Women’s writing in the ancient world

Although most of the literature that we have from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East was written by men, we do also have compositions by women – most famously the Greek poet Sappho, as well as other Greek and Roman poets (e.g. Corinna, Nossis, and Sulpicia: for more, see this list of ancient women authors); an ancient Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna, who lived in the 23rd century BCE, is often referred to as the first known author in history (although at least some of the hymns attributed to her actually seem to have been composed several centuries later). Similarly, most of the inscriptions that actually survive – including letters, archival documents, grave markers, public or legal texts, and religious dedications – will have been both commissioned and physically written/inscribed by men; even in cases where the text makes it clear that a woman is ultimately responsible for it, it is not necessarily the case that she actually wrote it (e.g. stone inscriptions would be carved by specialist craftspeople, probably men; letters were frequently dictated to scribes, mostly ditto). But we do have some ancient texts which show evidence of literate women actually engaging in the practice of writing, and it’s those – or at least a small selection of them – that I’d like to look at for this International Women’s Day post.

The most famous example from the Roman world comes from Roman Britain, specifically from the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, where a large number of  wooden writing tablets, with letters and administrative documents written in ink, have been found, mostly from around 100 CE. Amongst them is this letter, sent by a woman called Claudia Severa – the wife of an officer at another fort – to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda, to invite her to a birthday party:

Vindolanda Tablet 291. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Continue reading “Women’s writing in the ancient world”

Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B

P1070717 (2)
Linear B tablet from Knossos listing a group of sheep, goats, cattle and pigs (KN Co 907; on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum)

Last month I was teaching some classes on interpreting the texts of the administrative Linear B tablets from Late Bronze Age (‘Mycenaean’) Greece, and one of the texts we looked at read as follows:

‘Kerowos the shepherd (poimēn) at A-si-ja-ti-ja watching over the quadrupeds (kwetropopphi) of Thalamatās: 1 man’   (Pylos Ae 134)

In some ways, this is nice and straightforward by Linear B standards: we can linguistically interpret pretty much every word (and even where we can’t, their meaning is clear from context and other examples of the same – a-si-ja-ti-ja is evidently a place-name) and produce a translation of the whole sentence (there are some linguistic quibbles over exactly how the syntax works, but it doesn’t really affect the overall meaning). In other ways, it’s entirely characteristic of Linear B in that it’s so laconic that translating it produces as many questions as it answers. In particular, the question my students asked was ‘So what kind of animals are these quadrupeds?’- ‘quadrupeds’ being a literal translation of kwetro-popphi ‘four-footed [things]’ (in later Greek, tetrapous). I realized when they asked this that I simply didn’t know, and in fact had never really thought about it – so I decided to look into it. Continue reading “Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B”

Troy: Myth and Reality – review

Following on from my visit to the Ashmolean’s ‘Last Supper at Pompeii’ exhibition over Christmas, just before term started I headed to the British Museum’s exhibition on ‘Troy: Myth and Reality‘ (on until March 8th). The entrance sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition by pairing ancient artefacts – a classical vase showing Achilles killing the Amazon Penthesilea, and a pot found at the site of the real Troy (Hisarlik, Turkey) – with modern artworks inspired by the story of the Trojan War, including this set of ceramic and concrete sculptures which to me were a very evocative depiction of the brutality and dehumanisation involved in much of this story.

‘The Death of Hector’, ‘King Priam’, and ‘The Skaian Gate’, from Anthony Caro’s ‘Trojan War’ sculptures

Continue reading “Troy: Myth and Reality – review”

Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean

Statue of Bacchus, god of wine, at the introduction to ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’

Happy New Year to readers of this blog! And to start the year off, I’m reviewing an exhibition I went to see over the Christmas break – the Ashmolean’s ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ (which closes in just a few days, on January 12th; for readers not in Oxford, there are a few pictures of exhibits and a video at the link).

The exhibition is billed as ‘tell[ing] the story of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii’s love affair with food and wine’, and it features plenty of wonderful artefacts relating to that theme, many of them loaned from the Naples Archaeological Museum or from the site of Pompeii itself — from the pots and pans used to cook and serve meals, to depictions of food on frescoes and mosaics, to an actual carbonised loaf of bread. Continue reading “Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean”

Tripods, tables, and tablets – or, how to prepare for a Mycenaean feast

I recently jumped on the Twitter bandwagon of writing poems in the style of William Carlos Williams, since it was pretty clear to me that the internet could only be improved by having more poems based on Linear B tablets:

This is just to say

P1070798 (2)
Tripod in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (photo: author)

I have counted
the tripods
that were in
the storeroom

and which
you were probably
for the feast

one has only one foot
and another
is burned off at the legs


I thought now I’d talk a bit more about the actual Linear B tablets which inspired the poem, starting with the famous ‘tripod tablet’ from the palace of Pylos. This tablet famously proved that Linear B had been correctly deciphered as representing an early form of Greek, since the symbols representing different kinds of vessels matched their Greek descriptions: the three-legged vessels were preceded by the Greek word tripodes ‘tripods’, and jars depicted with four, three, and no handles were described as kwetrōwes ‘four-eared’, triōwes ‘three-eared’, and anōwes ‘with no ears’. (You can read more about this, and about the process by which Linear B was deciphered, here).

Tripod tablet
The ‘tripod tablet’ (PY Ta 641) in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (photo: author)

Continue reading “Tripods, tables, and tablets – or, how to prepare for a Mycenaean feast”

CSI Knossos: palmprints on the Linear B tablets

There’s something particularly special about seeing the physical traces left behind on ancient objects by the people who made or used them, whether that’s footprints on a tile from ancient Italy, teeth marks of a teenage student who apparently bit into a cuneiform tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, or even a mark left by an animal rather than a person:

Once, while working in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, I turned over a Linear B tablet from Pylos to find four deep marks left by the fingers of someone handling the tablet (presumably its maker and/or writer) soon after it was made, while the clay was still wet. For all that my research is all about trying to use the evidence the tablets provide to reconstruct the activities of their writers, I still felt pretty overwhelmed by the fact that I was putting my own (gloved!) hand into fingermarks made by a person who lived more than 3,000 years ago. But ancient hand- and fingerprints can do much more than make us feel a connection to the person who left those marks. There’s a wide range of archaeological research now being done on fingerprints, especially on ceramics, where they can give important information about the identities (particularly the gender) of the people making them — and they also play a part in the study of the Linear B tablets. Continue reading “CSI Knossos: palmprints on the Linear B tablets”

Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan

My fellow ancient writing system researchers in the CREWS Project have organised a Cypro-Minoan seminar/’reading’ group this term, to coincide with the visits of two visiting researchers who work on ancient Cyprus (Cassie Donnelly and Giorgos Bourogiannis, who have written about their research here and here). Cypro-Minoan is an undeciphered writing system used in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age, mainly on the island of Cyprus but also at the site of Ugarit on the coast of Syria. My recent(ish) post about undeciphered writing systems focused on those found on Crete, so didn’t include Cypro-Minoan, but a lot of the same issues arise with trying to understand it: the corpus is very small (200-odd inscriptions), widely dispersed both geographically and chronologically, and consists of a very wide range of different types of inscribed objects (from probably administrative clay tablets and balls to inscriptions on metal bowls, clay figurines, ivory pipes, and seals); and we don’t know what the language(s) it represents is/are. As is now traditional, for this week’s seminar I made a baked version of one of the inscriptions we’ve been looking at: six signs incised on a miniature copper ‘oxhide’ ingot from the site of Enkomi.


Cypro-Minoan inscription on a miniature copper ingot, in brownie form (##175)

Continue reading “Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan”