Being an epigrapher – someone who studies inscriptions – definitely means that I pay a lot more attention to the different kinds of writing that I see as I walk around a city, and that happens even more when I’m learning a language and so trying to practice reading as much as possible. While walking around Athens during my recent stay there, I found myself thinking a lot about the similarities between the kinds of inscriptions I was seeing and classical Greek and Roman inscriptions — particularly when it came to graffiti, which is something that Athens has a LOT of, and of which quite a lot of ancient examples also survive, mainly from the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. Here’s one of the nicest (most optimistic) graffiti messages I saw in Athens, which reads “Αθήνα η πόλη της τέχνης και της ελπίδας!!” (Athina i poli tis tehnis ke tis elpithas) — “Athens, the city of art and of hope!!”
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”
Last weekend I encountered a fascinating piece of (relatively recent) Athenian history – the tiny area of Anafiotika. Perched above the tourist shops and restaurants of Plaka, just beneath the Acropolis, this cluster of houses dates back to the mid-19th century, when King Otto I of Greece brought builders from the Cycladic island of Anafi to build his palace (now the Greek parliament building on Syntagma Square). These people built themselves a village on the slopes of the Acropolis in the style of the architecture from their own island, after which they named it Anafiotika. Only a small cluster of houses now remains, but wandering through the area is still like walking around a Cycladic island, past houses with whitewashed walls and brightly coloured doors and shutters – if it weren’t for the occasional view of the city or the Acropolis above, it would be easy to forget you were in Athens at all.
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 earliertemples 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”
I’ve written before about starting to learn to speak (modern) Greek, and how that’s not as easy to do when you know ancient Greek as people think. I’m pleased to say my Greek has improved quite a lot since that post – in fact a lot of that improvement has happened in the last week or so, since I’m currently in Athens taking an intensive language course at the Athens Centre.
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!
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.
As promised in my last post about the conference I recently attended on Crete, here’s one about the short holiday I took en route back to the UK – a couple of days on the island of Santorini (aka Thera), the largest of several islands formed around and inside a caldera (crater) left by a series of volcanic eruptions. The first thing to say: even before getting off the ferry, the views of the steep cliffs forming the side of the caldera are stunning, and they only get better once you’re at the top: