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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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!”

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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Then Natalia took over and moved things into the Mediterranean as she looked at some of the different ways the Greeks used writing and the different things they wrote on, and how the Greek alphabet developed into the Latin one we use today.

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The pupils had lots of interesting questions for us to answer, on everything from how the Latin alphabet was adapted to a Germanic language in English to our thoughts on the future of writing.

We were also able to show them an inscribed sherd of Greek pottery from the Museum’s collections and casts of Linear B tablets.

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It’s lovely to be able to talk to young people about the ancient world and to share our enthusiasm for ancient writing systems. We hope we’ll be able to do much more of this sort of thing in the future (and if you are interested in arranging a school visit, please get in touch with us at crews@classics.cam.ac.uk any time). In the short term, look out for us on Saturday 18 March at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in central Cambridge – we’ll be there as part of the University’s Science Festival.

~ Philip Boyes, Research Associate, CREWS Project

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”

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!

 

 

 

 

Introduction: Philip Boyes

 

Hello! I’m Philip Boyes and I’m absolutely delighted to be joining the CREWS Project as a Research Associate from November 2016. I’m going to be looking at the Ugaritic writing system, its emergence and its context of use. Ugaritic is a fascinating Late Bronze Age adaptation of the existing cuneiform writing systems used across the Near East. Instead of each sign representing a syllable, as had traditionally been the case, Ugaritic is an alphabetic system (though one where only consonants are represented and not vowels) and was used to represent the local language of the city of Ugarit.

 

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An abecedarium from Ugarit.

 

At the heart of my approach is the idea that we should explore changes in writing systems like this as we would any other example of social change – and that means getting to grips with the social context in as much detail we can, looking at how the creation and use of the Ugaritic script is linked to every aspect of society and culture, from politics and the economy to social status, gender and other forms of social identity. The only way to do this is to draw on every kind of evidence that’s available to us – not just the texts found at Ugarit, but also the archaeological evidence, iconographic representations, historical documents and more..

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Ruins at Ugarit – Photo by Loris Romito, from Wikipedia. CC BY-SA

 

This bringing-together of different kinds of evidence is for me one of the most exciting aspects of the CREWS Project. In my more recent academic career I’ve mainly been an archaeologist and ancient historian: my PhD research was on social change in Phoenicia (the coastal region south of Ugarit, roughly equivalent to modern Lebanon) and I’ve been lucky enough to excavate at the Hittite site of Kilise Tepe in Turkey and at the Phoenician African colony of Carthage, as well as a spell as a commercial archaeologist based in Salisbury (you can spot me in a couple of episodes of Time Team!). Before that, though, my background was in Aegean prehistory, Linear B epigraphy and comparative linguistics, and I’ve maintained my interest in linguistics and writing systems even when they haven’t been my main research topics. Archaeology and linguistics aren’t studied together all that often and I’ve always been extremely interested in how they can shed light on each other and improve our understanding of both. I’m really looking forward to being able to bring together these different strands of my career on this project.

 

I’ll be writing again soon, once I’ve started my research. In the meantime, if you’d like more from me, I’ve blogged for Res Gerendae on things as diverse as lettuce in Sumerian love poetry, Greek and Roman sea monsters, and Classics in Doctor Who. My own blog, which will cover similar things that don’t fall directly within the scope of the CREWS Project, is Ancient Worlds.

 

~ Philip Boyes (soon to be Research Associate on the CREWS project)