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

The oldest book from the Americas?

I read an article today about the Grolier Codex, a collection of pages from a 13th century AD Mayan book that has had a speckled history in scholarship. It was long thought to be a fake, but over the years a team led by Professor David Coe at Yale has demonstrated the document’s authenticity.


You can read a much fuller account at Yale News HERE. A shorter piece was also published by the Smithsonian last September HERE.



The pages of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.


‘Codex’ is a word used to describe an early, hand-written book, with pages made from any of a range of different perishable materials (e.g. papyrus or vellum). In the case of the Grolier Codex, the pages are made from bark paper, and each one was coated with stucco before being painted on. The paint used is one of the features that strongly suggests its authenticity, because it contains pigments that were used by ancient Mayans and that could not have been replicated in the 1960s when the document was found.



Page 6 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


It is an unfortunate fact that the codex was found not by a team of archaeologists, who would have been able to record its location and context, but by looters who came across it in a cave in Mexico and then sold it to a Mexican collector called Josué Sáenz. This is a factor that made it all the easier to argue that the manuscript might have been a fake, since its original context could not be verified. Luckily, however, Professor Coe and his colleagues have been able to show via a range of analytical methods that, despite the circumstances of its discovery, we have many reasons to believe that the codex is real.



Page 11 of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.


This makes the Grolier Codex the oldest known example of its kind, and one of only four Mayan codices to have been discovered. The other three (the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex and the Paris Codex) are rather more elaborate and were clearly executed by skilled artists. The Grolier Codex, on the other hand, is a little different from the others.



Page 4 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


Most noticeably, whoever drew the glyphs on the surviving pages has made sketches first and then painted over them. But the artist did not follow the sketch-lines perfectly when painting the final versions of the glyphs, and did not remove the sketch-lines afterwards. To a modern eye at least, this makes the drawings look relatively amateurish, especially compared with the more elaborate decoration of the other three surviving codices.



Page 5 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


The sketch-lines were one of the arguments used by those convinced the Grolier Codex was a fake. But this doesn’t seem very convincing. For one thing, why would a modern forger include such ‘imperfections’ if he/she wanted to make the document look authentic? And there are lots of possible reasons why a real ancient document could include what we might think of as imperfections today. The Grolier Codex is perhaps 100-200 years older than the other surviving Mayan codices, and it is perfectly possible that techniques changed over the years, or that when it was made there were other influences on its creation (for example Mixtec codices, some of which had quite similar drawings). Another possibility is that the artist of the Grolier Codex was not as skilled as the artists of the other Mayan codices – but ‘skill’ is difficult to quantify when we have so little information about the context in which such documents were used, displayed or consulted. Perhaps artistic perfection, or a ‘finished’ quality, was less of a concern to the author than eventually achieving precision in the representations, for example.



Page 3 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


Can we really fault the artist on his/her ‘skill’ after creating such intricate images? The figures in the above picture of the third page, for example, seem to me a considerable achievement in representing human facial expressions. And despite the very pictorial nature of the glyphs, we have to remember that this is writing as well as art: conveying a message successfully is another achievement of the artist. Although we do not have very many surviving pages, we know that the codex is intended to give some sort of information about the Mayan calendar, with glyphs representing days and numerals that seem to refer to the movement of the planet Venus in the sky.


I hope you have enjoyed another foray into the world of Mayan writing. Although not geographically or chronologically close to the writing systems we are working on at the CREWS project, we have touched on some important themes here that are relevant to the study of any ancient document: context and content, analysing authenticity, techniques and ‘skill’ of execution and the relationship between writing and art, among others.


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

More Mayan, and Variation in Writing Systems


On Wednesday 13th July, the CREWS project hosted its first academic event, a seminar presented by Dr Christian Prager of the University of Bonn. The topic was “Of Codes and Kings: Digital Approaches in Classic Maya Epigraphic Studies”, and gave our speaker the opportunity to tell us all about the digital database of Mayan inscriptions that he is helping to build.


1-Prager talk

Continue reading “More Mayan, and Variation in Writing Systems”

Mayan Glyphs as a Writing System


Firstly, let me welcome any new readers who have come over from Twitter (where the project now has a presence as @crewsproject). For this post we are going on an exotic excursus away from the Mediterranean, to ancient(ish) Mesoamerica.


Recently I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on Mayan glyphs, given by Steve Houston (of Brown University). It struck me that Mayan provides a fascinating alternative view of the concept of writing – ‘alternative’ because it seems in many ways counter-intuitive, not only to a modern literate person, but even to someone like me who has been working on ancient writing systems for years.


San Bartolo mural

Figure 1. Mural from San Bartolo, with glyphs top left. One of the earliest examples of Mayan writing, c.100 BC.

  Continue reading “Mayan Glyphs as a Writing System”