Fonts in the Epigraphic and Manuscript traditions of Roman Antiquity: Guest post by Olena Mudalige

Hello, I am Olena Mudalige. I am a second-year PhD candidate at the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts, studying Design. I previously completed a master’s degree studying art criticism and graphic practices and have qualified as an art critic and lecturer. I have come to the UK under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ programme after leaving Ukraine on February 24 2022 and have become affiliated with the CREWS project through the European Research Area for Ukraine (ERA4Ukraine), scheme. I’m currently interested in the origins and early forms of writing and in the history of study of writing in the ancient world. Today I want to write a bit about different graphical traditions in Roman writing.

The small number of surviving Latin inscriptions is explained by the fact that they were applied to marble only in the second half of the 1st C. BC. Prior to this, inscriptions were applied to tuff and limestone, which were prone to erosion from wind and rain. Inscriptions were erected on public buildings, triumphal arches, columns, tombstones. They were a reflection of the cultural aspects of the history of Roman society and a means of public and solemn representation of the Roman Empire in a vast territory from the British Isles to Egypt, from Gibraltar to the deep regions of Asia.

The widespread use of writing in ancient Rome, the high percentage of the population which was literate, the growth of libraries, the opening of enterprises for correspondence and distribution of books, public readings – all this contributed to the development of the art of beautiful writing and the emergence of the profession of ‘font master’.

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Mind the Gap: Abbreviations, Contractions and Alphabetic Symbolism: Guest post by Brien Garnand

In the Bronze Age, two incompatible alphabetic writing systems developed independently in Canaan—to the North, Ugarit’s alphabet had an interface derived from syllabic cuneiform and, to the South, miners in the Sinai used a hieroglyphic ideogram interface. From the outset, both of these regional scripts relied upon omission, where readers had to fill in gaps by supplying missing vowels. Also from the outset, both symbolic systems used individual graphemes to represent individual consonants. Both systems had their strengths, similar to the communications format war of the 1980s between Sony (Betamax) and JVC (VHS). If that reference seems obscure, you might compare these parallel but incompatible alphabetic technologies to the choice of Blu-ray versus HD-DVD, or Chrome versus Safari—although both performed well, only one format thrived. The cuneiform version had the benefit of deriving from a common international cuneiform system, using common clay scribal media and tools, and having the advantage of disambiguating three specific vowel combinations with the consonant ˀalp (ˀa, ˀi, ˀu). This Ugaritic version would play the part of Betamax in our analogy, a version with a bit more precision but perhaps not as accessible.

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A brief introduction to the introduction of cuneiform on the Armenian Highlands: Guest post by Annarita Bonfanti

Hi! I am Anna Bonfanti, former PhD candidate at the University of Pavia (Italy), and my research is (still) focused on different aspects of the Urartian culture: the adoption and adaptation of the cuneiform writing system by the Urartian royal class appeared to be a particularly important and curiously understudied topic.

Firstly, a brief introduction to the topic in general: Urartu is the exonym commonly used to indicate an Iron Age statal entity whose core area was located on the Armenian Highlands, around lake Van (modern-day Eastern Turkey).

It emerged as a more or less cohesive state in the second half of the 9th century BCE, and it gradually declined until it disappeared, probably at the beginning of the 6th century BCE. What’s curious about this state is its peculiar adherence to an Assyrian model, both in the arts and in literature, so much so that the study of the Urartian culture was initially conceived as a minor branch of the Assyriological studies. My thesis, originally born as a study of the different traces left by contacts with other populations in the Urartian culture, ended up being a reflection on the reasons why the Urartian culture owes so much to the Assyrian model.

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The introduction of the Greek alphabet in Ancient Cyprus: Guest post by Dr Beatrice Pestarino

Hi there! I am Beatrice Pestarino, an Ancient Historian specialised in Ancient Cyprus. I am interested in the socio-economic development of the Cypriot city-kingdoms into which the island was subdivided in the Archaic and Classical periods. I have recently submitted to publication the final version of my first book Kypriōn Politeia, the political ad administrative systems of the Classical Cypriot city-kingdoms – actually my PhD thesis (UCL) dressed to the nines – which reconstructs the political and administrative systems of these centres in the 5th and 4th cent. BC (forthcoming in the Brill series Mnemosyne Supplements).

My research is based on the study of inscriptions written in different languages and scripts such as Cypriot-syllabic Greek and Eteocypriot, a Cypriot autochthonous language, Phoenician, and alphabetic Greek, which were all used on the island. These inscriptions are written on different support materials, mostly stones and ostraka, but also clay/bronze tablets, pottery, and coins for which I provide new textual readings and interpretations. Their texts concern kings and officials employed by local governments or accounts of the headquarters of the main administrative centres – for example, palace archives, tax collection hubs, and workshops for processing copper, purple, and agricultural products.

The Idalion Bronze tablet (5th cent. BC), a decree which concerns a honorary payment to the physician Onasilos and his brothers, written in Greek, in the common Cypriot syllabary (to be read from right to left). BnF Cabinet des médailles, Paris.
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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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Word processing then, now and in the future…

Word processing has become such an essential part of our daily lives, particularly for those of us who write for a living, that we tend to take its presence there, and indeed its existence as an activity in itself, for granted. Yet the tool we use for this activity, namely word processing software is, of course, like the personal computer on which it depends, a very recent innovation in the story of the written word. Indeed, the modern incarnation of the word processor, such as Microsoft Word, was by no means an inevitability, and could, in principle at least, have taken a different form.

The essential component of what we would now call a word processor is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor, which displays your work on screen as it will look on the printed page, in real time. In this way, the word processor brings together meaning and form in much the same way that we would if we sat in front of a piece of paper and began writing and/or drawing. In so doing, the word processor gives us the illusion of an experience akin to physically writing.

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Depicting writing

The overwhelming tendency to talk about writing systems as linguistic codes (which they usually are in some sense) has often ignored other important aspects of writing. For instance, one way way we can study writing is as a practice or action, because writing is a thing you do. At CREWS we have been particularly interested in developing the ways we look at writing practices, because this is an area with important ramifications for the way writing looks and the place of writing in a society (and in fact you can hear me speaking about some of these issues at the beginning of this seminar video).

Fourth Dynasty Egyptian statue of a seated scribe: close-up detail. Image from here.

But how can we reconstruct the ways in which writing was done, accomplished or performed in the ancient world? The nature of the act of writing is extremely dependant on a whole range of factors, from cultural attitudes and social setting to technical expertise and interactions with oral traditions. And choices about the kinds of things you write on, the kinds of things you write with and the techniques you use to ‘apply’ the writing are central to these practices. There are a number of different ways of approaching the question, one of which is by looking at ancient visual depictions of the act of writing. This is what we will focus on in this post. Continue reading “Depicting writing”

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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Watch Presentations from the CREWS Conference!


Back in March we held our second CREWS Conference, ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’. As you’ll know if you read Pippa’s article about it, it was a very exciting three days where we heard from speakers with a very diverse set of specialisms and approaches on different aspects of how writing practices are shaped by – and shape – the social contexts in which they’re carried out. This is an important topic because all too often we think about writing systems as abstract things which can be understood purely on their own terms, rather than as part and parcel of human action and culture that encompasses everything from cookery to art. Continue reading “Watch Presentations from the CREWS Conference!”