It was my birthday last Monday, and I was lucky enough to spend it behind the scenes at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Together with my fellow members of the CREWS Project, we were helping with the installation of a new temporary exhibition on ancient writing, a collaboration between our project and the Museum.
About a year ago I posted a series following my attempts to write Ugaritic cuneiform, first in plasticine and then in clay. I ended up using the square end of a chopstick for a stylus, and this is what I’ve been doing ever since, including in my cuneiform baking. It works, but it’s fiddly – the stick has to be held just right to make the wedge-shaped prints, and it takes practice to stop them being large and clumsy.
Last weekend I took part in a Prehistory and Archaeology Day as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Hosted by Cambridge Archaeological Unit, this offered hundreds of members of the public – mostly children – the chance to try their hands at a wide range of archaeology-related activities, from spear-throwing and archery to excavation and osteology. The ancient writing systems stall was particularly eclectic, with academics from the Faculty of Classics and the Division of Archaeology showing visitors how to write in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Linear B and alphabetic Greek.
It’s Easter! Which means everyone’s developed a bizarre preoccupation with eggs. How we chortle as adverts everywhere wheel out the same old egg-puns as if they’re the first to think of them. Egg-straordinary! Never mind; it means we get some chocolate. I’m particularly partial to Mini Eggs myself.
As you probably know, for many it’s traditional to paint and decorate eggs at Easter. Like many Christian festivals, there’s a healthy vestige of earlier practices in Easter, as the Church sought to appropriate and sanitise pagan spring fertility celebrations. The name Easter itself most likely derives from the Germanic goddess Ēastre, which in turn seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European word for dawn, and so is cognate with classical goddesses such as Eos or Aurora. So it’s no surprise to learn that decorating eggs is a practice with roots much older than Christianity. In fact we have painted eggs from the ancient Near East which date as far back as the third millennium BC.
How do egg-shells manage to survive for nearly five thousand years in the archaeological record?
Two answers. One: lots of them were found in tombs. Two: they used ostrich eggs.
Minoan ostrich egg rhyton. Late Bronze Age
One of the comments on my post about my board game, Ancient Horror, asked how I made its board, which features a Mediterranean map. I responded with a short answer there, but I thought it would be worth doing a more in-depth look. I need hardly stress how important maps are in science fiction and especially fantasy, but they’re also very important for archaeologists. I had to draw at least half a dozen for my PhD, showing artefact distributions and other things, and I also redrew one of the maps in a recent new edition of a book by my former supervisor.
In this post I’m going to show you how I tend to go about it.
This isn’t the map for my supervisor. This one’s from The Hobbit.
One of the maps from my PhD thesis
Every time I think I’m done with the clay tablets, I find just one more thing. You can read up on the full story about my experiments with writing ancient tablets at these links:
Part 1 – Ugaritic, plasticine and Lego styli
Part 2 – A better stylus and first attempts at biscuits
Part 3 – Linear A Clay Play Day, Linear A cake and second attempt at biscuits
And for more on the academic component of Clay Play Day and the Linear A seminars, take a look at Anna Judson’s write-up.
Right, on to this instalment, which is unashamedly aesthetic rather than academic. When I ended part 3, my newly-made clay tablets were drying in the CREWS Project office, looking like this:
I’ve been working from home for a while, but over the weekend I finally collected them and saw them for the first time dry. They looked good, but the pristine new air-drying clay had dried very bright, making them look like they were straight out of a brickyard or a primary school art class. They looked a bit stark on my mantelpiece, so I decided to paint them. Continue reading
I thought I was done for now with making tablets, but this week has turned out to be quite a busy one. This term the linguistics caucus at Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics has been running a Linear A Self-Help Group – sort of a seminar series, but with more baffled shrugging as we struggled to make any sense of the Minoan script. On Wednesday it was the last session of term, which meant two things.
Firstly, it’s traditional that there’s cake, usually decorated with an inscription in the language being studied. I ended up responsible for this this time and went for a chocolate brownie recipe. I decided to decorate it in white chocolate, which was probably a mistake since the window of opportunity for piping the writing between extreme runniness and utter solidity is very narrow. My end result was not as neat as some previous examples, especially those by Cakemeister to the Faculty, Anna Judson, so I did what the Minoans did if in doubt: cover liberally with horns of consecration.