A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems

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The Phaistos Disc – see below

Every so often a news article will make the rounds of the internet – or, for that matter, a paper will be published in an academic journal – presenting a new ‘decipherment’ of an undeciphered ancient writing system. Obviously, such decipherments have taken place in the past – probably most famously that of Egyptian hieroglyphs – and it’s certainly possible that more will take place in the future; but when it comes to the undeciphered writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean, at least, there’s good reason to be extremely sceptical about any such claims of decipherment. This post is a quick guide to some key facts about the various related writing systems found in Bronze Age Crete and mainland Greece, starting with the one deciphered writing system, Linear B, and then surveying the undeciphered ones roughly in order of how much we know about them, looking very briefly at where and when they’re from, what kinds of documents exist, and how much (if anything) we know about the writing system or the language it represents. Continue reading “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems”


Another writing systems conference

It’s going to be a busy time for linguists in the Classics Faculty in March – not only is there the conference I’m organising on “Diversity of Writing Systems“, but there’s also going to be another conference about writing, this one on “Exploring the Social and Cultural
Contexts of Historic Writing Systems
“. Organised by my colleagues in the CREWS Project, it looks like a wonderful programme, and I’m looking forward to attending (and chairing a session)! Programme and registration details here:


Diversity of Writing Systems – programme

I’m very pleased to now be able to share the programme for the Association of Written Language and Literacy’s 12th International Workshop on ‘Diversity of Writing Systems’ (AWLL12), taking place in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics on March 26-28th 2019. It’s been very exciting putting together such a wide-ranging programme, and I’m really looking forward to the conference! All the information on how to register for the conference is also available via the AWLL12 website:

via Programme

On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain

I’ve just given a talk for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas about the different kinds of written evidence that survive from Roman Britain and what they can tell us, so thought I’d write up a summary here for any interested readers who couldn’t come to the talk! The title “On the Edge” was chosen to fit in with the theme of this year’s festival, “Extremes”, and to reflect the position of Britain on the very edge of the Roman Empire (a journey from Rome to London in October could take up to 40 days), and for that matter the position of many of the surviving texts, which come from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain, on the very edge of the Roman-controlled part of the island. A major theme of the talk was how, despite this remote position, Britain was very well connected with the rest of the Roman world, as the evidence of many of the written documents shows.

Hadrian’s Wall. Photo by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Continue reading “On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain”

Reviewing the new corpus of inscribed stirrup jars

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ISJ from Thebes. Image via Mnamon.

I’ve just had a review published by the Bryn Mawr Classical Review of Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi’s Supplemento al corpus di iscrizioni vascolari in lineare B (Supplement to the Corpus of Linear B Inscribed Stirrup Jars) – a collection of drawings, photographs, and transcriptions of all the Linear B inscriptions painted onto so-called stirrup jars (after the shape of the handles) since Anna Sacconi first published her corpus of these inscriptions in 1974.

An epigraphic corpus isn’t, I admit, the most thrilling thing to read cover-to-cover, but it’s vitally important for researchers to be able to access details of these inscriptions without having to trawl through several decades’ worth of archaeological publications, often in fairly obscure places, to track them all down. The ISJs themselves are also a particularly interesting, important, and problematic set of Linear B inscriptions since they’re the only large group of texts written in this script that aren’t written on clay tablets within a palace or other administrative centre – they’re produced all over Crete, probably written by the same people who made and/or painted the pots, and found in various places on Crete and the Greek mainland – not just in palaces, but also in places with no other known use of the Linear B script, and even in tombs. They’re the subject of all sorts of ongoing debates, from what the inscriptions were for (some say they’re marking the jars, and the oil or wine they contained, as gifts being sent from one palace to another; others, myself included, say they were used to keep track of production as part of the same administrative system as the Linear B tablets), to what they mean for levels of literacy in Linear B (to what extent could the people painting these inscriptions read/understand the signs they were painting?) For more information, you can read the review here, and also check out the article I wrote a few years ago about the ISJs, which is freely available here.

Ancient writing in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Cambridge-based readers of this blog may be interested to know about two events focusing on ancient writing that I’m involved in as part of the Festival of Ideas (which starts today, October 15th, and runs until the 28th):

601793ed07b46bc1fa40abea6f017776Raiders of the Secret Scripts: this is a free, drop-in event for adults at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, 7-9pm on Friday 19th. Have a go at deciphering inscriptions to follow the trail around the gallery (all necessary information provided!), try your hand at writing a curse tablet, find out more about different ancient writing systems – and have a glass of wine at the same time! I’ll be there to help out and answer your questions, along with colleagues of mine from the CREWS project.

313a278e3e0ee5989d50e4ebbfdd7b8eOn the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain: this is a lunchtime talk in the Classics Faculty on Wednesday 24th, 1.15-2pm; it’s also free, but prebooking is required. The festival’s (fairly loose) theme is “extremes”, so I thought it would be fun to look at the written texts from one of the extreme edges of the Roman Empire. Britain has produced a remarkable range of documents – from gravestones to letters, legal documents to curses, and much more – including some remarkable recent finds of writing-tablets from the City of London. Come along to find out more about what these documents are, who wrote them, and what they tell us about life in Roman Britain!


The ‘oldest text of the Odyssey’?

Image via BBC

There’s been a lot of media excitement in the last few days over the discovery of a clay tablet at the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia (home of the original Olympic Games), with 13 lines of the ‘Odyssey’ inscribed on it. It’s certainly a very nice find – unlike in the Late Bronze Age period that I study, inscriptions of any kind on clay tablets are unusual at this point (the 3rd century CE, when Greece was part of the Roman Empire) – though it’s fair to say that most of the excitement has been due to the Homeric text and particularly to the claim that this is the oldest text of any part of the Odyssey. As plenty of other Classicists have been quick to point out, this isn’t actually true – there are plenty of earlier texts of (parts of) the Odyssey, e.g. on papyri from Egypt, and the oldest known example is an inscription on a potsherd from Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 5th century BCE. This is just a quick post to provide some helpful links for anyone wanting to know more about this find:

Here is the original press release from the Greek Ministry of Culture (in Greek).

Here is a blogpost by ‘The Philological Crocodile’ correcting some of the errors that have appeared in a lot of the media reports, and speculating that the inscription could be a votive offering by a rhapsode (a reciter of the Homeric poems).

Here is a very detailed blogpost by ‘Kiwi Hellenist’ with a transcription and annotated photograph, as well as lots more details and a round-up of some of the news stories.