A new (neon) gatehouse for Housesteads Roman Fort

One of the first things a classicist does after moving to Durham is, obviously, to pay a visit to Hadrian’s Wall: the wall begun by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 CE to mark the northern frontier of the Roman empire in Britain, whihc now runs across Cumbria and Northumberland. Housesteads is one of several forts along the wall that can be visited today – in fact, the best preserved of the forts, with remains of the four gateways, commander’s house, soldiers’ barracks, the hospital, granaries, and the famous toilets. Of course, in Roman archaeology, ‘best preserved’ still generally means a series of low stone walls marking the outlines of the buildings. Right now, though, Housesteads is looking a bit different – and more colourful – than usual:

In the foreground, the remains of a granary: a low rectangular wall of grey stone with short stone pillars covering the floor on the inside. In the background, a large, colourful structure with two arched doorways in the middle and towers with pointed roofs on either side, made up of multiple neon-coloured panels with symbols and text on them
Housesteads: granary and gatehouse
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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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A tour of Mycenae

Following on from last year’s virtual tour of the Mycenaean site of Tiryns, now it’s the turn of the site after which the “Mycenaean” societies of Late Bronze Age Greece are named – Mycenae (ancient Greek Μυκήναι, modern Greek Μυκήνες Mikines). This impressive fortified citadel is only about 20km from Tiryns, which was probably a subordinate/secondary site to Mycenae (although the exact relationship between the two is disputed), so if travelling by car the two can easily be done in one trip. Read on for the tour!

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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 tour of Mycenaean Tiryns

The Mycenaean palace of Tiryns (Τίρυνθα), located in the Argolid between Argos and Nafplio, has been known since ancient times for its impressive fortifications, made of stones so large they were said to have been built by the Cyclopes. It’s a site well worth visiting if you’re in the area, and after a recent trip there, I thought I’d share some photos and information here as a virtual tour.

Photograph of tall stone fortification wall, with river bed to left and blocks of stone on ground in front
Panoramic view of the fortifications of Tiryns from near the north end of the lower citadel; the upper citadel is to the right
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Temple Tales: Olympia and Eleusis in myth and reality

Logo of the European Archaeology Days, 18-20 June 2021

This weekend (18-20 June) is the European Archaeology Days, a Europe-wide celebration of all things archaeological. Here at the British School at Athens, my colleague Michael Loy and I have joined in by recording a podcast-style talk on the ancient Greek religious sites of Eleusis and Olympia. “Temple Tales: Olympia and Eleusis in myth and reality” explores the archaeology of these sites and the myths surrounding them, and asks how we can try to use both of these types of evidence together to understand more about what people did there and what they believed.

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Epigraphic baking: “I am the boundary stone of the Agora”

Content note: non-graphic mentions of blinding and the death of a young woman

On a recent visit to the Athenian Agora – the city centre of ancient Athens – I made sure to pay a visit to this stone, which, as its inscription declares, was one of the markers of the boundaries of the Agora: “ΗΟΡΟΣ ΕΙΜΙ ΤΕΣ ΑΓΟΡΑΣ” (“horos eimi tēs agoras”), “I am the boundary-stone of the Agora”. After this visit I decided to continue my epigraphic baking series by making a version in cake:

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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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