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.)

2. A clay tablet from Pylos with a Linear B inscription recording sheep, including some described as young.

Cn 40 small

Photo courtesy of Rupert Thompson.

Mycenaean Linear B (see more HERE) was a syllabic writing system used to write Greek, which means that we can understand what this Late Bronze Age document says. In the Mycenaean world it looks as though literacy was limited and writing was only used for bureaucratic purposes – and one of those purposes was to record contributions of animals to the central administration.

Animals were evidently not only being kept for food – they also produced important by-products (in the case of sheep, wool is the obvious one). Linear B tablets like the one in the photo (PY Cn 40, to give it its proper designation) demonstrate that it was important to the central administration to keep a record of the age and sex of animals like sheep, including lambing records.

Here is a close-up of the ideogram for a sheep (i.e. the sign denoting “sheep” that appears before the numeral telling us how many were in the flock):


You may be thinking it doesn’t look much like a sheep… But if you look at the curved line of the head, perhaps it might put you in mind of a cartoon version like Shaun the Sheep!


3. No spring chicken… An Etruscan cockerel-shaped vase with an early abecedarium inscribed around its body.


Bucchero vessel in the shape of a cockerel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1924.

We have seen this 7th century BC cockerel in a previous blog post, see HERE. The abecedarium around its body gives the signs of the Greek alphabet in order – and it was this alphabet that was adopted by the Etruscans. The object was possibly an inkwell, and was certainly a playful piece of local ceramic art!

4. Mayan rabbit scribe depicted on the 7th-8th century AD ‘Princeton Vase’.

Princeton vase Mayan bunny close up

Photos from the Princeton Art Museum. Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ style) The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco h. 21.5 cm., diam. 16.6 cm. (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of the Hans A. Widenmann, Class of 1918, and Dorothy Widenmann Foundation Place made: Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala y1975-17.

A more exotic example now, showing a rabbit doing something rather unexpected – sitting in a crouched position and writing with some sort of brush or pen! The object on which the rabbit scribe appears is a ceramic cup intended for drinking chocolate, as the inscription around the top of the vessel tells us.

The depiction of the act of writing is a very important piece of evidence. We might assume that giant rabbits were not involved in writing Mayan texts! But nevertheless this is a good indication of what writing might have looked like for Mayans, showing us the kind of stance and implement that might have been used by a human performing the same task.

Princeton vase Mayan bunny

Photos from the Princeton Art Museum. Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ style) The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco h. 21.5 cm., diam. 16.6 cm. (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of the Hans A. Widenmann, Class of 1918, and Dorothy Widenmann Foundation Place made: Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala y1975-17.

Even overlooking the historical importance of the Princeton Vase… you have to admit, there is nothing cooler than a Mayan bunny depicted in the act of writing on a chocolate cup!


Well, those are our choice picks for inscriptions with a springtime cute animal theme. If you can think of others, please let us know – and they don’t need to be ancient either! I am particularly put in mind of the frequent appearance of rabbits in Medieval illuminated manuscripts, and cannot help but link to THIS by way of illustration. But modern examples are equally welcome.

Please send us your own springtime animal inscription sightings by commenting on the blog or tweeting us (use the hashtag #animalinscriptions).

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele

Celebrating women epigraphists

As a woman working on ancient epigraphy, I am ever aware of the great debt owed by everyone in my field to some outstanding female scholars of the past – women whose work paved the way for our understanding of ancient scripts today.

I will just mention two, in celebration of International Women’s Day:


The first  is Alice Elizabeth Kober,  who worked on the Linear B writing system in the 1930s and 1940s, before it was deciphered. She famously observed patterns in sequences of signs that reflected inflectional morphology in Mycenaean words – i.e. the different noun and verb endings that another scholar, Michael Ventris, later managed to decode as Greek inflection.

You can read more about Alice Kober HERE, on a website hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. If you look around the site, you will discover that you can even read some of her correspondence about Linear B with other scholars who were working on the script at the same time.

lilian jeffery

The second is Lilian (Anne) Hamilton Jeffery, who worked on the different types of Greek alphabet that appeared all around the Greek-speaking world in the Archaic period (8th to 5th centuries BC). Her careful documentation and study of ancient inscriptions resulted in a 1961 publication titled The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece – a book that I still use every day when I am working on the Greek alphabet.

You can read more about Anne Jeffery HERE, on the Poinikastas website hosted by the University of Oxford. The website also hosts some very useful resources for the study of Greek inscriptions, based on Jeffery’s archives.

I feel lucky to follow in the footsteps of such women – and I will add that I have many wonderful female colleagues today, who no doubt will one day be equally famous for their epigraphic discoveries!

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele

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.


(You can read a bit more about Linear B tablets and the script used to write them in a previous CREWS blog post KO RE E WI SU. Ostraca in this context were sherds of pottery that were used to nominate Athenian citizens for exile between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, hence our word ‘ostracism’. However, epigraphists also use the term ‘ostracon’ to refer to any inscription added to an already-broken piece of pottery – you may see the word used like this on the blog in the future.)

Unfortunately, Hallvard discovered a problem with his oven, which malfunctioned and caught fire…


The gingerbread inscriptions ended up not being quite so edible after all, but there was a happy ending to the story, because as everyone knows, fire is not a bad thing for an inscription! In fact, the only reason the Linear B tablets have survived is that they were burnt by accident in the fires associated with destructions of the Mycenaean palaces in the Late Bronze Age.


Hallvard’s baking experiment took place 4 years ago, but because of his fortunate accident he still has the cookies today. Keeping them maybe is not quite as much fun as eating them… but preserving ancient writing is always a good thing!


Now just remember that baking cookies that look like ancient inscriptions is something that anyone can do – why not give it a try? You could make some ostraca and ostracise all your friends… And if you do, please remember to get in touch and tell us all about it! (Email us at or find us on Twitter @crewsproject).


(All images in this post courtesy of Hallvard Indgjerd.)


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).


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”