Introduction: Robert Crellin

Hello!

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.

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The Kilamuwa stele, written in a 9th century BC Semitic alphabet.

Perhaps one of the most important innovations in the Greek alphabet (which my colleague Natalia is working on, see HERE) is the writing of vowels, but Greek was not alone in the ancient world in doing this. Other writing systems of the late second millennium, notably Hittite and Akkadian syllabic cuneiform, and syllabic Linear B for Greek (one of the project director Pippa’s specialisms; read more about the writing system HERE), recorded vowels, albeit without bespoke vowel letters. Then early in the first millennium Aramaic and Hebrew, which were written in alphabets in the same tradition as Phoenician, recorded at least some vowels. Seen in this context, the initial decision to use cuneiform and a linear alphabet without vowels appears novel, and the persistence of consonant-only writing in Phoenician for much longer than the writing systems of other languages is noteworthy.

I will tackle this question from two angles. First, to understand how the system behind the Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems first developed, I will look at the phenomenon of vowel writing in these languages, in order to understand the exact circumstances under which vowels were written, on the few occasions when this was done. I will then compare this with the practice of the earliest Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions. Secondly, I will look at better attested writing systems from more recent contexts to understand why and how vowels were written. Included in this will be the development of the writing of vowel points in Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac, use of the Roman alphabet to write Punic, a later form of Phoenician spoken in Carthage, as well as more contemporary examples such as text messaging. I’ll keep you updated on my progress on this blog!

~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS Project)

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

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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.

Continue reading “CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!”

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”

Eating more ancient artefacts

Well, there is a pleasant trend emerging for the baking of edible forms of ancient artefacts! Małgorzata Zadka at the University of Wroclaw sent us pictures of some gluten-free vegan cookies she had made with Linear A inscriptions:

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These are replicating a particular type of Linear A text found on small, round clay documents known by modern scholars as nodules and roundels. They often bear a single sign (as in the examples shown here) that seems to have functioned in some way logographically – which is to say that it stood for a whole word or concept. Here are some close-ups:

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I was also pleased to notice last week that there was a news story in the New York Times about the efforts of Katy Blanchard (who works with the Near Eastern collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania) to create cuneiform cookies. Here is a picture of some of her creations:

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And finally, CREWS project researcher Philip has found some images of previous ancient baking endeavours, including biscuits and a pie featuring Minoan iconography and a Phoenician jug cake. I feel lucky to work with someone so talented!

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Don’t forget that we would love to see your own creations if you have a go at making ancient inscription cookies or anything else like this! You can share them with us on Twitter (we are @crewsproject and use the hashtag #ancientbaking) or you can email us at crews@classics.cam.ac.uk. You could even look for inspiration on ancient writing systems you could use on some previous CREWS blog posts, e.g. this Ugaritic Cuneiform one, this Greek Alphabet one or this Linear B one. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

 

Edit: I couldn’t resist adding these pictures of cupcakes inspired by black figure pottery, made for an open morning at the Classics Department of Bolton School Girls Division, shared with us on Twitter today. I love the colours – channelling Exekias right there!

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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)

 

What we want to know in the CREWS project is actually how the adaptation happened from a contextual point of view. So some questions I would like to approach are, how did this contact happen and what did the Greeks use writing for? But even more puzzling than this is how and why the Greeks developed different kinds of Greek alphabets so similar and different at the same time. To answer these and other questions we have to look at the earliest Greek inscriptions and at the cultures that were in contact with them.

 

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Dipylon Oinochoe, 8th century B.C. (Photo taken by author)

 

In my previous research I have already worked with another writing system: the Paphian syllabary. This is one of the syllabaries used in ancient Cyprus to write Greek and it was in use from the 8th to the 3rd century B.C. I studied its contact with other scripts, its social context and most importantly the political consequences of its use once the standard Greek alphabet arrived in the island. I did this by bringing together linguistic, epigraphical, historical, archaeological and even numismatic approaches.

 

I hope that this new research will bring exciting answers about the origin of the Greek alphabets. My colleagues and I will keep you up-to-date on the results of our investigations. Enjoy the CREWS project blog!

 

~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)