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).

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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!

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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!”

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.

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Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.

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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.

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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”