Women’s writing in the ancient world

Although most of the literature that we have from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East was written by men, we do also have compositions by women – most famously the Greek poet Sappho, as well as other Greek and Roman poets (e.g. Corinna, Nossis, and Sulpicia: for more, see this list of ancient women authors); an ancient Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna, who lived in the 23rd century BCE, is often referred to as the first known author in history (although at least some of the hymns attributed to her actually seem to have been composed several centuries later). Similarly, most of the inscriptions that actually survive – including letters, archival documents, grave markers, public or legal texts, and religious dedications – will have been both commissioned and physically written/inscribed by men; even in cases where the text makes it clear that a woman is ultimately responsible for it, it is not necessarily the case that she actually wrote it (e.g. stone inscriptions would be carved by specialist craftspeople, probably men; letters were frequently dictated to scribes, mostly ditto). But we do have some ancient texts which show evidence of literate women actually engaging in the practice of writing, and it’s those – or at least a small selection of them – that I’d like to look at for this International Women’s Day post.

The most famous example from the Roman world comes from Roman Britain, specifically from the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, where a large number of  wooden writing tablets, with letters and administrative documents written in ink, have been found, mostly from around 100 CE. Amongst them is this letter, sent by a woman called Claudia Severa – the wife of an officer at another fort – to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda, to invite her to a birthday party:

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Vindolanda Tablet 291. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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CSI Knossos: palmprints on the Linear B tablets

There’s something particularly special about seeing the physical traces left behind on ancient objects by the people who made or used them, whether that’s footprints on a tile from ancient Italy, teeth marks of a teenage student who apparently bit into a cuneiform tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, or even a mark left by an animal rather than a person:

Once, while working in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, I turned over a Linear B tablet from Pylos to find four deep marks left by the fingers of someone handling the tablet (presumably its maker and/or writer) soon after it was made, while the clay was still wet. For all that my research is all about trying to use the evidence the tablets provide to reconstruct the activities of their writers, I still felt pretty overwhelmed by the fact that I was putting my own (gloved!) hand into fingermarks made by a person who lived more than 3,000 years ago. But ancient hand- and fingerprints can do much more than make us feel a connection to the person who left those marks. There’s a wide range of archaeological research now being done on fingerprints, especially on ceramics, where they can give important information about the identities (particularly the gender) of the people making them — and they also play a part in the study of the Linear B tablets. Continue reading “CSI Knossos: palmprints on the Linear B tablets”

Ashurbanipal at the British Museum

“I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria” proclaims the subject of the British Museum’s current major exhibition, whom the stunningly-lit first object in the display shows in the middle of a lion hunt:

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Stone relief showing Ashurbanipal hunting lions

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Ugaritic Clay Play Day

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Ugaritic abecedarium: drawing above, my attempt at copying below.

It’s become a tradition for Cambridge classical linguists to get together in Easter term and attempt to read inscriptions in languages most of us know nothing about, so this term Philip Boyes has been leading sessions on the ancient Semitic language Ugaritic. Related to modern languages like Hebrew and Arabic, and other ancient Near Eastern languages like Phoenician, Ugaritic was spoken in an area of what’s now northern Syria. The written evidence comes from several archives of clay tablets in the city of Ugarit – these cover a wide range of genres, from administrative texts to letters to poetry. Continue reading “Ugaritic Clay Play Day”

More linguistics baking

Baking cakes and cookies with inscriptions on them (as regular readers will know I’ve been doing for some time) is getting increasingly popular – here are two recent examples, the first with examples of various different writing systems including Ugaritic cuneiform, the second with a wonderful (if inadvertent) recreation of the conditions which often lead to inscriptions on clay tablets surviving from the ancient world (places, in this case ovens, catching on fire…). Watch this space for a new piece of Linguistics Baking hopefully coming soon!

Update: it turns out that a fellow-linguistics-baking-enthuiasts was writing another post at exactly the same time as I was writing this. Pippa Steele, who’s running a new project (called CREWS – Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems) in the Cambridge Classics Faculty on the history of the Greek alphabet and other ancient writing systems, would love to hear from anybody else who feels like trying out some baked inscriptions – as would I, so please do share any creations with me (via comments, or apj31 [at] cam.ac.uk) and/or Pippa (crews [at] classics.cam.ac.uk, or @crewsproject on Twitter)!

 

Linguistics Baking Part V: Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic

I admit that this one is obscure even by my usual standards, but then, what else is the Epigraphic Cake series for if not increasingly obscure undeciphered scripts? Allow me, therefore, to present the Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic cake:

Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic Cake

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