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!

 

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Visiting the Palace of Nestor at Pylos

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Road sign outside the palace

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a research project about the scribes who wrote the Linear B tablets from one particular Mycenaean site, the ‘Palace of Nestor’ at Pylos in Messenia, south-western Greece (so-called because in the Iliad Nestor was the king of Pylos). I’m interested in how these scribes actually went about writing tablets, or learning to write tablets — lately I’ve been looking mostly at the way they spell particular words or sequences, and why even an individual scribe’s spelling can vary, as well as at issues to do with how and why scribes erase parts of their documents and make changes. Pylos is a particularly good site to start studying this because almost all of its Linear B tablets are contemporaneous — made of unfired clay, they were all baked and so preserved by the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BCE — so it’s possible to study the 25 scribes who have been identified by handwriting analysis as an inter-related community of writers who must have been trained and worked together. But although I’ve been studying the tablets from this site for some time, I’d never been able to actually visit it before now – so it was incredibly exciting to finally get the chance to see it in person. Continue reading “Visiting the Palace of Nestor at Pylos”

Archaic statues and Eleusinian mysteries at the Acropolis Museum

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The Acropolis from the top floor of the museum

Athens’ Acropolis Museum is, naturally, best known for its display of sculptures from the Parthenon (in a mixture of originals and casts, many of the originals being, controversially, in the British Museum). Stunning though this top-floor display is, with views straight across to the Parthenon from the galley (see photo, unfortunately taken on a rather cloudy day), it’s not actually my favourite part of the museum – that prize goes to the first-floor display of the older archaic sculptures, dating from the 7th century to the early 5th century BCE (the Parthenon was built in the mid-5th century). Some of these sculptures are from the pediments of earlier temples on the Acropolis, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 480/479 BCE; others are freestanding statues set up on the Acropolis as dedications to the goddess Athena. (I can’t post photos here as you’re not allowed to take photos of the collections, but there is a nice selection of pictures available on the museum’s website). Continue reading “Archaic statues and Eleusinian mysteries at the Acropolis Museum”

Designing English and Linear B

Image: Bodleian Library
‘Designing English’ exhibition logo (image: Bodleian Library)

This weekend I went to visit an exhibition in the Bodleian Library in Oxford called ‘Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page‘ (on until April 22 2018, and free to visit) – a display of medieval manuscripts, but with the focus not on the content but the way that their writers and illustrators went about creating them. The layout of the text itself and any accompanying images, the use of different coloured inks in different parts of the text, the addition of marginalia, and even the physical format of the book or manuscript were all shown to be just as important to the writer – and the reader – as the actual words themselves.

Illustrations aided understanding (as in herbals, for instance, whose pictures were vital in showing which plants were being described, or in the chess manual which included diagrams of chess boards); key words or passages could be highlighted by the use of colour or through the spacing of the text to draw the reader’s attention (particularly important for texts intended to be read out loud, such as sermons); physical form could relate to function, e.g. in making a book small enough to fit in a pocket to carry around, or to ideology, as shown by the books of royal genealogies, designed to fold out into a single long sheet so as to present one unbroken line of inheritance. Continue reading “Designing English and Linear B”

Colouring in the past

Every February, Cambridge plays host to a festival called “E-luminate“, which the organisers describe as “a celebration of the infinite possibilities created by light at the intersection of art and science” – as well as talks, concerts, and workshops, the most popular feature is always the illuminations on various buildings in the centre of town. One of these is on the outer wall of my college, Gonville & Caius: called “The Colours of Caius College“, it illuminates part of the facade in bright multi-coloured lights:The Colours of Caius College

Continue reading “Colouring in the past”

The decipherment of Linear B

P1090872Now that the Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition is over, I’m able to make my catalogue chapter, ‘The Decipherment: People, Process, Challenges‘, available here for anyone who’d like to read it (click on the link for a PDF file)! It’s about the process by which the Linear B script was deciphered, the main people involved – Emmett L. Bennett, Alice Kober, Michael Ventris, and John Chadwick – and the remaining difficulties involved in reading and interpreting the documents written in this script.

Readers may also be interested in seeing some of the correspondence between Ventris and Chadwick that’s quoted in the chapter – PDFs of a selection of their letters are available on the website of the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group (the research group I’m part of in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics), and you can view them here.

I hope you enjoy the chapter, and if anyone has any further questions about Linear B and the decipherment after reading it, please ask me in the comments!

Last chance to see Codebreakers and Groundbreakers!

CaptureJust a quick reminder for any Cambridge-based readers that this week is the last chance to see the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition about the decipherment of Linear B and WW2 codebreaking, which is finishing on Sunday Feb 4th! It’s been incredibly popular, and I’m told the catalogue has even completely sold out – for anyone who’s interested in reading more about the process by which Linear B was deciphered, and the people involved, I’ll be putting my catalogue chapter up here once the exhibition has finished, so check back for that next week!