AWLL’s 11th Workshop in Writing Systems and Literacy – Natalia and Rob in Japan

None of us had ever thought that the study of Ancient Writing Systems would take us to Japan. Luckily, the Association for Written Language and Literacy gave us this opportunity. Robert and Natalia represented the CREWS project in the 11th Workshop in Writing Systems and Literacy, held by this association at the end of August at the Nanzan University in Nagoya, with the title “Writing Systems: Past, present (… and future?)”. Our colleague Anna Judson was there with us as well and she also has written a post about it, you can read it HERE.

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Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralLet me tell you a story of the forgotten wisdom of the ancients, preserved in secret libraries of elder ages and deciphered by visionary sages, let me tell you about men who became gods and gods who became men. Let me tell you the strange mythology linking the origins of the Phoenician alphabet with the birth of the Western occult tradition.

The origins of writing systems are fascinating, but sometimes it can be just as interesting to lay the reality to one side and look at where the people of the ancient world thought their writing systems came from. My colleague Natalia has been doing this with her series of blog-posts looking at myths about writing. Here, though, I want to look in a bit more depth at the stories told about the development of the Phoenician alphabet.

Because they get a bit weird. Continue reading “Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet”

Introduction: Robert Crellin


My name is Robert Crellin, and I am very excited to have joined the CREWS project at the start of April. Up to now my research has mainly focused on the mechanics of verb systems in various ancient languages, but in this project my goal will be to look at the relationship between the writing systems used to write two ancient Semitic languages, Ugaritic and Phoenician. Ugaritic, as suggested by the name, was the language of the state of Ugarit, now Ras Shamra in Syria (a site that also forms the focus of research of my colleague Philip, see HERE). Phoenician was spoken, at least initially, in the Phoenician city states, including places like Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, but later, by virtue of the colonising activities of these city states, across much of the Mediterranean.

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An abecedarium from Ugarit.

The strange thing about the Ugaritic and Phoenician writing systems is that they share certain characteristics, such as the order of the letters, and the fact that both only very seldom write vowels, yet the forms of the letters and the means used for writing are very different: Ugaritic is written in a form of cuneiform, while the Phoenician that survives is written using letter shapes inscribed or written in the same way as we might write. I want to try to illuminate the processes by which this situation might have arisen, and in the first instance, I will focus on the phenomenon of vowel writing. Continue reading “Introduction: Robert Crellin”

The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets


Last week the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge played host to the CREWS Project’s first international conference, Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets.[1] This was a wonderful opportunity for us to bring together experts on ancient writing systems from around the world and discuss each other’s research.

As with all good academic conferences, despite having a unifying theme – early alphabets – the range of papers was extremely broad. We heard about writing systems from across thousands of years of history and thousands of miles, from the earliest probable alphabetic inscriptions from the Sinai peninsula or the Egyptian desert at Wadi el-Hol, through the Phoenician and Ugaritic alphabets of the Levant, to ancient Greece, Italy and Spain. We heard from epigraphers, linguists and archaeologists, and people who stand somewhere in between. Continue reading “The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets”

CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!

UntitledIt’s been a busy week for the CREWS Project. We’ve just held our first conference – Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets – which we’ll be writing more about soon, but before that, last weekend we took part in the Cambridge Science Festival at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The Science Festival is a major event giving the public the chance to find out more about the research that goes on at Cambridge. There are countless talks and events all across the University, aimed at a broad range of audiences. In particular, the Science Festival attracts families and small children, so we were keen to be involved and to share our enthusiasm for ancient writing.

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Hands-on with Cuneiform

When I joined the CREWS Project and started my research on the context of writing at Ugarit, one of the challenges was getting to grips with Akkadian. Ugarit was a tremendously cosmopolitan and multilingual city, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Anatolia and this means that the writing we have from the city comes in a wide range of languages and scripts. The most common are Ugaritic – usually written in a form of alphabetic cuneiform  – and Akkadian. Continue reading “Hands-on with Cuneiform”

Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca

Hello everyone! My name is Natalia Elvira Astoreca and I’m the new PhD student of the CREWS project. I just started two weeks ago but this new adventure looks very exciting already. During the next three years I will be focusing my research on the origins of the Greek alphabet – or rather the Greek alphabets, because in the early years there were numerous different local systems used in different areas. The other day I was talking with an old friend about Classics and my field of research and she told me “it is so interesting and exciting to know where words come from!” And so I answered “well, I’m trying to find out where letters come from.”

I know it sounds like I’m doing research in something that has been studied before, but I believe that we don’t understand in depth how the invention of the Greek alphabet really was – if we ever get to understand it. Most of the previous studies about the Greek alphabet tried to figure out when it was created, where or how Greeks adapted the Phoenician letters and their shapes to write their own language. The Greeks themselves were very conscious about where their alphabet was taken from: Herodotus called it φοινικήια γράμματα, that is, Phoenician letters.

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Phoenician writing. Kilamuwa inscription, 9th century B.C. (Image taken from: University of Southern California)

Continue reading “Introduction: Natalia Elvira Astoreca”

CREWS Research Associate Post 2

I am pleased to announce that the job advert for the second Research Associate on the CREWS project has now appeared. You can find all the details here:

University of Cambridge Job Opportunities: Research Associate on the CREWS Project (Fixed Term)

Like the first Research Associate post, this has a fixed term of four years, beginning in March (or at the latest 1st April) 2017. Again the successful applicant will conduct research on a pre-determined aspect of the project, in this case the development of writing systems used to write North West Semitic languages in the second and early first millennia BC. This will involve using a variety of methods to study Ugaritic, Phoenician and related writing systems with a view to developing our understanding of their inception, structure and usage. This may include, for example, comparison of their sign inventories in relation to the phonological systems they represented, analysis of palaeographic variation, typological study of inscribed objects and consideration of features such as alphabetical order and direction of writing.


The closing date is 12.00 noon (GMT) on Monday 21st November. Please consult the Further Particulars, which can be found from the page linked to above, for more details on how to apply.


We are looking forward to welcoming a new member to the CREWS team!