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”

Our Ancient Writing Display, and Other Ancient Writing at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Today is International Museum Day, a good day to celebrate the stellar work done by museum staff to make museums the places of learning and inspiration that we all know and love. It has been a real privilege to witness this in action through our special writing-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (a collaboration between the CREWS project and the Fitzwilliam and British Museums).

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If a display on ancient writing sounds interesting, do come and visit – it finishes on 10th June so there is still some time left. You can find it in the Cypriot Gallery at the Fitzwilliam. If coming to Cambridge isn’t easy for you, on the other hand, I hope you can have a sort of virtual tour by looking through our blog posts on each item: the whole list is HERE. Continue reading “Our Ancient Writing Display, and Other Ancient Writing at the Fitzwilliam Museum”

The Writing Dead: Literacy in The Walking Dead’s apocalypse

Coming up to the season 8 finale of one of my favourite TV shows, The Walking Dead, my mind has been lingering on something other than the fear of main character deaths and the elusive potential for the good guys to find peace with the current bad guys. The curse of being an epigraphist is that I’m always looking out for signs of writing and the contexts in which writing is used – which is, of course, exactly what I’m working on in my day job (albeit for the ancient world rather than a post-apocalyptic alternative reality).

So as I’ve been watching The Walking Dead, I’ve started asking myself: in a world where the dead are everywhere and society has changed radically, what might that mean for reading and writing?

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For TWD fans, beware of a few (fairly mild) SPOILERS if you keep reading – including for season 8, but not the finale. All images in this post are copyright of AMC.

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Writing on High

I have been meaning to post something about the Bisitun (or Behistun) inscription for ages now, but never seem to get round to it. Noticing that today is International Mountain Day has finally spurred me to action – though this will have to be a short post for now because I don’t have time at the moment to do this wonderful monument the justice it deserves.

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The inscription can be found 100m up a cliff, on Mt Behistun in present-day Iran. It’s huge (15 x 25 m) and incorporates images as well as trilingual text in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. All three languages are written in different types of cuneiform, i.e. wedge-shaped writing that was adapted and developed by different societies of the Near East. By the time of this inscription (late 6th or early 5th C BC), cuneiform had already been in use for thousands of years, so what we are seeing here are very late manifestations of a multi-stranded tradition of writing with a very long history. Continue reading “Writing on High”

The Dolphin Stone and the Cretan Alphabet

Did you know that between the 8th and 5th/4th centuries BC, there was more than one alphabet used in ancient Greece? Each region had its own alphabet – all similar to each other but with a few distinctive features (e.g. extra letters, or a special value for a letter that had a different value elsewhere). In this post I want to talk about the island of Crete, which was one of the areas that had its own unique alphabet.

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Learning about ancient writing

We recently had the pleasure of being involved in a number of outreach events organised through the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. That meant talking to the public about our work and showing people (especially groups of children) how to write in ancient writing systems. These are more than ‘just’ outreach events for us – they are a valuable opportunity to put our theoretical work into practice and share it with others!

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You don’t have to be present at these events to join in! If trying your hand at ancient writing appeals to you, have a look at our ‘write your name’ sheets HERE. Currently available are the ‘standard’ Greek alphabet, the Cretan alphabet, Phoenician, Ugaritic cuneiform, Linear B and Egyptian hieroglyphics. They can be downloaded and used for free so please do have a look and try writing your name or a message.

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First up was the Prehistory and Archaeology Day organised by the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. This was a big event with all sorts of different activities, where the opportunity to learn an ancient writing system was just one of the possibilities on offer. Philip helped to run a drop-in stall (alongside colleagues from Archaeology and Classics) showing people how to write in Ugaritic and Akkadian cuneiform as well as other scripts. The practical element to this was not only learning to write in these scripts but also using a stylus to write something on a clay tablet.

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