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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Animating the Alphabet – in Lego!

Today is International Lego Classics Day on Twitter, an annual occasion when classicists all over the world dive into their Lego collections to build models related to their research. We’re big Lego fans here at CREWS and every year we try and do a couple of things for ILCD. As this year will be the last when the Project is running, we wanted to pull out all the stops. This is the result, a short film telling the history of alphabetic writing through the medium of Lego stop-motion.

I’ve wanted to try my hand at a CREWS-related stop-motion video for a while but the timing has never worked out. Fortunately this year I had just sent off proofs for two forthcoming CREWS publications so had enough leeway in my diary to get stuck in to a little Lego project for a few days.

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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.

Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

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Late Bronze Age Clay Time!

Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Cassandra Donnelly

During the last week of April the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP) hosted its first ever “Late Bronze Age Clay Time! Study Break” in the Classics Lounge in Waggener Hall at the University of Texas at Austin. Approximately twenty  undergraduate and graduate students, along with some staff and their children, produced a veritable archive of Late Bronze Age (LBA) tablets.


We provided attendees with the clay (local-fire “Longhorn Red” clay from Armadillo Clay), three types of styluses, and one of three different instruction packets. The first type of instruction packet pertained to Mycenaean Greek and Linear B, the second to Ugaritic, and the third to Cypro-Minoan. Each packet included instructions for how to make one of three tablet types, a signary in the corresponding script, and a model text to write in the corresponding language. Each of the texts, once combined, tells the story of the Late Bronze Age copper trade as mediated by Cypriot traders. Continue reading “Late Bronze Age Clay Time!”

Ninety years of Ugaritic Studies

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.

Ugaritic tablets in situ.

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Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.


Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean

My research has taken a fun turn towards practical experiments lately, as some of our Twitter followers may have noticed. It isn’t just because I wanted to get away from the computer (though I did…); it’s because I have been working on a problem where direct evidence is scarce and/or difficult to interpret, and where experimentation is surprisingly elucidating.

My work on a replica Cypro-Minoan tablet.

We know that during the Bronze Age a number of civilisations around the eastern Mediterranean were using clay to write on. From Mesopotamian cuneiform to Linear A and B in the Aegean, people found that this reusable natural resource provided a vital tool for making records. But they didn’t all use it in the same way, and they didn’t all use the same implements or methods to write on it – instead traditions of writing display considerable regional differences, whether or not there might have been any influences from one place to another. Continue reading “What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean”

Ancient writing at the Festival of Ideas

The last couple of weeks here in Cambridge have been dedicated to the Festival of Ideas, which featured a few events focused on ancient writing.

9017d0f91b10520efc3af725377d9fda.pngCREWS had its own event on Friday 19th October as part of an evening of fun in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (AKA the Cast Gallery) at the Faculty of Classics: Raiders of the Secret Scripts, mostly aimed at an adult audience. Philip and Rob were on hand to guide people through an exercise in reading Ugaritic cuneiform, while anyone interested in Linear B could try their hand at counting animals in a clay tablet, with me and our CREWS-friend colleague Dr Anna Judson there to help with the hard bits.


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Further Experiments in Ancient Baking: Pop-tarblets

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about my visit to the British Museum, one person commented that the cuneiform tablets looked like pop-tarts. Anyone familiar with the CREWS Project and our love of ancient baking will know that this is the sort of challenge we can’t let go. I haven’t had pop-tarts since I was a kid, and not too often then, but it turns out they’re not too difficult to make. Naturally we had to give it a try.

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