We all love a good pun. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’, and by ‘good’ I mean ‘terrible’. So for a long time I’ve wanted to make ‘Phaistos Discuits’ – biscuit versions of the famous Phaistos Disc.
The Phaistos Disc is probably the most controversial inscription from ancient Crete, showing a ‘writing system’ (if that is what it is) that is almost unparalleled – a one-off as far as ancient inscriptions go. Despite some (really very unconvincing) attempts at decipherment, our understanding of this object remains extremely limited. However, it is just the perfect shape to turn into a biscuit!
Archaeologists working on a rescue excavation in Athens city centre have just announced the discovery of a series of clay tablets inscribed in the Linear B script, the first to be found in the city. The tablets date from the end of the Bronze Age, c.1200 BCE, and provide exciting new evidence for ritual practices in Mycenaean Greece. According to the excavation director, Professor Ilithios Apriliou, the texts refer to a ritual taking place on the first day of the month Apate, tentatively identified as the fourth month of the Mycenaean year. Participants in the ritual are recorded as receiving varying quantities of barley, while other tablets list offerings of wine and olive oil to the god Hermes (Hermahas in Mycenaean Greek). The most enigmatic of the tablets appears to act as an introduction to the whole series; while much of its text is currently obscure, Prof. Apriliou believes it describes a part of the ritual in which participants compete to tell the most outrageous stories in honour of the trickster god Hermes. The tablet is, however, badly damaged, and this interpretation relies heavily on Prof. Apriliou’s suggested restorations; an alternative reading, in which the festival is simply opened by a council of elders, is equally possible, and only close further study – and, it is to be hoped, further discoveries of tablets – will reveal the true nature of this mysterious ancient celebration.
Update: some helpful explanations (and a few more classical news items from April 1st) here!
There’s a nice temporary display that’s just gone up in the Museum of Classical Archaeology here in the Faculty, called “Tails from Mycenae” – it’s a case displaying various different depictions of animals on Mycenaean artefacts (i.e. from late Bronze Age Greece, c. the 16th-13th centuries BCE), put together by four current Classics undergradutes (Katie Phillips, Caroline Clements, Georgia Lowe and Anya Morrice). It’s nice to see such a range of different kinds of artefacts even in one small case – from pottery fragments and figurines to (replicas of) daggers and golden disks, plus of course Linear B tablets (I helped out a bit by providing a transcription of a tablet listing sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle). It’s also a good chance to see stuff that isn’t usually on public display at all in the Faculty – most of what you see in the museum is casts of statues, but as this case shows, the collection is actually quite a bit more diverse than that!
Cambridge readers can head to the Museum to see the display (free admission, Mon-Fri 10-5, Sat 10-1 during term time) – and by the way, this is also an excellent excuse to look around the rest of the Museum if you haven’t seen it before! For non-Cambridge readers, there’s a couple more pictures of the display below. And thanks to Katie, Caroline, Georgia, and Anya for putting the whole thing together!
Last term I wrote about the ‘clay play day‘ we held in my department: as the last in a series of seminars about the undeciphered Cretan script Linear A, we all got a chance to try out making and inscribing our own Linear A clay tablets. Since there was quite a bit of clay left over afterwards, I decided to have my own clay play day at home to make some tablets with inscriptions in Linear B – the script I mostly work on, which is related to Linear A but used to write Greek. This was partly an excuse just to mess around with clay a bit more, but I also figured some replica tablets would come in handy for teaching purposes, outreach events, etc – it’s hard to show what sort of size the tablets actually are via photographs on a PowerPoint. So here are some pictures of 1) a tablet in progress, using a photocopy of the published photograph and drawing to get the size right; 2) holding the finished tablet, for scale purposes; and 3) all three tablets I ended up making.
This term in the Faculty we’ve been having a series of seminars looking at Linear A, an undeciphered script from prehistoric Crete (and the script out of which Linear B, which I mostly work on, was developed). We started off with a general introduction to what Linear A is – Sarah Finlayson gave us an overview of the different sites across Crete where Linear A inscriptions have been found, their chronology (roughly between the 19th to 15th centuries B.C.E.), and the general context in which they were written (some are from ‘palaces’, others from smaller administrative centres, and some come from religious sanctuaries). I then did a survey of the kinds of documents Linear A was used to write: these ranged from administrative texts on clay tablets or on small lumps of clay (used for, e.g., labelling objects, or sealing storage jars or store-rooms) to non-administrative inscriptions on clay or stone vases, metal objects, and even a couple of graffiti scratched onto walls (there are some pictures of different kinds of inscriptions here). Continue reading “Practical epigraphy, or, Linear A Clay Play Day”
Baking cakes and cookies with inscriptions on them (as regular readers will know I’ve been doing for some time) is getting increasingly popular – here are two recent examples, the first with examples of various different writing systems including Ugaritic cuneiform, the second with a wonderful (if inadvertent) recreation of the conditions which often lead to inscriptions on clay tablets surviving from the ancient world (places, in this case ovens, catching on fire…). Watch this space for a new piece of Linguistics Baking hopefully coming soon!
Update: it turns out that a fellow-linguistics-baking-enthuiasts was writing another post at exactly the same time as I was writing this. Pippa Steele, who’s running a new project (called CREWS – Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems) in the Cambridge Classics Faculty on the history of the Greek alphabet and other ancient writing systems, would love to hear from anybody else who feels like trying out some baked inscriptions – as would I, so please do share any creations with me (via comments, or apj31 [at] cam.ac.uk) and/or Pippa (crews [at] classics.cam.ac.uk, or @crewsproject on Twitter)!
Some more board-game-related news: next week I’m going to be helping out with an event in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas called “Esagil: Treasure Hunt in Babylon“. It’s a board game designed by Marie-Françoise Besnier, a researcher studying ancient Mesopotamia – here’s the event details and blurb:
Tuesday 25 October: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Wednesday 26 October: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Thursday 27 October: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Friday 28 October: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, CB2 3DZ
Discover ancient Babylon! Seek a treasure for the great god Marduk in the maze of the city. Every encounter may change your fate… Will the odds be in your favour?
“Esagil” is a game for 2-6 players aged 8+, which approximately lasts 20-25 min. It is set in the ancient city of Babylon (1st mill. BC). The aim is to make an offering to the main god of Babylon, Marduk, in his temple, called Esagil. The offerings are sacred objects, “treasures” (all real Mesopotamian objects). The players will seek them in one of the numerous temples of the city. The winner is the first to bring his offering back to the Esagil.
The search is determined by the “if- cards” which tell the players what their next step will be. The “if- cards” are based upon real Babylonian omens. All of them were introduced by the word shumma, “if”: they recorded all kinds of signs and events that could happen in everyday life, which were understood as messages from the gods, such as a black cat crossing the road or the fall of a meteorite. “Esagil” is thus a fun way to learn about ancient Babylonian culture, especially religion and divination.
Come along and have a go at playing it (no need to book)! The Festival of Ideas is going on until October 30th and has a huge range of other events – talks, activities, exhibitions, performances, and more – check out the full event listing here, there’s pretty much guaranteed to be something for everyone!