interview to become a member of the CREWS project).



Text of the inscription. From LSAG pl.47.


But even more interesting are the talking statues. The most famous are those of Nikandre and Mantiklos. Both of them are dedications to the gods and in their inscriptions the statues tell us who dedicated them and to whom.


A cast of Nikandre’s statue can be found in the Museum of Classical Archaeology at the Cambridge Faculty of Classics (just outside the door of the CREWS office!). We invite you to come to see it and find the inscription on one of its sides, where we can read: Nikandre daughter of Deinodikos the Naxian outstanding amongst women, sister of Deinomenes and now wife of Phraxos, dedicated me to the far-shooting archeress.



Original statue at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. https://www.flickr.com/photos/69716881@N02/19558548431


Text of the inscription. http://farrago-cambridge.blogspot.com.es/2015/06/notes-on-inscriptions-nikandres-central.html


The other statuette has an amazingly small inscription on its legs that says: Mantiklos dedicated me to the far-shooter, silver-bowed god, as a tithe. Phoibos, provide charis in return!



Picture from the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston http://www.mfa.org/



Text of the inscription. From LSAG pl.7.


There are many other talking objects like these ones. Feel free to share any of them! You can get in touch with us via Twitter (@crewsproject) or via email to crews@classics.cam.ac.uk.


~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)


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.



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.

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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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