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”

Learning about Cuneiform Tablets Behind the Scenes at the British Museum

We’ve talked before on this blog about the importance of hands-on experience with inscriptions. Seeing and handling the real thing gives a much clearer idea of the practical realities of reading and writing an ancient script than working from a transcription or even a drawing or photograph.

So I was very lucky this week to be able to visit the British Museum with Cambridge’s Assyriologists, for a behind-the-scenes tour and a hands-on session with some of their many cuneiform tablets.

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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”

Another School Visit

We’ve been doing a bit more outreach this week on the CREWS Project as Queen Elizabeth School, Barnet came to visit the Faculty of Classics. After a morning looking round the Museum of Classical Archaeology they joined us for a talk about writing in the ancient world.

I kicked things off with a look at some of the different types of writing systems that exist and an introduction to Mesopotamian and Ugaritic varieties of cuneiform and the early history of the alphabet.

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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”

Learning the alphabet

When someone I’ve known for a short time gave me this Secret Santa present, I realised how the work I just started a few months ago, now defines me completely:

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This is a CD with songs to learn the alphabet and the sounds of the letters. Although this CD is meant to teach the English alphabet and I study the ancient Greek alphabet, it made me think about the different – or maybe similar – methods that modern and ancient cultures used to learn how to write.

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Talking objects

In Ancient Greece people would write on almost any kind of object. For example, votes to send a politician to exile for 10 years were written on pottery sherds! This practice of the Athenian democracy was called ostracism because the name for “sherds” in Ancient Greek is ὄστρακα (ostraka).

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Fragments of ceramic with votes for ostracism. Picture taken by the author: Agora Museum, Athens.

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Letter-Writing: Postage stamps featuring ancient writing systems

We’re well into December and the postal services are enjoying their busiest time of the year as parcels and cards fly backwards and forwards. What better time to share this little gem I came across during my research.

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That’s a 1956 postage stamp from Syria featuring the Ugaritic abecedarium KTU 5.6, well-known to regular readers of this blog. I was curious about it, and a few minutes’ research showed that this wasn’t the only Ugarit-themed stamp Syria has issued.

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This one from 1964 isn’t writing-based, but features this famous sculpture of a head, made of ivory and adorned with gold, silver, copper and lapis lazuli. It’s usually assumed to be a statue of a prince or princess, since it was found in the city’s Royal Palace.

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This got me wondering what other countries have featured ancient writing-systems on their stamps. Here are some of the ones I found: Continue reading “Letter-Writing: Postage stamps featuring ancient writing systems”

Handwriting in Roman London

A couple of months ago a major epigraphic discovery was announced: a number of wooden writing tablets, dated to the 1st century AD, had been found in an excavation in London. This was a considerable archive, with 405 tablets of which 87 have been analysed and translated by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford. A picture of one is shown in Figure 1 below.57 AD tablet

Figure 1. Wooden writing tablet from Roman London dated to 8th January 57 AD.

Why should we get excited about this find? Well, for one thing these objects allow us a rare chance to observe Roman handwriting. We have plenty of surviving Latin but the vast majority has come through one of two routes: either through being copied down over and over again since ancient times (which is why a lot of our earliest copies of Classical authors date from the medieval period) or through being written on a durable medium such as stone or pottery that has survived to be read today. Neither of these gives us access to what Latin looked like when it was written down by hand directly by an ancient Latin speaker him/herself.

One of the reasons why Roman handwriting is hard to find has to do with the materials that were usually written on. One place to look for handwriting is in graffiti, such as have been found on the walls of Pompeii – a favourite example of mine is shown as a drawing in Figure 2 (labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaurus written around a depiction of a labyrinth). But graffiti on walls are rare and you are much more likely to find a scrawled graffito on a sherd of pottery than on a wall, with Pompeii representing an unusual chance to observe mural graffiti.

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Figure 2. Minotaur graffito from Pompeii.

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