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:

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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”

‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labyrinth”‘ now available online

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Labyrinth on the back of a Linear B tablet from Pylos (National Archaeological Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia)
My paper ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labryinth”: the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs” is now freely available online – copies can be downloaded via the Cambridge University open access repository (no institutional account or login required), or via academia.edu. The paper (published in Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici in 2017) looks at the Mycenaean word identified as meaning ‘labyrinth’, and discusses how investigating the spelling of this particular word also has important implications for how we understand the Linear B writing system to work in its representation of the Mycenaean Greek dialect, as well as on attempts to reconstruct aspects of the ‘Minoan’ language which Linear B’s predecessor, Linear A, was used to write. You can read more about this article here, and about the mythical labyrinth – and the drawing of a labyrinth on the back of a Linear B tablet from Pylos shown in the photograph – here.

Abstract:

This article re-examines the evidence for the value of the Linear B sign pu₂, in particular its appearance in the term da-pu₂-ri-to- ‘labyrinth’, and demonstrates that it stands specifically for the value /pʰu/ (contrary to the usual assumption that it represents both /pʰu/ and /bu/). It then discusses the further implications of this conclusion, in particular for the interpretation of the undeciphered signs *56 and *22, which are often assigned to the same series as pu₂, as well as any other similar signs which may exist. This discussion illustrates the crucial impact that establishing a single sign’s value may have on the wider understanding of the Linear B script, as well as on its relationship with its parent script Linear A and even the possibility of reconstructing aspects of the Minoan language.

Citation: Anna P. Judson, ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labyrinth”: the value of Linear B pu₂ and related signs”, Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici NS 3: 53-72 (2017)

Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B

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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”

‘Palaeography, administration, and scribal training’ now available online

I’m pleased to say that a paper I published a couple of years ago, ‘Palaeography, administration, and scribal training: a case-study’ is now freely available to read – you can download a copy via the Cambridge University open access repository (no account or academic affiliation required). In this paper, I presented some of the results from the part of my PhD in which I explored ways of using palaeography – the analysis of different writers’ handwriting – to understand more about the people who wrote the Linear B administrative documents in the Mycenaean Greek palaces of 1400-1200 BCE. I looked at the variation seen in a group of Linear B signs’ forms in texts by writers working in different areas of these palaces and/or on different administrative topics to see if there was any evidence for the widespread assumption that fully-trained writers would have gone on to work alongside their teacher, keeping records on similar areas of the palatial administration — cf. the illustration on the cover of John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World, showing a scribe and his apprentice working in the ‘Archives Complex’ at Pylos.

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Cover of John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World, showing scribe and apprentice at work

I found that (at least as far as my small group of case-study signs suggested) the situation seemed to be a lot more complicated than people normally assume. The relationship between writers’ administrative work – and the working relationships we can reconstruct between them on – and the ways they (were trained to) write is definitely something that needs a lot more research, and that I’ll be returning to in future work. Also, there will be much more detail on this particular study in my forthcoming book – on which more news later in the year!

 

 

 

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”

A Tale of Two Scholars, and the Center for Minoan Linguistic Research that never came to exist —

Cassandra Donnelly, who was visiting Cambridge recently to work with my colleagues on the CREWS Project, has written this great blog post about the collaboration and friendship between two American scholars who are incredibly important in the history of studying Aegean and Cypriot writing systems – Alice Kober and John Franklin Daniel:

Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Cassandra Donnelly The two months I have spent as a Visiting Fellow with the CREWS project were full of all things Aegean, from the Cypro-Minoan seminar series, to the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room, and the Aegean Archaeology Group’s Work-in-Progress conference. I am incredibly grateful to Pippa, the CREWS team, and […]

via A Tale of Two Scholars, and the Center for Minoan Linguistic Research that never came to exist —

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.

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

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