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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Free teaching materials! Writing in the Ancient World

waw cartoon detail
Illustrations by Katie Idle

We are excited to announce the launch of our free teaching materials on Writing in the Ancient World, which includes teaching packs on five writing systems, cartoons and ideas for play sessions. They were designed with age 8-11 children in mind (i.e. roughly Key Stage 2 in the UK), but we hope that they will be useful for a wide range of people and will reach an international audience. If you are interested in learning more, please click through to the links below.

Writing in the Ancient World teaching materials

You may also be interested in these resources:

Write with CREWS videos

Write your name in an ancient writing system worksheets

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Video: Pippa speaking on writing systems and practices, and writing in Bronze Age Cyprus

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the SCRIBO seminar this week, a virtual seminar series on ancient writing hosted in Bologna by Silvia Ferrara, who runs the ERC-sponsored INSCRIBE project.

You can view the whole talk on YouTube here:

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Elven Vowels II

In a previous post for the CREWS blog, I explored the way in which vowel signs are used in the Tengwar to write various Elven languages. In this post, I want to focus on the question of the way in which vowel writing develops, as envisaged in Tolkien’s Legendarium.

According to Tolkien, by the Third Age, that is, the period described in The Lord of the Rings, the Elven scripts “had reached the stage of full alphabetic development, but older modes in which only the consonants were denoted by full letters were still in use” (Appendix E II). In other words, in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, contemporary scripts write vowels like any other letter, but archaic scripts continued to write vowels above and below the consonantal letters, using marks known as tehtar. We see the former approach in use in the inscription on the West-gate of Moria, while we see the latter on the ring inscription. The difference is plainly visible in the relative lack of markings above the letters in the West-gate inscription.

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pedo mellon a minno

“Speak friend and enter”

Section of West-gate inscription (Typeset using the TengwarScript package in LaTeX, https://ctan.org/pkg/tengwarscript?lang=en, using the Tengwar Annatar font designed by Johan Winge)

 

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Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Ring Inscription (image from here).

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Deciphering Invented Scripts in Computer Games: Heaven’s Vault and Sethian

Earlier this year a game came out which is right up CREWS’s street. Heaven’s Vault is a narrative sci-fi archaeology game where the central mechanic sees the player attempting to decipher a writing system found in ancient inscriptions. It justifiably received a lot of praise from reviewers, offering up a pleasingly thoughtful alternative to the usual video-game portrayal of archaeologists as gung-ho action heroes who negotiate traps and fight mercenaries, Nazis and wild animals. Its developers, Inkle, are well-known for crafting careful and well-written branching narratives, so the exploration and decipherment elements are wrapped up in an appealing choose-your-own-adventure structure.

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CREWS Conference Presentations #5 – Writing and Identity

Welcome to the final instalment of this series collecting talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems‘, which was held last March at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge. Our final two talks are:

Dr Katherine McDonald, University of Exeter – Connectivity and competition: alphabets as identities in Italy

Natalia Elvira Astoreca, CREWS, University of Cambridge – Names and authorship in the beginnings of Greek alphabetic writing

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we did. It was a wonderful conference and we’re very grateful to everyone who came and participated, including those speakers who weren’t able to share their talks in video form. We hope that the proceedings book will be available in the second half of next year.

If you’d like to revisit any of the talks from this conference, the full playlist is available here.

CREWS Conference Presentations #3 – Writing for Display

It’s Thursday so we have three more wonderful talks from the CREWS Conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’ for you to enjoy.

Sophie Heier, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität Munich – The visibility of runic writing and its relation to Viking Age society

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Conference programme and registration

We’ve now released the full programme for our conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’, which takes place in the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge on the 14th-16th March 2019. It can be viewed and downloaded on the Conference page.

We are also now opening registration. The conference is free but if you’d like to attend it is necessary to register, as places are limited. To do so, please email Dr Philip Boyes at pjb70@cam.ac.uk.

We look forward to March and what is shaping up to be a fascinating set of talks!

Writing in Time and Space: the writing ‘systems’ of Doctor Who

doctor_who_season_11_logo_thumb800Anyone who’s followed the CREWS blog will know that we’re fond of a bit of sci-fi and fantasy. We’ve talked about the writing systems of Star Wars, Game of Thrones and Indiana Jones. But ever since I was a kid, my absolute favourite piece of science fiction has been Doctor Who. Since it’s finally back this weekend, what better time to look at how it handles writing?
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