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.


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).


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

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.

CM cow side and head.jpg

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!”

Making and baking inscriptions – and the CREWSmas party!

Term-time has recently finished here, and the CREWS project team has been taking part in some rather jolly end-of-term activities.

The first was the final session of the ‘Linear A self-help group’, a series of seminars we have been running where a number of colleagues working on Linear A or related scripts have been presenting their work and discussing their ideas. For the final meeting, we decided to have a practical session, and to try making our own inscriptions using modelling clay. You also can read about it on our colleague Anna Judson’s blog HERE.

What are Linear A and Linear B?

Linear A was used around the 19th-15th centuries BC, in Crete and some of the islands, to write an unknown language that we label ‘Minoan’ (we know the values of many signs, but still do not understand the language).

Linear B was used around the 15th-13th centuries BC, in Crete and on the Greek mainland, to write an early form of Greek.

Why bother trying to make our own inscriptions? Well, actually there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the production of clay tablets in the ancient Aegean. How did the scribes achieve such detail in the more complex signs? What did they use to write with? How did they create the flat surface for writing on? Why are Linear B ‘palmleaf’ tablets (i.e. small elongated ones that can be held in the palm of the hand) curved on the back but flat on the top? We started off the session with an illuminating presentation by PhD student Ester Salgarella on some of these problems, and then we set about trying to answer some of them through a practical attempt at making our own tablets.


One thing we discovered was that it isn’t easy to make very detailed small signs unless you have a very sharp and pointed object. Picking up on a suggestion made a while ago by Professor John Killen, our colleague Dr Sarah Finlayson had brought along some thorns for us to try. These proved much better than the improvised bamboo skewers we started with. The picture above shows the inscriptions I made, with an acacia thorn (courtesy of Sarah, middle left) and a bamboo skewer (courtesy of our seminar leader Dr Torsten Meissner, middle right).

Using the bamboo skewer I started with, I had a go at replicating a Linear A tablet, HT 86 (which is our way of saying that it is tablet no. 86 from the site of Haghia Triada, where an important set of Linear A archives were found): see the picture below where it is next to a photo of the real thing. I’m not sure I did very well but trying to replicate a tablet told me a lot about trying to make the signs look right and fit into the space left for them. You can probably tell from the photo that the real thing was inscribed with something much sharper than my bamboo skewer.



I was also keen to try making a type of inscription found in Late Bronze Age Cyprus, where another related writing system was used (‘Cypro-Minoan’): the clay ball. Despite years of work on Cypriot inscriptions, I am still not at all sure what these items were used for, but they are absolutely characteristic of Cypriot epigraphy in this period (especially the 14th-12th centuries BC). I’ve written about them HERE.

The little clay balls are on average about 2cm in diameter and have signs written around the outside (see below). I always thought it would be hard to add the inscription without squashing the ball, but when I tried it I found this wasn’t much of a problem (although the top and bottom can get a bit flattened). The really hard thing is to add the inscription in a straight line around the ball without sloping downwards as you go. It took me a couple of tries to get this right!


Meanwhile Natalia (CREWS project PhD student) tried her hand at some different inscriptions including a Cretan Hieroglyphic label (pictured below), a Linear A tablet and a clay ball.


And Philip (CREWS project research associate) made an exceptionally chocolatey Linear A inscription cake – I am told that writing Linear A is even harder to do with icing! Around the edge at the top you can also see some biscuits he made in the form of a common Minoan symbol, the ‘horns of consecration’.


Philip has also blogged about the clay inscriptions he made HERE.

So our practical session was an excellent way to round off the Linear A seminar series – you can’t try to understand ancient writing without trying to understand what issues ancient writers were facing when they wrote!

The next day it was then time for our end-of-term party, dubbed the CREWSmas party, which gave us a lovely chance to talk to colleagues about the project’s progress over a drink… and of course over some writing-themed snacks. Philip had been busy again and made many inscription cookies, which were much admired by all the party-goers. Here’s a selection before firing (I mean baking!):




As you may be able to tell, there are several different writing systems represented among these cookies, including Ugaritic cuneiform, Linear A and B and the Phoenician and Greek alphabets. Here’s another picture of the batch fresh out of the oven:




I am not much of a baker myself, but I did do some cake inscribing. Taking some pre-iced mince pies, I added single-sign marks. They’re based on single-sign marks found at the sites of Eretria and Methone, where some of the earliest surviving Greek alphabetic inscriptions have also been found. Natalia has been studying them lately as part of her PhD research – some look like alphabetic letters, while others do not, which makes it very hard to understand what they are supposed to represent although they seem to be some sort of reflex of writing.





I hope you’ve enjoyed having a look at our creations, both edible and inedible. Don’t forget (have I mentioned this before?) that having a go at baking your own inscriptions or even inscribing some pre-bought cakes is really easy – and if you have a go at it we would love to hear from you! As always you can find us on Twitter (@crewsproject) or send us an email at


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

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.


Continue reading “More Ancient Baking”

World Emoji Day

Did you know that today is World Emoji Day?

Emojis have become an important part of modern writing systems, especially as used online. They may not (yet) be accepted as playing a role in a formal register of writing, but that does not mean that they are not valid written signs.

In fact, emojis are in some ways similar to ideograms, the term we use for individual written signs (e.g. in ancient writing systems such as Linear B) that refer to whole concepts. A smiley face conveys that you are happy or have been made to smile, but instead of writing this out in a sentence you can convey it with a single written sign.


LB horse

The Linear B ideogram for a horse.

  Continue reading “World Emoji Day”

Linear B – Alive and Well!

I have already talked about Linear B a little bit on this blog, for example in the post explaining the first line of the CREWS logo HERE. It was a syllabic writing system, used by the Mycenaean palaces in ancient Greece during the 15th-13th centuries BC, and its surviving inscriptions are predominantly detailed economic records of the palatial centres.

We know that within the palatial centres, the central administration was maintaining close control of a wide range of commodities and personnel through written records (see Figure 1 for a record of sheep, for example). Strikingly, these methods of administration were virtually identical at each of the palaces across Crete and mainland Greece – despite being hundreds of miles apart and sometimes also chronologically distant from each other (e.g. the palace at Knossos on Crete was destroyed perhaps as much as 200 years before the mainland palaces).AN00259220_001_l

Figure 1. Mycenaean clay tablet from Knossos, Crete, written in the syllabic Linear B writing system. It is a bureaucratic document recording numbers of sheep. Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum, no. 1910,0423.2.

Now there isn’t time in this post to talk through the details of the Mycenaean economy, although it’s something of a favourite topic of mine and I am sure we will return to it some day. After all, the economic context in which Linear B  was used is key to understanding the use and development of writing in this period – putting the Context into Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems.

But the real reason for this post was to highlight some wonderful work by my colleague Anna Judson, who has created an ingenious boardgame called Mycenopoly. The game uses Mycenaean sites and concepts – and, delightfully, all the text is written in Linear B. Which just shows you that Linear B is alive and well, over 3,000 years later, and that there is much more you can do with ancient writing systems than just studying them in the abstract!


Figure 2. Anna Judson’s Mycenopoly.

You can read more about Mycenopoly on Anna’s blog HERE, and we will return to the CREWS logo and the Venetic alphabet, as promised, sometime soon.

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Welcome to CREWS

If you have found your way here, then you might already have an idea what the CREWS project is about. Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems – hence CREWS – is a new project that aims to shed new light on developments in the history of writing and the cultural settings in which those developments took place.


CREWS 8 cropped


The project has just started up in April 2016 and will run for five years until 2021, giving an ample span of research time that will result in several new publications, conferences, seminar series and a project website, all aimed at furthering research as well as engaging the public with the new discoveries made and methods forged by the project team. It is funded by the European Research Council, and based in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge.

At the moment, I am flying solo as the Principal Investigator of the project. Over time, however, a team will emerge: two post-doctoral researchers, a PhD student and a research assistant will be joining CREWS during its first year. You can look here for news on job vacancies when they are advertised, and more information on the team members will be added as the team grows.

Continue reading “Welcome to CREWS”