AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems

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Association for Written Language and Literacy logo (written in English, Russian, Greek, and Chinese)

A year and a half ago, I attended my first Association for Written Language and Literacy conference in Nagoya, Japan; last month, my colleague Robert Crellin and I were privileged to bring the Association’s 12th meeting (AWLL12) to the Cambridge Classics Faculty. AWLL is for researchers working on writing from any perspective, from theoretical analyses of how writing systems are structured and how they encode language, to experimental work on how readers and writers actually learn and use writing systems. The theme of ‘Diversity in writing systems: embracing multiple perspectives’, was intended to reflect the diversity in members’ approaches and disciplinary backgrounds, as well as in the geographical and chronological spread of the writing systems they study – writing systems discussed at AWLL12 covered a time-span of several thousand years and are/were used in Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Ethiopia, West Africa, India, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea, China, and Central and North America: presentation topics ranged from ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic to present-day Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, and Yoruba via early modern English shorthand, Mayan hieroglyphic, and much much more. Continue reading “AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems”


Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

For International Lego Classicists Day (yes, apparently that’s a thing now), a great post from my colleague Pippa Steele with a Lego model of the ‘Archives Complex’ at Pylos! Plus a great discussion of what these two rooms (where most of the Linear B tablets from this palace were found) were actually used for.

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.


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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”

Conversing the Classics podcast: Linear B

I’m very pleased to be able to share a podcast I recorded for the Classical Youth Society of Ireland‘s “Conversing the Classics” series, in which I talk to Oscar McHale about the Linear B writing system: what it is, what kinds of text were written in it, and what it can tell us about Greece in the Late Bronze Age, as well as how it was first discovered and deciphered. You can listen/watch here:


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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.

‘Processes of script adaptation and creation in Linear B’ now available online

2017-07-29 17.14.09 Last year saw the publication of the first ‘Understanding Relations Between Scripts‘ conference, which focused on the Aegean and Cypriot writing systems – I’m now pleased to be able to make the pre-print of my chapter, ‘Processes of script adaptation and creation in Linear B: the evidence of the “extra” signs’, available online. In it I talk about the group of Linear B signs which can be used to replace some of the syllabary’s ‘core’ signs in certain circumstances – for instance, the writing system doesn’t normally represent the sound /h/, so the core sign a could represent either /a/ or /ha/, but there’s an extra sign a2 that can used specifically for /ha/. I look at the wide range of different reasons why these signs exist in the first place – some were inherited from Linear B’s parent script Linear A, but many of them seem to have been specially invented within Linear B because they would be particularly useful for the kinds of administrative records that it was used to write. If you want to find out more, you can read the paper! It’s freely available in the Cambridge online repository, and also on my page. Also, abstracts are currently being accepted for the third Understanding Relations Between Scripts conference, ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’ – any interested researchers should check out the CfP here!

Karpathia the Procrastinating Priestess, and other stories

I recently joked that a priestess called Karpathia, who’s recorded in a Linear B tablet from Pylos as failing to work properly, should be the patron of Twitter, and a lot more people seemed to like the idea of a procrastinating Mycenaean priestess than expected – so I thought I’d write a bit more here about Karpathia and her fellow priestesses, and what we know about them from the Linear B records.

Continue reading “Karpathia the Procrastinating Priestess, and other stories”