What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean

My research has taken a fun turn towards practical experiments lately, as some of our Twitter followers may have noticed. It isn’t just because I wanted to get away from the computer (though I did…); it’s because I have been working on a problem where direct evidence is scarce and/or difficult to interpret, and where experimentation is surprisingly elucidating.

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My work on a replica Cypro-Minoan tablet.

We know that during the Bronze Age a number of civilisations around the eastern Mediterranean were using clay to write on. From Mesopotamian cuneiform to Linear A and B in the Aegean, people found that this reusable natural resource provided a vital tool for making records. But they didn’t all use it in the same way, and they didn’t all use the same implements or methods to write on it – instead traditions of writing display considerable regional differences, whether or not there might have been any influences from one place to another. Continue reading “What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean”

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What makes one clay tablet better than another?

As someone who works on the written documents of the ancient Aegean and Cyprus, I come across clay tablets a lot. Clay was a very useful medium for writing in the ancient world because it was quite easily available and could be formed into different shapes, and all you need in order to write on it is a stick. Luckily for us, a clay tablet also has a good chance of surviving for thousands of years provided it has been baked.

A while ago I posted a picture of one of my favourite clay tablets on Twitter, a Linear B document that we label PY Ep 704 (which is code for saying that it comes from Pylos and deals with landholdings). (Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.)

Continue reading “What makes one clay tablet better than another?”

CREWS Display: A Tiny Cretan Hieroglyphic Seal Stone

This week we are having a closer look at the smallest object in our special CREWS-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a tiny seal stone made of green jasper and featuring signs of the Cretan Hieroglyphic script. At just 1.4 by 1.1 cm, and dating to the 19th-17th centuries BC, it is a minute but fascinating testament to the earliest writing system attested in ancient Crete.

AN01060643_001_l right way up

Continue reading “CREWS Display: A Tiny Cretan Hieroglyphic Seal Stone”

Article by Pippa on the Aegean scripts

code

A quick post to let you know of an article I wrote on the syllabic writing systems of the ancient Aegean and Cyprus (though excluding Linear B). This was for the catalogue of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum called Codebreakers and Groundbreakers, which examined Michael Ventris’ decipherment of Linear B alongside Alan Turing’s breaking of the Enigma Code.

Other chapters in the volume focused on Linear B, while I was asked to write about the related syllabic writing systems of Crete and Cyprus.

You can read the article online here:

Other pre-alphabetic scripts of Crete and Cyprus

Continue reading “Article by Pippa on the Aegean scripts”

CREWS Display: A Cypro-Minoan Clay Ball

For this week’s inscription post based on our CREWS display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, we’re going to be revisiting ancient Cyprus – this time in a much earlier period than we discussed for the Idalion Bilingual. This little item might look unassuming (it’s only a couple of centimetres in diameter, don’t be fooled by the photo!), but it is very important for trying to understand the earlier development of writing on Cyprus.

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Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The item in question is a small ball made of clay, with writing in what we call the “Cypro-Minoan” script around the outside, which is on loan to us from the British Museum. It was found at the Cypriot site of Hala Sultan Tekke, in the island’s south-east. Continue reading “CREWS Display: A Cypro-Minoan Clay Ball”

Non-administrative writing in the ancient Aegean and Cyprus

A new published article based on my CREWS project research has just appeared in print, with a focus on non-administrative documents written in Linear A.

Periploi article

Here is a link to a PDF copy:

• ‘Writing ‘systems’: Literacy and the transmission of writing in non-administrative contexts’ in Jasink, E.M., Weingarten, J. and Carraro, F. (eds.) Non-scribal Communication Media in the Bronze Age Aegean and Surrounding Areas: The semantics of a-literate and proto-literate media, Periploi 9, Firenze 2017, 81-100.

Continue reading “Non-administrative writing in the ancient Aegean and Cyprus”

What’s in a name? Samuel Pepys and the problems of decipherment

Last week I had the pleasure of going on a tour around the Pepys Library at Cambridge’s Magdalene College, where the book collection of famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys is kept – including his famous diary itself. Pepys wrote his diary in a sort of code, which got me thinking about how we decipher coded texts, a problem closely related to working with undeciphered ancient writing systems.

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The bookplate Samuel Pepys carefully pasted into the books in his collection. By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Continue reading “What’s in a name? Samuel Pepys and the problems of decipherment”

Cats in the Aegean Scripts

I just discovered that it is International Cat Day – which is unusually relevant to my research at the moment! But why should someone who works on ancient writing be so interested in cats all of a sudden? Well, we need to travel back in time to the ancient Aegean to discover the reason.

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Cretan Hieroglyphic seal made of carnelian, showing a cat figure. Image from HERE. Continue reading “Cats in the Aegean Scripts”

Aegean scripts and undecipheredness

Readers may be interested in a post I’ve written over on the Oxbow Books blog. It ties in with a recently published book, but I hope it’s interesting in its own right as a brief introduction to the syllabic writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean and Cyprus (Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, Linear B, Cypro-Minoan).

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The main point is to show that what we mean by ‘undeciphered script’ can vary quite a lot, from writing systems where we have no idea about the values of signs to ones where we know what many of the signs stand for but do not understand the underlying language. And it’s also just a little bit about how I live up to my lifelong dream to be Indiana Jones…

You can read the post HERE.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Invesitgator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele