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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How to make your own Linear B tablet / πως να φτιάξετε τη δική σας πινακίδα σε Γραμμική Β

Everyone enjoys playing with clay, and now you can make and write your own Linear B tablet thanks to this video and worksheet based on my research into how these clay tablets were made in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos c.1200 BCE. This activity is suitable for use with school students, at home with your own children, or by anyone who feels like getting some clay and having a go! In the 12min-long video, I talk about what these tablets were used for, why knowing how they were made is important, and how experimental archaeology can help us answer that question, as well as demonstrating some different ways the tablets were made, which you and your students/children can then try out. The worksheet then explains how to write on your tablet in the Linear B script, as well as giving some extra information and prompts for discussion for use in running this activity. The worksheet is available in both English and Greek, and the video is in English with subtitles in both languages. Enjoy!

Σε όλους αρέσει να παίζουν με τον πηλό, και τώρα μπορείτε να φτιάξετε και να γράψετε τη δική σας πινακίδα σε Γραμμική Β! Ορίστε ένα βίντεο και ασκήσεις που βασίζονται στην έρευνά μου για το πως φτιάχτηκαν αυτές οι πινακίδες στο μυκηναϊκό ανάκτορο της Πύλου περίπου το 1200 π.Χ. Αυτή η δραστηριότητα είναι κατάλληλη για μαθήτες στα σχολεία, για τα παιδιά σας στο σπίτι, και για όποιον θέλει να την δοκιμάσει! Στο βίντεο (12 λεπτά) μιλώ για τις χρήσεις αυτών των πινακίδων, γιατί είναι σημαντικό να ξέρουμε πώς φτιάχτηκαν, και πώς η πειραματική αρχαιολογία μπορεί να μας βοηθήσει να το καταλάβουμε αυτό. Δείχνω επίσης διάφορες μεθόδους για την κατασκευή των πινακίδων, τις όποιες εσείς και οι μαθητές ή τα παιδιά σας μπορούν να δοκιμάσουν. Οι ασκήσεις θα βοηθήσουν τους μαθητές ή τα παιδιά να γράψουν στις πινακίδες τους σε Γραμμική Β, και έχουν επίσης πληροφορίες για τους καθηγητές ή τους γονείς. Το βίντεο είναι στα αγγλικά με αγγλικούς και ελληνικούς υπότιτλους, και οι ασκήσεις διατίθενται στα αγγλικά και στα ελληνικά (και τα δύο είναι επαγγελματικά μεταφρασμένα).     

Have fun/καλή διασκέδαση!

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.

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.

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 tale of two scripts: Linear B and Cherokee

The writing system used for the Native American language Cherokee (ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ‎ Tsalagi Gawonihisdi) was invented by a Cherokee man called Sequoyah (ᏍᏏᏉᏯ Ssiquoya), a silversmith by profession, between c.1809-1821. It’s a syllabary of 85 signs, each standing for a syllable consisting of a vowel or a consonant plus a vowel, which was rapidly adopted by the Cherokee after its invention and is still in use today (the Cherokee language is endangered, with only c.2,000 first-language speakers, but the Cherokee Nation is working to promote the learning of both the language and the syllabary). The story of how Sequoyah invented this writing system is a fascinating one in its own right, but also surprisingly relevant to the study of the Bronze Age Greek syllabary Linear B – read on to find out why!

Cherokee Syllabary chart (Mattie.walkerr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
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Aegean scripts in the digital age: a guide to fonts

I quite often get asked about fonts to use for Linear B and the other related Aegean and Cypriot syllabic writing systems, and since I’ve just come across a couple of new (to me) options, I thought I’d share them all here for anyone else looking to write Linear B et al. in digital form! Tl; dr, it’s easier than you might expect to write Linear B on an electronic tablet instead of a clay one… (sorry, obligatory “tablet” joke). Read on for some options!

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How to make a clay tablet, part 1

As part of my research into writing practices in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, I’m looking at how the clay tablets on which administrative documents were written in the Linear B script were made in the first place: after all, creating the object you’re going to write on is as crucial a part of the whole package of writing practices as actually doing the writing, even if we don’t know whether this was usually done by the writers themselves or by other tablet-makers. Earlier on I did some preliminary work preparing and trying out different clays, and now that I’ve been able to start examining the actual tablets in the National Archaeological Museum here in Athens, I’ve also started some more systematic experiments trying out different methods of tablet-making. I’ve just presented this work-in-progress at the European Association of Archaeologists‘ annual conference, so it seemed a good time to share it here as well!

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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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Virtually visiting the Archaeological Museum of Thebes

The Archaeological Museum of Thebes reopened a few years ago after a long period of closure for renovations. My only previous visit to Thebes was during that closure, so visiting to see the new galleries has been on my wishlist for a while now. Obviously that’s not possible at the moment, since museums are closed and travelling around Greece isn’t allowed, but happily I just found that the museum has a virtual tour and lots of other online resources – so I’ve been on a virtual visit to its Mycenaean gallery.

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