Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralLet me tell you a story of the forgotten wisdom of the ancients, preserved in secret libraries of elder ages and deciphered by visionary sages, let me tell you about men who became gods and gods who became men. Let me tell you the strange mythology linking the origins of the Phoenician alphabet with the birth of the Western occult tradition.

The origins of writing systems are fascinating, but sometimes it can be just as interesting to lay the reality to one side and look at where the people of the ancient world thought their writing systems came from. My colleague Natalia has been doing this with her series of blog-posts looking at myths about writing. Here, though, I want to look in a bit more depth at the stories told about the development of the Phoenician alphabet.

Because they get a bit weird. Continue reading “Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet”

CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!

UntitledIt’s been a busy week for the CREWS Project. We’ve just held our first conference – Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets – which we’ll be writing more about soon, but before that, last weekend we took part in the Cambridge Science Festival at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The Science Festival is a major event giving the public the chance to find out more about the research that goes on at Cambridge. There are countless talks and events all across the University, aimed at a broad range of audiences. In particular, the Science Festival attracts families and small children, so we were keen to be involved and to share our enthusiasm for ancient writing.

Continue reading “CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!”

Another School Visit

We’ve been doing a bit more outreach this week on the CREWS Project as Queen Elizabeth School, Barnet came to visit the Faculty of Classics. After a morning looking round the Museum of Classical Archaeology they joined us for a talk about writing in the ancient world.

I kicked things off with a look at some of the different types of writing systems that exist and an introduction to Mesopotamian and Ugaritic varieties of cuneiform and the early history of the alphabet.

dsc_0038_01_hdr_mode_1

Continue reading “Another School Visit”

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).

1

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.

pru-ii-pl-1-syrian-stamp

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.

1964-syrian-stamp

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.

ogaret-first-4-e

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”

More Ancient Baking

I have a feeling this will not be the last blog post focused on the special problem of creating edible versions of ancient inscriptions…

In response to the previous post on this theme, A Taste of Ancient Writing, we had a lovely message from Hallvard Indgjerd, a researcher based at St Andrews, who told us about his own experience of baking ancient inscription cookies. He was aiming to make a Linear B tablet and some Greek Alphabetic ostraca in gingerbread.

pic1.jpg

Continue reading “More Ancient Baking”

Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca

Hello everyone! My name is Natalia Elvira Astoreca and I’m the new PhD student of the CREWS project. I just started two weeks ago but this new adventure looks very exciting already. During the next three years I will be focusing my research on the origins of the Greek alphabet – or rather the Greek alphabets, because in the early years there were numerous different local systems used in different areas. The other day I was talking with an old friend about Classics and my field of research and she told me “it is so interesting and exciting to know where words come from!” And so I answered “well, I’m trying to find out where letters come from.”

I know it sounds like I’m doing research in something that has been studied before, but I believe that we don’t understand in depth how the invention of the Greek alphabet really was – if we ever get to understand it. Most of the previous studies about the Greek alphabet tried to figure out when it was created, where or how Greeks adapted the Phoenician letters and their shapes to write their own language. The Greeks themselves were very conscious about where their alphabet was taken from: Herodotus called it φοινικήια γράμματα, that is, Phoenician letters.

phoenician writing.jpg

Phoenician writing. Kilamuwa inscription, 9th century B.C. (Image taken from: University of Southern California)

Continue reading “Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca”

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)

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!

fig 1.png

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

Continue reading “Reitia, Venetic goddess of writing”