Writing systems: past, present (…and future?)

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Conference-branded fan – a very useful freebie in a Japanese summer!

I’ve just gotten back to Cambridge from a trip to Nagoya, Japan, to attend a conference hosted by the Association for Written Language and Literacy – a group of researchers interested in studying writing in a huge range of different languages and scripts. The conference’s theme – ‘Writing systems: past, present (…and future?)’ – was what initially attracted me: as a classicist working on three-thousand-year-old writing system, I figured I could fit in with the ‘past’ part of the theme, and it would be an interesting opportunity to hear from researchers studying different (and more modern!) writing systems. (Not to mention an opportunity to visit Japan for the first time!)

As it turned out, the range of topics in the presentations was even wider than I’d expected – not only did languages and writing systems under discussion range from the origins of writing in ancient Mesopotamia to the contemporary Japanese use of emoji (by way of Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Hindi, early modern English, Catalan, minority languages in West Africa and Malaysia, and plenty more), but as well as linguists many of the presenters were psychologists working on the cognitive processes involved in reading and writing, which gave me a really fascinating new perspective – for obvious reasons experimental pscyhology doesn’t really come into classical linguistics much!

The ‘past’ part of the conference theme ended up being represented pretty strongly by Cambridge – I was talking about historical developments in the Linear B writing system and how these can be better understood by looking at contemporary variations in spelling, and my colleagues Rob and Natalia from the CREWS Project were talking about how the ancient Semitic language Punic represented vowels in writing and typologies of different types of writing system around the ancient Mediterranean, respectively (they’ll probably be writing their own blog post about the conference sometime soon!) It was the first time any of us had attended an AWLL conference but I think I can say for all of us that we’re already very much looking forward to the next one!

Downtown Nagoya

If you’re interested in the work of the AWLL, there’s information about joining the association and/or signing up for their newsletter on the website, or you can follow them on Facebook.


PhD thesis now online!

thesis front pageSpeaking of publications that have appeared recently, the PhD thesis I completed last year is now available online! It’s titled ‘The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B’ and is a study of the 14 Linear B syllabic signs (out of 87) whose sound-values are still uncertain. Spoiler alert: by the end of the thesis, they generally aren’t going to be any more undeciphered than they currently are – but (hopefully) I’ve made some progress in understanding how they fit into the script as a whole and their possible values, as well as using them in a case-study to look at how palaeography (the study of the form of script signs, especially as used by different scribes) can be used to talk about wider issues such as how scribes were trained or what the date(s) of the Linear B documents are. Interested readers can find the thesis (plus supplementary catalogues) on the Cambridge University Repository or my Academia.edu page.

Also, as a bonus, check out this excellent article entitled ‘Classicists Name Their Pets‘ (does exactly what it says on the tin, with cute pictures!)

New book – Understanding Relations Between Scripts

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a conference held here in Cambridge a couple of years ago on ‘Understanding Relations 2017-07-29 17.14.09Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems’. It’s edited by my colleague Pippa Steele, and features chapters on a wide range of topics relating to the writing systems used in prehistoric Crete (Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, and Linear B) and Cyprus (Cypro-Minoan, Cypriot Syllabic). I have a chapter in it looking at various issues to do with the development of the Linear B script; equally importantly, there’s a picture of the conference cake I made!

Continue reading “New book – Understanding Relations Between Scripts”

Sensational new Linear B tablet discovery in Athens


Linear B tablet (replica)

Archaeologists working on a rescue excavation in Athens city centre have just announced the discovery of a series of clay tablets inscribed in the Linear B script, the first to be found in the city. The tablets date from the end of the Bronze Age, c.1200 BCE, and provide exciting new evidence for ritual practices in Mycenaean Greece. According to the excavation director, Professor Ilithios Apriliou, the texts refer to a ritual taking place on the first day of the month Apate, tentatively identified as the fourth month of the Mycenaean year. Participants in the ritual are recorded as receiving varying quantities of barley, while other tablets list offerings of wine and olive oil to the god Hermes (Hermahas in Mycenaean Greek). The most enigmatic of the tablets appears to act as an introduction to the whole series; while much of its text is currently obscure, Prof. Apriliou believes it describes a part of the ritual in which participants compete to tell the most outrageous stories in honour of the trickster god Hermes. The tablet is, however, badly damaged, and this interpretation relies heavily on Prof. Apriliou’s suggested restorations; an alternative reading, in which the festival is simply opened by a council of elders, is equally possible, and only close further study – and, it is to be hoped, further discoveries of tablets – will reveal the true nature of this mysterious ancient celebration.

Update: some helpful explanations (and a few more classical news items from April 1st) here!

“Tails from Mycenae”

2017-03-14 16.41.01There’s a nice temporary display that’s just gone up in the Museum of Classical Archaeology here in the Faculty, called “Tails from Mycenae” – it’s a case displaying various different depictions of animals on Mycenaean artefacts (i.e. from late Bronze Age Greece, c. the 16th-13th centuries BCE), put together by four current Classics undergradutes (Katie Phillips, Caroline Clements, Georgia Lowe and Anya Morrice). It’s nice to see such a range of different kinds of artefacts even in one small case – from pottery fragments and figurines to (replicas of) daggers and golden disks, plus of course Linear B tablets (I helped out a bit by providing a transcription of a tablet listing sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle). It’s also a good chance to see stuff that isn’t usually on public display at all in the Faculty – most of what you see in the museum is casts of statues, but as this case shows, the collection is actually quite a bit more diverse than that!

Cambridge readers can head to the Museum to see the display (free admission, Mon-Fri 10-5, Sat 10-1 during term time) – and by the way, this is also an excellent excuse to look around the rest of the Museum if you haven’t seen it before! For non-Cambridge readers, there’s a couple more pictures of the display below. And thanks to Katie, Caroline, Georgia, and Anya for putting the whole thing together!

Clay Play Day #2

Last term I wrote about the ‘clay play day‘ we held in my department: as the last in a series of seminars about the undeciphered Cretan script Linear A, we all got a chance to try out making and inscribing our own Linear A clay tablets. Since there was quite a bit of clay left over afterwards, I decided to have my own clay play day at home to make some tablets with inscriptions in Linear B – the script I mostly work on, which is related to Linear A but used to write Greek. This was partly an excuse just to mess around with clay a bit more, but I also figured some replica tablets would come in handy for teaching purposes, outreach events, etc – it’s hard to show what sort of size the tablets actually are via photographs on a PowerPoint. So here are some pictures of 1) a tablet in progress, using a photocopy of the published photograph and drawing to get the size right; 2) holding the finished tablet, for scale purposes; and 3) all three tablets I ended up making.

Continue reading “Clay Play Day #2”

Practical epigraphy, or, Linear A Clay Play Day

p1080420This term in the Faculty we’ve been having a series of seminars looking at Linear A, an undeciphered script from prehistoric Crete (and the script out of which Linear B, which I mostly work on, was developed). We started off with a general introduction to what Linear A is – Sarah Finlayson gave us an overview of the different sites across Crete where Linear A inscriptions have been found, their chronology (roughly between the 19th to 15th centuries B.C.E.), and the general context in which they were written (some are from ‘palaces’, others from smaller administrative centres, and some come from religious sanctuaries). I then did a survey of the kinds of documents Linear A was used to write: these ranged from administrative texts on clay tablets or on small lumps of clay (used for, e.g., labelling objects, or sealing storage jars or store-rooms) to non-administrative inscriptions on clay or stone vases, metal objects, and even a couple of graffiti scratched onto walls (there are some pictures of different kinds of inscriptions here). Continue reading “Practical epigraphy, or, Linear A Clay Play Day”