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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AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems

AWLL logo
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”

Conference announcement: Diversity of Writing Systems

AWLL logo

Last year I wrote about attending a conference in Japan organised by the Association for Written Language and Literacy – I’m now excited to be able to announce that I’m co-organising the AWLL’s next conference, to be held in Cambridge in March 2019 on the theme of ‘Diversity of Writing Systems: Embracing Multiple Perspectives‘. It’s open to researchers working on writing in any academic discipline – not just linguistics, but psychology, education, sociology, archaeology, digital humanities, computer science and technology, and any others I might not have thought of! To give some idea of the range of topics we’re aiming to include, our two keynote speakers are Kathryn Piquette from UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, who works on Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern writing and art and on developing and applying digital imaging techniques, and Sonali Nag from the University of Oxford, whose research focuses on literacy acquisition and language development, particularly in South and South-East Asian writing systems and languages.

If you’re a researcher working on any writing system from any perspective, please head over to the conference webpage and check out the call for papers – I’m already looking forward to seeing what a wide range of abstracts we’re (hopefully) going to receive!

 

Epigraphic explorations of Athens

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!!”

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