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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Ancient writing at the Festival of Ideas

The last couple of weeks here in Cambridge have been dedicated to the Festival of Ideas, which featured a few events focused on ancient writing.

9017d0f91b10520efc3af725377d9fda.pngCREWS had its own event on Friday 19th October as part of an evening of fun in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (AKA the Cast Gallery) at the Faculty of Classics: Raiders of the Secret Scripts, mostly aimed at an adult audience. Philip and Rob were on hand to guide people through an exercise in reading Ugaritic cuneiform, while anyone interested in Linear B could try their hand at counting animals in a clay tablet, with me and our CREWS-friend colleague Dr Anna Judson there to help with the hard bits.

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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.)

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The Writing Dead: Literacy in The Walking Dead’s apocalypse

Coming up to the season 8 finale of one of my favourite TV shows, The Walking Dead, my mind has been lingering on something other than the fear of main character deaths and the elusive potential for the good guys to find peace with the current bad guys. The curse of being an epigraphist is that I’m always looking out for signs of writing and the contexts in which writing is used – which is, of course, exactly what I’m working on in my day job (albeit for the ancient world rather than a post-apocalyptic alternative reality).

So as I’ve been watching The Walking Dead, I’ve started asking myself: in a world where the dead are everywhere and society has changed radically, what might that mean for reading and writing?

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For TWD fans, beware of a few (fairly mild) SPOILERS if you keep reading – including for season 8, but not the finale. All images in this post are copyright of AMC.

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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.

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Article by Pippa on the Aegean scripts

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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

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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!

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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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