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!


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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Writing in the Sand: An upcoming event celebrating Coptic writing, language and culture

Writing and society go hand-in-hand: almost all writing is intended to be read by another person or by a group of other people. That is to say, that writing presupposes that people want to communicate with each other, and that they want, in some way, to relate to one another. It is no surprise, then, to find that writing is often used as a means of identifying oneself in respect of another group. This may be in terms of national, ethnic or linguistic identity, but it may also be in terms of religious identity.


In an earlier post, I looked at the Ancient Egyptian writing system, that we know as hieroglyphics. In a future post I will be talking about how vowels are (occasionally) represented in that writing system. However, for now I want to look at another writing system also used to write the Egyptian language, but a much later variety, known as Coptic. Unlike other Egyptian writing systems (hieratic, demotic), which are related to hieroglyphics, Coptic is based on the Greek alphabet, with some letters added in for Egyptian sounds that did not exist in Greek. This is particularly interesting for my own research project in CREWS, since it means that, unlike the other Egyptian scripts, the vowels are written down. Continue reading “Writing in the Sand: An upcoming event celebrating Coptic writing, language and culture”

AWLL’s 11th Workshop in Writing Systems and Literacy – Natalia and Rob in Japan

None of us had ever thought that the study of Ancient Writing Systems would take us to Japan. Luckily, the Association for Written Language and Literacy gave us this opportunity. Robert and Natalia represented the CREWS project in the 11th Workshop in Writing Systems and Literacy, held by this association at the end of August at the Nanzan University in Nagoya, with the title “Writing Systems: Past, present (… and future?)”. Our colleague Anna Judson was there with us as well and she also has written a post about it, you can read it HERE.

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Writing Gods and Myths I: Greece and Rome

Ancient cultures gave great importance to writing as a civilising tool. However, the origins of writing are full of mystery, and they already were for these civilisations. Maybe for these reasons they created myths around the creation of writing and gave gods the attribute of writing. In this and other future posts we will look at some of these divinities and myths related to writing. Pippa already mentioned goddess Reitia, a Venetic goddess of writing, in a previous post of the CREWS blog HERE, and now we will continue with myths and gods from Greece and Rome.

All the stories point to the same hero as introducer of the alphabet in Greece: Cadmus. But he was not himself the creator of the script. He brought it from Phoenicia (or Egypt, depending on the version of the myth) to Boeotia, where he founded Thebes.

cadmus and the ismenian dragon

Figure 1. Cadmus and the Ismenian serpent. Image from 4th century BC calyx krater, Musée du Louvre (HERE).

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The Writing on the Cow: Cute Animal Inscriptions for Springtime!

We’re feeling full of the joys of spring today, so it seemed a good time to hunt for some of our favourite spring-themed inscriptions… And when I say spring-themed, yes, I’m talking cute animals!

1. A Late Bronze Age clay cow figurine with a Cypro-Minoan inscription on its side and a pattern of cross-hatching on its forehead.

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Image courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

Cypro-Minoan is a syllabic script of ancient Cyprus (in use between the 16th and 10th centuries BC), related to Linear A and Linear B. It is undeciphered, so unfortunately we do not know what the short text on the side of this cow says. This is the only example of a Cypriot clay figurine with an inscription, but Cypro-Minoan texts are found on a wide variety of different objects.

(Technically, we should really call this little chap a zebu, which is a type of bovid with more raised shoulders.) Continue reading “The Writing on the Cow: Cute Animal Inscriptions for Springtime!”