The CREWS project

Everyone interested in ancient languages and scripts should follow the CREWS project blog.

CREWS (which stands for Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems) is a major new ERC-funded project hosted at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, run by my excellent colleague Pippa Steele. To quote from her introduction to the project:

The aim of the CREWS project is to take an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the history of writing, developing new methodologies for studying writing systems and their social context. The project researchers will be working on specific case studies relating to inscriptions of the ancient Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Levant (c.2000-600 BC). By looking at the ways in which writing systems were developed and used, we can study not only the systems themselves and the languages written in them, but also the cultural settings in which they were adapted and maintained.

By focusing on the Mediterranean in 2nd and 1st millennia BC, the project will be able to investigate writing during a period when we know there were high levels of contact between different areas. Against this backdrop of linguistic and cultural interconnections, a study of how writing was passed on and adapted for new uses has the potential to give new insights into social history. Writing is more than just a vessel for recording language: it is a tool that is shaped by and contributes to the society in which it exists.

My Italy photographs even came in handy for the press release

The project has already attracted a fair amount of local and national press, though the Daily Mail confusingly wrote as though the project had just discovered the secrets of the origins of alphabetical order. Not quite yet, as Pippa makes clear. (They’ve only been running since the beginning of April, after all!)

I’ve also been enjoying Pippa’s explanation of the project’s logo design, which looks like this:


How do you write an acronym of a project name in Linear B, for example? Here’s Pippa’s answer, from this week’s blog post on the CREWS website:

The first line is in Linear B consists of the following syllabic signs: ko re e wi su.

If you compare the signs with the versions in the table in Figure 1, you will see that they are mostly a little different in shape, which is because instead of using ‘perfect’ abstract versions of the signs I wanted to use versions that looked closer to what you might see in a real tablet. I used some palaeographic variants found among the Knossos tablets as a basis for each individual sign.

But why ko re e wi su? The intention is to represent the acronym CREWS, which stands for the project title, Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems. Now, writing out an acronym in a syllabic script is not easy, given that each sign represents not just a letter but a whole syllable. So instead of taking a single letter, I isolated the first syllable of each word.

ko = Contexts

re = Relations

e = Early

wi = Writing (well, wi is not the first sound of the word ‘writing’, but Linear B has a system for writing consonant clusters, which can involve a dummy vowel – so wri- could be represented by the sequence wi-ri-, which we do in fact find for example in wrinos “leather, oxhide”, writtenwi-ri-no)

su = Systems (su rather than si because ‘system’ is a Greek word, σύστημα)

Pippa’s post also explains more about the Linear B writing system, and why it forms part of the CREWS project.

The project will have several post-doc and PhD opportunities coming up soon, so if you are looking for upcoming research opportunities in these areas, make sure to stay in touch with the project as it develops. Pippa tells me there will be a twitter handle soon too (and if you are a twitter user, you have to follow her – I’ve been telling her all about how great it is for sharing research ideas, and I’d hate to be proven wrong.)


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