Decorating Eggs in the Ancient World

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.

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Minoan ostrich egg rhyton. Late Bronze Age

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How to make a cylinder seal

Featured Image -- 654I’ve been making cylinder seals lately. Here’s a thing I wrote for the CREWS Project blog about how to do it and some of the background.

Enjoy!

In the ancient world, if you wanted to sign something you used a seal. They came in various shapes and sizes – stamps, seals, signet rings – but the general idea was always the same: you had a small object that you could press into clay or wax to mark it with a design unique to you – just like a signature. This could be used in various ways. In the Near East, for example, legal decisions or transactions might be recorded on a tablet, and then all the witnesses would press their seals into the clay next to their names. In other cases it could function as an official lock – a door or container-lid could have a blob of clay pressed over the join and this would be marked with an official’s seal. If the clay was broken – or if it had been replaced with one without…

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Making Maps for Board Games or Illustrations

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.

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This isn’t the map for my supervisor. This one’s from The Hobbit.

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One of the maps from my PhD thesis

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Making Ancient Tablets 4 – Painting clay to look more like clay

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

Making Ancient Tablets 3: More Ancient Baking and Linear A Clay Play Day

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.

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H.P. Lovecraft meets the Bronze Age – Designing Ancient Horror

15129018_10154731385453535_492367329159553307_oI wrote recently about the excellent Lovecraftian board game Eldritch Horror. That post was actually something of a preliminary to this one. You see, for the last several months I’ve been working on my own version of Eldritch Horror, set in the East Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Anna Judson called us together to play something else – her excellent Mycenopoly: an Aegean Bronze Age themed version of Monopoly, complete with barter system and utilities such as textile works and the ability to build megara instead of hotels. I highly recommend checking out her own blog about it, which went a bit viral, and deservedly so. Apart from having an excellent time with Mycenopoly, the evening left me wondering if it would be possible to do something similar for the game we most often play together, Eldritch Horror. Continue reading

Making Ugaritic Tablets 2 -Baking Ancient Script Biscuits

dsc_0014A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiments writing Ugaritic cuneiform in plasticine. I’d had some success with a home-made Lego stylus, but it was a little large. My next step was to get hold of a chopstick with a square cross-section and try that. Unfortunately the stick had slightly rounded corners so the impressions were a little soft. Following the advice on this site, I sanded them to get sharper edges, which yielded improved results.

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This week I was finally able to start work on the CREWS Project formally, and in honour of the occasion I wanted to try something a little more adventurous: Ugaritic cuneiform biscuits. This turned out to be an interesting exercise, not just because there were biscuits at the end of it, but because it forced me to think about the materiality of the writing material and how it would react. Continue reading