It’s a WRAP: moving from Athens to Durham

Nearly two years ago, I was preparing to move to Athens to start a new research project ‘Writing at Pylos’ (acronym: WRAP), funded by the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, at the British School at Athens. It’s hard to believe that I’m now in the final stages of wrapping up the project (pun very much intended) before starting a new job in just a couple of days’ time: from September 1st I will officially be an Assistant Professor (Teaching) in the Department of Classics & Ancient History at Durham, teaching mostly classical Greek and Latin language, with a bit of epigraphy too (and yes, even some Linear B!).

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Aegean scripts in the digital age 2: practising Linear B

Following on from my round-up of fonts to use for Linear B and other Aegean and Cypriot writing systems, a quick post to share two options for practicing reading Linear B online or on your phone!

The first option is a Memrise course to learn and practice all the signs of the Linear B script, including all the syllabograms (signs representing syllables, used to spell out words), logograms/ideograms (signs representing the objects being recorded on the Linear B administrative documents – people, animals, goods), and the weights and measures symbols. It was created by former Cambridge student C N Howarth for the course I used to teach there in reading Linear B texts, but is suitable for anyone wanting to learn or practice recognising the Linear B signs!

Screenshot of Memrise Linear B course showing the syllabograms qa, qe, qi, qo
Screenshot of Learn Linear B app showing vocabulary list. Each entry has the Linear B version, transcription, interpretation, and a comparison to Classical Greek. These entries read: me-re-u-ro "flour", related to ἄλευρον; na-u-do-mo "shipbuilders", related to ναῦς & δέμω; po-ti-ni-ja "mistress" compare classical πότνια

The second is a new “Learn Linear B” app (available for Android and iPhone), created by Bill Linney with consultation from Emily Egan, Dimitri Nakassis, and me. Unlike the Memrise course, it only includes the ‘core’ syllabograms (five vowel signs, and various series of signs representing a single consonant plus a vowel; not the more complex ‘extra’ signs or the undeciphered signs), and a selection of ideograms; however, it also has numerals and a vocabulary list with a selection of two-, three-, and four-character words, plus some contextual information.

Of course, there’s always also the good old-fashioned way I learned Linear B, by making flashcards out of index cards… If any other students or teachers of Linear B have other recommendations for practice quizzes etc, do let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here!

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Learning to spell in Linear B

Screenshot of Cambridge University Press website for the Cambridge Classical Journal, showing title "Learning to spell in Linear B: orthography and scribal training in Mycenaean Pylos" and beginning of abstract

My article on how Mycenaean scribes at the palace of Pylos learned to spell in the Linear B writing system has now been published in the Cambridge Classical Journal via ‘First View’ – i.e. it’s published online in advance of the print issue which should be out later this year. “Learning to spell in Linear B: orthography and scribal training in Mycenaean Pylos” is freely available to read and download (thanks to my EU Marie-Skłodowska Curie funding which enabled it to be published gold open access), and you can also read my previous blog posts giving some background on Linear B spelling (and how it’s surprisingly similar in some ways to the syllabary used to write the Native American language Cherokee!) and summarising my article. Questions and comments welcome below!

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Spelling B: how did Mycenaean scribes learn to spell in Linear B?

Rectangular tablet oriented horizontally with four lines of Linear B writing, and a small wooden stylus beneath it
Replica of a Linear B tablet from Pylos recording religious offerings of grain, and replica stylus. Tablet made by me, stylus by Philip Boyes

In my last post I wrote about the apparent ‘problems’ in how the prehistoric Linear B script is used to write the Mycenaean Greek language, and how these are actually not ‘problems’ at all, but a compromise between accurate representation of the language and economy in the number of different signs in the writing signs – as demonstrated by the use of very similar orthographic strategies in how the modern Cherokee syllabary represents the Cherokee language. Today I want to look in more detail at how Mycenaean writers actually used the Linear B orthographic system, and what this can tell us about both their attitudes towards ‘correct’ spelling and the way(s) in which they were taught to spell in the first place.

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A tale of two scripts: Linear B and Cherokee

The writing system used for the Native American language Cherokee (ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ‎ Tsalagi Gawonihisdi) was invented by a Cherokee man called Sequoyah (ᏍᏏᏉᏯ Ssiquoya), a silversmith by profession, between c.1809-1821. It’s a syllabary of 85 signs, each standing for a syllable consisting of a vowel or a consonant plus a vowel, which was rapidly adopted by the Cherokee after its invention and is still in use today (the Cherokee language is endangered, with only c.2,000 first-language speakers, but the Cherokee Nation is working to promote the learning of both the language and the syllabary). The story of how Sequoyah invented this writing system is a fascinating one in its own right, but also surprisingly relevant to the study of the Bronze Age Greek syllabary Linear B – read on to find out why!

Cherokee Syllabary chart (Mattie.walkerr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
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Aegean scripts in the digital age: a guide to fonts

I quite often get asked about fonts to use for Linear B and the other related Aegean and Cypriot syllabic writing systems, and since I’ve just come across a couple of new (to me) options, I thought I’d share them all here for anyone else looking to write Linear B et al. in digital form! Tl; dr, it’s easier than you might expect to write Linear B on an electronic tablet instead of a clay one… (sorry, obligatory “tablet” joke). Read on for some options!

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Wax tablets in the ancient world

This post was written jointly with Cassie Donnelly, who is a PhD student in the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas at Austin, and who contributed the ancient Near Eastern sections.

Normally this blog is all about writing on clay tablets, but just for a change, today we’re going to look at ancient writing on a different kind of tablet. Tablets made of wood (or sometimes ivory) with a recess filled with wax were a common writing support in the ancient Mediterranean world – a sharp stylus made of wood, metal, or bone would be used to write in the wax, while if a mistake was made or the text was no longer needed, it could be erased using the other, flattened, end of the stylus. Tablets could be joined together in pairs (as in this picture) or larger sets in a kind of ‘book’.

Two-leafed wax tablet with stylus. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Comfort Classics: Anna P. Judson

I did an interview in Cora Beth Knowles’ “Comfort Classics” series about one of my favourite Linear B tablets – featuring labyrinths, doodling, and cake-baking! You can read it here:

Classical Studies Support

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Anna P. Judson

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

This Linear B clay tablet from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, with a drawing of a labyrinth on the back.

When did you first come across this tablet?

I must have first seen a picture of it sometime during my MPhil degree in 2011-12, when I started learning to read Linear B and spent a lot of time practicing on drawings and photographs of tablets. Later on I was able to see the real thing on a study visit to Greece – it’s on display in the National Archaeological…

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Goodbye Cambridge, γεια σου Αθήνα!

Goodbye Cambridge, hello Athens!

I’ve been a postdoctoral Research Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, for the last four years. As part of this fellowship, I’ve continued the work I began during my PhD, looking at ways to understand more about the remaining ‘undeciphered’ signs of Linear B – the sound-values of fourteen of this writing system’s eighty-seven syllabic signs are still uncertain, nearly 70 years after the script as a whole was deciphered. My monograph based on my thesis, The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B: Interpretation and Scribal Practices, which has just been published with CUP, not only tries to establish as much as is currently possible about the most likely types of sound-value each of these signs may have, but also uses them to explore wider issues about the Linear B writing system’s creation from its parent script Linear A and its use by the Mycenaean scribes to write administrative documents. Other publications arising from my PhD include an article called “The mystery of the Mycenaean labyrinth: the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs”, which looks at one particular sign whose exact sound-value is debated, due largely to its appearance in the word ‘labyrinth’ (da-pu2-ri-to), and the implications its interpretation has for the relationship between Linear B and Linear A, and a book chapter “Processes of script adaptation and creation in Linear B: the evidence of the “extra” signs“, which explores similar issues to do with the initial creation of Linear B but also investigates the script’s ongoing development as the writers who used it created new signs to fit in with the needs of the administrative records they were writing.

Elongated clay tablet with two lines of writing
Linear B tablet recording various kinds of livestock
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Scribes as editors: tracking changes in the Linear B documents

Erasing writing on a clay tablet – for instance, by dragging the flat end of a stylus over the damp clay – leaves traces of this part of the writing process: marks on the clay showing that something has been erased and, if we’re lucky, enough of the original signs that we can read what the writer originally wrote, before they erased and perhaps re-wrote the text. Traces like these in the administrative Linear B texts from Late Bronze Age Greece (c.1400-1200 BCE) are the subject of my latest article, ‘Scribes as editors: tracking changes in the Linear B documents’, which just came out in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Colour photo of lower half of page-shaped clay tablet: 13 lines of text, of which a block of four in the middle have been erased. These lines show horizontal markings across them from erasure; the shapes of many of the erased signs are still visible underneath these markings.
Linear B tablet with four lines of text erased. Underneath the horizontal marks from erasure process, traces of the original signs can still be seen. Photo: PY Jn 725.14-.27, courtesy of the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati; annotation by author.
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