Why do scripts and writing practices die out?

The death of scripts is something Pippa and I have been thinking about a fair bit recently. We gave a talk about it at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas back in the autumn, and presented a poster at a couple of recent conferences. Why do people stop writing in a particular script? It’s a simple question but one that’s received surprisingly little academic attention, perhaps because almost by definition, evidence for why something stops happening will be scarce. This is true with any tradition or cultural practice, and relates to a broader discussion of how we conceptualise and reconstruct ancient social change. But since writing is one of our key sources of evidence as well as the practice we’re investigating, the problem of evidence is particularly acute there.

The first thing we need to be sure of is that a script really has died out, rather than people merely changing what they use it for or the materials on which they write it. The ancient East Mediterranean offers a good example of this with the case of hieroglyphic Luwian. In the Late Bronze Age, this seemed like a script (and associated language) on the rise. It was widely spoken in Anatolia and seemed to be gaining ground, perhaps even among the Hittite royal elite by the end of the thirteenth century BC. The Hittites used Luwian writing alongside their usual cuneiform script, and it’s best preserved now in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, such as those from the capital, Hattuša. As CREWS Visiting Fellow Willemijn Waal has argued, it may also have been written on wooden tablets.

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Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

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CREWS Conference Presentations #4 – Agency, Personhood and Elite Culture

Welcome back to the this series sharing talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’. Today we have two papers focusing on the ancient Aegean.

Professor James Whitley, University of Cardiff – Why με? Personhood and agency in Greek inscriptions (800-550 BCE)

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A Tale of Two Scholars, and the Center for Minoan Linguistic Research that never came to exist

Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Cassandra Donnelly

The two months I have spent as a Visiting Fellow with the CREWS project were full of all things Aegean, from the Cypro-Minoan seminar series, to the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room, and the Aegean Archaeology Group’s Work-in-Progress conference. I am incredibly grateful to Pippa, the CREWS team, and the Linguistics E-Caucus for sustained discussions about Cypro-Minoan (or “super” Minoan, as it became known), Ugaritic, and other local Mediterranean script traditions.

While preparing a presentation on potmarks for the Cypro-Minoan seminar I was reminded of a little known episode in Cypro-Minoan historiography, the early correspondence of Alice E. Kober and John Franklin Daniel which centered on Cypro-Minoan (you can read their correspondence for yourself here).

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Pictured right: Alice E. Kober; Pictured left: John Franklin Daniel.

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Late Bronze Age Clay Time!

Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Cassandra Donnelly

During the last week of April the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP) hosted its first ever “Late Bronze Age Clay Time! Study Break” in the Classics Lounge in Waggener Hall at the University of Texas at Austin. Approximately twenty  undergraduate and graduate students, along with some staff and their children, produced a veritable archive of Late Bronze Age (LBA) tablets.

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We provided attendees with the clay (local-fire “Longhorn Red” clay from Armadillo Clay), three types of styluses, and one of three different instruction packets. The first type of instruction packet pertained to Mycenaean Greek and Linear B, the second to Ugaritic, and the third to Cypro-Minoan. Each packet included instructions for how to make one of three tablet types, a signary in the corresponding script, and a model text to write in the corresponding language. Each of the texts, once combined, tells the story of the Late Bronze Age copper trade as mediated by Cypriot traders. Continue reading “Late Bronze Age Clay Time!”

Arranging and navigating text

Pippa’s recent adventure in Oxford at the Navigating the Text conference (Merton/Queens Colleges) and Babel exhibition (Bodleian Library), featuring some beautiful books and objects

When you write something down, how do you arrange the information in the writing space? This is actually not a straightforward question to answer, and it can be affected by all sorts of contextual considerations. What is the medium being written on, and what are its physical features and dimensions? Does your society have conventions about how to write down and arrange information? Are you writing it down for other people to read and consult, or just for yourself? Is your message clear in the linguistic content of what you are writing, or do you need to add illustrations? How can you visually break down complex information to make it easier to navigate?

These were the sorts of questions on the agenda at the Navigating the Text conference I was attending in Oxford this weekend.

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Detail from p46 of the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving Mayan books. Image from the digitised version here.

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Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.

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Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.

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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”

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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