New module – the History of Writing in the Ancient Mediterranean

Developing and teaching new modules is probably one of my favourite parts of my job. It doesn’t come around very often, and it’s hugely fun to think about presenting cutting-edge research to undergraduates, who are so open to new ideas and take them to pieces very effectively. So I was very excited to be asked, back in February, if I’d be willing to come up with a new third-year ancient history module (on fairly short notice).

My brief was that the module needed to include both Greek and Roman material, and it needed to be accessible to those without previous experience of the ancient languages (because the Ancient History degree in Durham does not have a language requirement, although many students do choose to study languages optionally). The module also had to run across two terms – so that’s 20 lectures and 6 seminars.

My immediate thought was that I wanted to do something that built on the experience I’d gained teaching Language in Greek and Roman Society at the University of Exeter. That module was grounded in sociolinguistics, but actually gave a crash course in a wide range of linguistic approaches – historical linguistics, Indo-European reconstruction, syntax, morphonology, phonology, and others. But this kind of module, I quickly realised, wasn’t going to sit well with my brief. Although many parts of it were accessible to a wide audience, it was probably asking too much to teach that much linguistics to people unfamiliar with the languages.

After a bit of thought, I decided to pitch a module called ‘The History of Writing in the Ancient Mediterranean’. The key is that this module focuses on scripts, writing and literacy – none of which, inherently, need a deep understanding of the language to think about in depth. Once I’d decided on this title, my problem became what to exclude, rather than what to include. Linear B? Egyptian hieroglyphs? Cuneiform? The Cypriot syllabary? Iberian scripts? There’s almost too much that we could talk about.

Why study writing?

Writing is so central to our knowledge of the ancient world, but we don’t often centre writing itself as an object of study. I think most people would realise that our surviving literary sources were, for the most part, produced by a very small and unusual set of people, but might not have given much thought to who wrote the inscriptions and graffiti that also peppered the ancient world.

I also find the theoretical underpinnings of writing absolutely fascinating. Again, for something that we use every day, we give it relatively little thought (until we start to learn a new language, at which point it suddenly seems like an insurmountable barrier!). I think, in fact, children in the UK are now taught to read and write in a way that makes them much more aware of the relationship between writing and speech. But there are still huge assumptions underlying how we use writing that we can unpick – and I think third year undergrad is a perfect time to really get into these knotty theoretical problems.

How is the module structured?

We’re going to start off with theoretical approaches to writing. What counts as writing? Is a mathematical formula ‘writing’? Is a sheet of music ‘writing’? Are road signs ‘writing’? Once we’ve all thoroughly confused ourselves with those questions, we’ll talk about different types of writing systems and signs – ideograms, logograms, syllabic signs, abjads and alphabets, among others.

I’m hoping that the spread of types of writing we can talk about will complement the other modules being taught in the third year. For example, the ‘Greeks and Persians’ module includes some texts in Old Persian (in translation), and the ‘Late Roman World’ module includes some Aramaic texts. We also have a huge spread of expertise in the department, from Punic to Oscan to Syriac to Linear B to Sumerian, and several colleagues have already agreed (in theory) to give guest lectures. I’m particularly excited about the possibility of a guest lecture on numerical notation and mathematics, which I know very little about!

We’ll think about more thematic issues too, especially in the Epiphany term. This will include different types of writers – craftsmen, soldiers, scribes, teachers – but also the different purposes for which writing was used, like communicating with the gods, commemorating the dead and expressing power.

Drawing of the Idalion bilingual

The resources

As I write this, I am in the process of putting together the reading list and making sure that appropriate reading is available, with the help of Durham’s excellent library team. I’ve been really pleased to see how much exciting work is going on in this field that I can share, particularly on writing systems I’m less familiar with. Apart from anything else, I’m hoping to get some good use out of the CREWS project’s video lessons on how to write my name in Egyptian hieroglyphs!

If you’re in Durham (and possibly if you’re not – not sure), the module reading list is visible on Talis Aspire.

If anyone has any favourite resources – whether online or in a book/article – that they think would suit this module, I’d love to hear about them.

Title image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One thought on “New module – the History of Writing in the Ancient Mediterranean

Add yours

  1. Excellent digest, Katherine. Very exciting to see such a broad and inclusive approach. All good wishes for successful teaching. And the reading list is visible from as far from Durham as South Wales.


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