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Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - CREWS (Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2020-09-30

The CREWS project ('Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems') takes an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the history of writing, redressing lingering problems that have hampered previous research and developing new methodologies for studying scripts and their social context. The project researchers are working on specific case studies relating to inscriptions of the ancient Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Levant (c.2000-600 BC), developing a new and much deeper understanding of writing, literacy and social and cultural interrelations in the area than has ever been possible via the often out-dated traditional methods usually applied to these data.

The case studies are chosen for their historical importance (focusing on an area and period that plays a key role in the dissemination and propagation of writing) with a view to illuminating what social and linguistic processes are involved in the transmission of writing from one cultural, social or linguistic setting to another. Their focus is on enriching our understanding of both linguistic and social aspects of the borrowing and propagation of writing, which involves multiple different disciplinary viewpoints (epigraphic, linguistic, archaeological, historical), pursued to different extents by each researcher. Overall this research aims to change the way we think about writing systems, their societal context and the ways in which ideas were exchanged in early civilisations, by focusing on the following issues:

• relations between writing systems
• the creation of new writing systems adapted from old ones
• the social context of the use and development of writing systems
• the effects of social context on literacy and document types

The project revolves around an evolving set of research questions related to linguistic and social context:

1) The linguistic context of script relations and developments, for example:

• What processes are involved in adapting a pre-existing script to a new language?
• What choices do the adapters face as they try to create a script suitable for the phonological properties of their language, and what factors influence their decisions?
• What degree or kinds of contact are involved between speakers of the languages of the old and new scripts?
• What kind of multilingual situation is created or maintained by such contact?
• How does the creation and development of new writing systems relate to the propagation of linguistic identities?
• Why do communities in close proximity sometimes develop different graphic strategies for similar phonological problems?

2) The social context of script relations and developments:

• How many people are needed to adapt a new script from an old one?
• What differences do centralised and decentralised political/administrative structures make to the creation and proliferation of new scripts?
• Can social and political context affect script structure and use, and vice versa? How?
• How is the spread of literacy affected by social and political context, and vice versa?
• How do levels and types of literacy affect inscription/document types and their content?
• What types of social conditions are favourable for the adoption and communication of scripts?
• Who writes, for what purposes and in what contexts? Are different scripts used in different contexts?
• How do developments in writing systems affect wider social change?
• How can study of writing systems be integrated with the study of ancient society? What does a ‘social archaeology of writing systems’ look like?
• Why do societies develop particular writing practices, and how do they change over time?

Published and publicised through multiple outputs and media, the results will be of importance not only to the specific chronological periods and geographical areas under close consideration but also to the diachronic study of relationships between population groups and the significance of such relationships for the wider field of cultural history.
The first 18 months of the project saw the arrival of all members of the project team (four researchers and an administrative assistant), each coming at a different stage. Now, 36 months into the project, the progress of each researcher with their respective case studies is reflected by a range of communications, including conference papers and already-appeared or in-progress publications (indicated in more detail below). Brief details of the focus of each team member are as follows:

Dr Philippa Steele (started 1/4/16): Main focus Aegean syllabic scripts. Research on the effect of administrative or non-administrative context on the appearance and use of writing in the ancient Aegean (especially Linear A), the context of writing at Late Bronze Age Mycenae, ways of assessing the diversity of early forms of the Greek alphabet, also in relation to the Phoenician alphabet, and influences on methods of incising clay tablets in the Mediterranean and Levant. Publications in the form of scientific papers on non-administrative Linear A writing (using Cypro-Minoan as a comparison to establish new ways of assessing the inscriptions; published), fluctuations in the early Greek alphabet (reassessing the distribution of epigraphic features; accepted, forthcoming), the materiality of inscribing clay tablets (submitted, joint paper with Philip Boyes). Editing the proceedings of the first CREWS project conference. Co-organised the second CREWS project conference, which took place in March 2019

Dr Philip Boyes (started 1/11/16): Main focus Ugaritic cuneiform. Research on the social context of writing at Late Bronze Age Ugarit, political and cultural concerns affecting the development and adoption of the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, as well as questions of who wrote in Ugarit and how this compares to other Near Eastern societies. Language work on Ugaritic and Akkadian. Publications in the form of scientific papers on the use of alphabetic cuneiform outside Ugarit (accepted; forthcoming), the relationship between Hittite imperialism and the development of Ugaritic (in press), the early history of research into Phoenician (in preparation), the materiality of inscribing clay tablets (in preparation, joint paper with Philippa Steele). Editing the proceedings of the first CREWS project conference. Organised the second CREWS project conference, which took place in March 2019.

Dr Robert Crellin (started 1/4/17): Main focus Semitic consonantal alphabets. Research on the question of ambiguity in early West Semitic writing, focusing at present on the lack of vowel and double consonant notation in Phoenician (incl. Punic), Aramaic and Hebrew. Quantitative and mathematical approaches to measuring ambiguity. Examination of the context of the interpretation of particular works in Hebrew (the book of Isaiah) based on available ambiguities; the way in which the structural properties of a writing system affect the concerns of the society in which a given writing system is used. Research into the metaphysical properties of writing. Language work learning Egyptian. Publications in the form of: introduction for the publication of an edition of the Persian Diatessaron (gospel harmony) where, inter alia, issues of interpretation following from ambiguities in the denotation of vowels are discussed (published); development of vowel writing in Neo-Punic, including consideration of variation by geographical location (in preparation); translation and treatment of potentially ambiguous Hebrew stem forms in the Hebrew Bible into Greek (accepted).

Ms Natalia Elvira Astoreca (started 1/10/16): Main focus Greek alphabet. Research on the linguistic relationships between the different Greek scripts, based on the earliest samples of alphabetic writing in Greece (8th-7th centuries BC). Also the adoption of the Greek alphabet by Etruscan populations, which will be a point of comparison for how other Mediterranean cultures (and Greeks among them) learned and borrowed foreign writing systems. Publications in the form of conference proceedings on the Paphian syllabary and sub-dialect as marks of identity and political tools for the Paphian kingdom in Cyprus (published).

Ms Sarah Lewis (started 12/9/17): Administrative support in all areas of running the project, including financial management, maintaining project records and organisation of project events.

Communication of project results has taken place across a variety of fora and with audiences ranging from specialist academic to the general public across the world, including several conferences (in UK, Spain, Japan, Latvia, Finland), workshops, symposia, seminars, outreach events, press releases and regular blog posts advertised through a range of social media. Four particular events were run by the CREWS project team and will form a part of the project's scientific output:

• The first CREWS project conference, Understanding Relations Between Scripts: Early Alphabets on 21-22 March 2017; proceedings now under (open access) contract with Oxbow Books, edited by Philippa Steele and Philip Boyes
• The CREWS panel at the British Epigraphy Society Spring Meeting in May 2017; individual papers contributing to in-progress publications by each researcher
• The CREWS Ugaritic workshops in summer 2017; run by Philip Boyes and contributing materially to his in-progress CREWS project monograph while also providing others with the opportunity to learn Ugaritic and to engage in practical experiments with Ugaritic cuneiform writing
• The CREWS Egyptian hieroglyphic workshops in summer 2018; run by Robert Crellin and contributing materially to his research on orthography and vowel notation while also providing others with the opportunity to learn Egyptian hieroglyphs
• The second CREWS project conference, Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems on 14-16 March 2017; the proceedings will be published with open access with Oxbow Books, edited by Philip Boyes and Philippa Steele

In addition, the CREWS research team are involved in editing the proceedings of three of the other conferences (Archaia Grammata co-edited by Philippa Steele, AWLL 11th Workshop in Writing Systems and Literacy co-edited by Robert Crellin, The Function and Semantics of the Perfect in IE languages co-edited by Robert Crellin) and are at various stages in publishing research presented at other events. Robert Crellin was co-organiser of a major conference of the Association of Written Language and Literacy (AWLL 12) in March 2019.

There has been a great deal of public interest in the CREWS project, proliferated through a series of dedicated outreach activities involving an initial press release, school visits and talks, the dissemination of free teaching materials, special outreach events and blog posts. Between January and June 2018, we curated a special CREWS display in the Cypriot Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum (also in association with the British Museum), with special information boards and leaflets, reaching an audience of thousands of visitors; in addition our series of blog posts on the items featured in the display reached thousands more online. We have also had a great deal of feedback from members of academic communities and the public in a number of different countries, many of whom have used our blog posts and resources in the context of teaching. Our blog has had over 89,000 views from 193 different countries and territories and our Twitter feed reached over 2.29 million impressions with more than 2800 regular followers, allowing us to relay further information and ideas about ancient writing and disseminate our project research to diverse audiences around the world.
Progress to date:

• Ongoing research by the CREWS project team, both for short-term communications and academic articles and for long-term preparation of individual monographs (or in the case of the PhD student, her thesis). The first 36 months have produced a number of publications already published, in press, submitted or in preparation, from all members of the research team.

• Methodological advances, including new ways of approaching the social context of writing (e.g. the administrative or non-administrative context of writing in the Bronze Age Aegean, the socio-political background to script development in Bronze Age Ugarit), linguistic and cultural aspects of the propagation of writing (e.g. the borrowing of the Greek alphabet by Etruscan speakers, the development of segmental notation in alphabetic scripts), practical experiments revealing methods of inscription used to produce ancient texts (e.g. multi-way influences in the use of styli in linear and cuneiform scripts) and computational methods for assessing linguistic features of writing systems (e.g. to determine the predictability of vowels in a given language).

• The first CREWS project conference (Understanding Relations Between Scripts: Early Alphabets) was held successfully in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, on 21-22 March 2017. This involved a rich and interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars studying different alphabetic writing systems around the ancient Mediterranean, Near East and Egypt, with a distinguished programme of speakers and discussants. The ensuing publication (in press as an open access publication with Oxbow Books) will present the latest advances in research on early alphabets, both by CREWS researchers and a network of scholars outside Cambridge.

• The second CREWS project conference (Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems) was held successfully in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, on 14-16 March 2017. This was a pioneering meeting that aimed to establish the interdisciplinary study of the context of writing as a fruitful area of research, bringing together specialists in epigraphy, archaeology, linguistics, social history, anthropology, cognitive science. The range of areas and periods covered, combined with the multiplicity of viewpoints, made it a remarkably stimulating conference, and it was also celebrated for its promotion of diversity and inclusion (in particular in terms of gender equality and support for early career research). The ensuing publication (open access with Oxbow Books) will disseminate the research of CREWS researchers and an international, interdisciplinary network of scholars, and establish the social archaeology of writing as an area of study.

Expected results:

• The CREWS researchers' individual case studies will shed important new light on the research questions and problems outlined in the first section, reaching a better understanding of ancient writing systems, their social context and the ways in which ideas were exchanged in early civilisations. This has implications not only for the specific writing systems under study, but also for the broader understanding of the cultural importance of writing from early societies to the modern day.

• Each CREWS researcher will publish an extended piece of research on their case study (monographs for the PI and each research associate, plus the PhD student's thesis) as well as numerous shorter academic pieces in the form of papers in conference proceedings and journal articles. One of the monograph proposals is already accepted as part of our Open Access publication series with Oxbow Books (Philip Boyes, Script and Society. The Social Context of Writing-Systems in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, decision expected in November 2018).

• The CREWS project will contribute to establishing international networks of scholars working on ancient writing systems, bringing them together as part of three CREWS conferences. The first took place in 2017 while the second in 2019. The final conference will present the results of the CREWS project, and will take place in 2021.

The CREWS project aims to break new ground in research on the history of writing by focusing on a specific set of interrelated but independent case studies as outlined in the first section. The painstaking detail of the case studies will provide new and more intricately understood data for assessing script relations and context than has previously been available. This collaborative research, involving both combined approaches and comparison of individual social and linguistic situations, will set new standards in assessing the ways in which writing was borrowed, adapted, used and perceived. These are questions that have continuing relevance to issues of literacy and cultural contact in the modern world.