A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems

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The Phaistos Disc – see below

Every so often a news article will make the rounds of the internet – or, for that matter, a paper will be published in an academic journal – presenting a new ‘decipherment’ of an undeciphered ancient writing system. Obviously, such decipherments have taken place in the past – probably most famously that of Egyptian hieroglyphs – and it’s certainly possible that more will take place in the future; but when it comes to the undeciphered writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean, at least, there’s good reason to be extremely sceptical about any such claims of decipherment. This post is a quick guide to some key facts about the various related writing systems found in Bronze Age Crete and mainland Greece, starting with the one deciphered writing system, Linear B, and then surveying the undeciphered ones roughly in order of how much we know about them, looking very briefly at where and when they’re from, what kinds of documents exist, and how much (if anything) we know about the writing system or the language it represents. Continue reading “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems”


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!


New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’

Pylos labyrinth tabletI’m very pleased to say that an article of mine has just appeared in the journal Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici (‘Mycenaean and Aegean-Anatolian Studies’). Although the article is called ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “Labyrinth”‘, it’s not about the mythical Labyrinth in which the Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, or even the possible links this myth could have to the real Bronze Age Cretan palace of Knossos (which I’ve written a bit about before when I made a Labyrinth cake, pictured on the right). Rather, it’s about the Mycenaean Greek word for ‘labyrinth’ and what this can potentially tell us about the value of particular signs of the Linear B script (hence the subtitle: ‘the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs’). Continue reading “New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’”

Ugaritic Clay Play Day

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”

Practical epigraphy, or, Linear A Clay Play Day

p1080420This term in the Faculty we’ve been having a series of seminars looking at Linear A, an undeciphered script from prehistoric Crete (and the script out of which Linear B, which I mostly work on, was developed). We started off with a general introduction to what Linear A is – Sarah Finlayson gave us an overview of the different sites across Crete where Linear A inscriptions have been found, their chronology (roughly between the 19th to 15th centuries B.C.E.), and the general context in which they were written (some are from ‘palaces’, others from smaller administrative centres, and some come from religious sanctuaries). I then did a survey of the kinds of documents Linear A was used to write: these ranged from administrative texts on clay tablets or on small lumps of clay (used for, e.g., labelling objects, or sealing storage jars or store-rooms) to non-administrative inscriptions on clay or stone vases, metal objects, and even a couple of graffiti scratched onto walls (there are some pictures of different kinds of inscriptions here). Continue reading “Practical epigraphy, or, Linear A Clay Play Day”

Linguistics baking: Greek alphabet cupcakes

The latest offering in the linguistics cakes series was created for “Geoff-fest” – a celebration on the occasion of the retirement of Geoff Horrocks, Professor of Comparative Philology here in Cambridge. The Greek alphabet seemed an appropriate choice of cake decoration for Geoff, since he’s an expert on the whole history of the Greek language, ancient and modern – also, handily, it has 24 letters, which correspond exactly to two batches of cupcakes.

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As well as the all-important tea and cake, we had an enjoyable series of papers from members of the department, from New Testament textual criticism to Wikipedia debates about Italic languages (more on which here) by way of possible references to writing in Homer and some impressive diagrammatic representations of Greek prepositions. All in all, a very fitting way to wish Geoff a happy retirement!

Linguistics baking: Venetic

It’s become something of a tradition over the last few years for me to make linguistics-themed cakes, decorated with copies of inscriptions in various ancient languages and scripts (previous cakes can be found here). This term it was the turn of a language from ancient Italy known as Venetic, because inscriptions in this language have mostly been found in the area around Venice (dating between around 550-100 B.C.E.). As is often the case with ancient languages, many of the inscriptions which survive are on gravestones: this is a woman’s epitaph from the town of Este (near Padua).

2016-05-11 14.25.09copy Continue reading “Linguistics baking: Venetic”