Spelling and script development

wll.22.2.pb_An article of mine has recently appeared in the journal Written Language and Literacy, in a special issue arising from the Association of Written Language and Literacy‘s 2017 conference in Nagoya, Japan. The conference theme was ‘Writing Systems: Past, Present (…and Future?)’, which I took as an opportunity to explore how we can use spelling variation in the Linear B texts to think about the development of the writing system over time – the paper is in some ways an extension of my previous work on the Linear B ‘extra’ signs and what they tell us about the writing system’s creation and use, but also incorporates my more recent research into the writing practices of the scribes at the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, focusing in particular on orthographic variation (full details below).

The issue, which also features papers on Punic (by my colleague Robert Crellin), Korean, Japanese, and the Bornean language Berawan, is available online here for those with a subscription to WLL, or the pre-print version is freely available here.

Continue reading “Spelling and script development”

Next stop, Athens…

Sunset view of the Acropolis from Mt Lykavittos

I’m delighted to be able to share some exciting news about the next stage of my research into Linear B and the Mycenaean scribes – after my current postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge comes to an end in the autumn, I’ll be moving to the British School in Athens on a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. These EU fellowships are designed to promote movement to and around Europe by postdoctoral researchers so they can go to whatever institution is best placed to support their research – I’m thrilled to be able to benefit from the vast range of knowledge and experience at the BSA, in particular that of Mycenaean archaeologist and Linear B specialist Professor John Bennet, who will act as my research mentor, and of members of the Fitch Laboratory, with whom I plan to collaborate. I’m equally excited, of course, at the prospect of spending two years living and working in Athens!

Tripod tablet
Linear B tablet from Pylos listing tripods and other ceremonial vessels

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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:

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

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Tripods, tables, and tablets – or, how to prepare for a Mycenaean feast

I recently jumped on the Twitter bandwagon of writing poems in the style of William Carlos Williams, since it was pretty clear to me that the internet could only be improved by having more poems based on Linear B tablets:

This is just to say

P1070798 (2)
Tripod in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (photo: author)

I have counted
the tripods
that were in
the storeroom

and which
you were probably
for the feast

one has only one foot
and another
is burned off at the legs


I thought now I’d talk a bit more about the actual Linear B tablets which inspired the poem, starting with the famous ‘tripod tablet’ from the palace of Pylos. This tablet famously proved that Linear B had been correctly deciphered as representing an early form of Greek, since the symbols representing different kinds of vessels matched their Greek descriptions: the three-legged vessels were preceded by the Greek word tripodes ‘tripods’, and jars depicted with four, three, and no handles were described as kwetrōwes ‘four-eared’, triōwes ‘three-eared’, and anōwes ‘with no ears’. (You can read more about this, and about the process by which Linear B was deciphered, here).

Tripod tablet
The ‘tripod tablet’ (PY Ta 641) in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (photo: author)

Continue reading “Tripods, tables, and tablets – or, how to prepare for a Mycenaean feast”

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”

Scribal spelling: seminar at the University of Sussex

I’m pleased to say that next week I’ll be giving a paper in the ‘Research on Language and Linguistics at Sussex’ (ROLLS) seminar series, 1pm on Wednesday April 18th. The title is ‘Scribal spelling: studying the orthography of the Linear B writing system’, and here’s my abstract:

This talk will explore different approaches to studying the orthography of the Linear B writing system, used within the Mycenaean palatial administrations of Late Bronze Age Greece (c.1400-1200 BCE), which employs a relatively complex set of orthographic conventions in order to represent the Greek language. I will first discuss attempts to establish a theoretical linguistic basis for these conventions based on syllable structure or the sonority hierarchy, and show that neither of these principles can fully explain Linear B orthography; instead, any explanation of this system’s development must take into account the process by which Linear B was adapted from its parent script, Linear A (used to write an unknown, non-Greek language). I will then discuss the orthographic practices of the scribes working at the palace of Pylos in south-western Greece, focusing on the issue of orthographic variation, and on the evidence this offers for the way in which the scribes may have been trained to write. This talk will therefore demonstrate the variety of ways in which the study of Linear B orthography can contribute to an understanding of the wider context of the writing system’s development and use.

More details about the seminar series in the poster below, or here on the Sussex linguistics blog. If I have any readers at Sussex, then I hope you’ll come along and I look forward to meeting you next week!

ROLLS 2017-2018 Spring copy

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”