Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit

How does writing work as a part of society and culture? That was the question I set out to address when I joined CREWS in 2016. It’s not a complete question, though. Society and culture are specific things, particular to a given place at a given time. No two societies operate in the same way, and culture is arguably even more prone to differences, not just by time and society, but even within societies themselves. As long-term followers of this blog will know, my specific case study has been the kingdom of Ugarit, a small but important Syrian trading power in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries BC. Now, after four years of research, I’ve finally been able to offer up some answers in the form of a book, Script and Society: The Social Context of Writing Practices in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, just published by Oxbow books.

Since excavations began over 90 years ago, Ugarit has been an extremely important site in Near Eastern studies because of its large corpus of surviving clay tablets. Many of these are written in the Akkadian language and the logosyllabic cuneiform script that was used across much of the Near East and East Mediterranean in this period. However, just over half the tablets from Ugarit are written in a different script and language: an alphabetic form of cuneiform used to write the local Ugaritic language. In addition, there are relatively small collections of written material in other scripts and languages such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cypro-Minoan.

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Beyond Cyprus conference – with videos

Back in December we had to pleasure to be involved in a conference organised by CREWS Visiting Fellow Giorgos Bourogiannis, Beyond Cyprus: Investigating Cypriot Connectivity in the Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the End of the Classical Period. This was an impressive four-day event, organised as part of Giorgos’s project on Cypriot Connectivity in the Mediterranean (CyCoMed), which is affiliated with the CREWS project.

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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 #2 – Archaeology and Materiality

We’re back with more talks from last March’s CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems‘. Today’s papers come from our sessions on the archaeology and materiality of writing.Remember you can subscribe to our YouTube channel to be kept up to date with the release of more videos like these.

Dr Philip Boyes, CREWS, University of Cambridge – The Social Archaeology of Writing Systems

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Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

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Mohamed Moursal working at Ugarit

Ninety years ago today, on 14 May 1929, a workman at the excavations of the newly-discovered Syrian archaeological site of Ras Shamra made one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century for the study of ancient writing systems – a number of clay tablets inscribed in a previously unknown version of cuneiform. Typically for the colonial context and the hierarchical nature of archaeology at the time, it’s usually the French director of the excavations, Claude Schaeffer, who gets the credit for this discovery but the actual discoverer’s name was Mohamed Moursal. Writing some years later, Schaeffer records the moment of the discovery as follows (translated from the French):

At five o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun transformed the Alawite mountains east of the tell into a golden fringe, I observed one of my workmen who stopped his work to examine what at a distance had the appearance of a small brick. Mohamed Moursal, a Turk from Bourj Islam, a good workman, but preferring effort rather than the delicate work of releasing fragile objects, spat on his find and with the palm of his right hand rubbed on it to remove the film of earth that masked the surface.

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Ugaritic tablets in situ.

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CREWS Display: Replica Ugaritic Tablet

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This week in our look through the objects in the CREWS exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, we’re shining the spotlight on one of our replicas, this Ugaritic tablet I made last summer. There are lots of reasons why we’ve included replica items in the exhibition. Partly it lets us show off writing systems for which genuine ancient examples are hard to come by and which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to include. But they also have an important research role. Continue reading “CREWS Display: Replica Ugaritic Tablet”

Learning Ugaritic and Making Tablets

DSCN0025Since I joined the CREWS Project last November, I’ve been teaching myself Ugaritic. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to put that knowledge to work. It’s traditional among Cambridge’s classical linguists to spend the last term of the academic year learning a language outside the usual repertoire of Greek and Latin. This year it was my turn to lead the group in Ugaritic. Continue reading “Learning Ugaritic and Making Tablets”

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”

How to make a cylinder seal

In the ancient world, if you wanted to sign something you used a seal. They came in various shapes and sizes – stamps, seals, signet rings – but the general idea was always the same: you had a small object that you could press into clay or wax to mark it with a design unique to you – just like a signature. This could be used in various ways. In the Near East, for example, legal decisions or transactions might be recorded on a tablet, and then all the witnesses would press their seals into the clay next to their names. In other cases it could function as an official lock – a door or container-lid could have a blob of clay pressed over the join and this would be marked with an official’s seal. If the clay was broken – or if it had been replaced with one without the seal – then people would know it had been tampered with. Here’s one of the most famous examples of this: the unbroken clay seal on the tomb of Tutankhamun, photographed before it was opened in 1922.

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