Leiden University: Leiden researchers organise first Week of Ancient Writing

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This month marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. NINO, the Language Museum, Things that Talk and the National Museum of Antiquities are seizing the opportunity to organise the first Week of Ancient Writing.

We have a very exciting programme,’ says Willemijn Waal, director of NINO. Ancient scripts like Greek, Latin, cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics are often public favourites, but so many other systems of writing were used. This week is meant to show how rich the writing tradition of the Mediterranean world is. We go from the first cuneiform script we have, from the fourth millennium BC, to the early Arabic scripts in the first millennium AD.’

The Ancient Scriptures Week is aimed at a broad audience. In the afternoon, there are more general lectures, while visitors with more expert knowledge are served with more specialised workshops. It really is a mix,’ says Waal. We have a workshop on Hieroglyphic-Luwish, for example, but also children’s activities such as doing puzzles with notebooks.The Ancient Scriptures Week is aimed at a broad audience. In the afternoon, there are more general lectures, while visitors with more expert knowledge are served with more specialised workshops. It really is a mix,’ says Waal. We have a workshop on Hieroglyphic-Luwish, for example, but also children’s activities such as doing puzzles with notebooks.

Stories and videos
The Leiden initiatives Things that Talk and Taalmuseum are also strongly represented in the programme. HUM students and staff have made stories for Things that Talk, using inscribed objects from the NINO and RMO collections,’ says Waal. ‘That’s great fun, especially because the importance of the materiality of writing becomes clear in these stories. Cuneiform, for example, was written on clay, which makes it very durable. Other writing systems, such as the alphabet, were usually written on more perishable materials such as leather, parchment, wood and papyrus. Those kinds of documents can survive in Egypt, which has a very dry climate, but not in, Greece and Turkey, for example. The written sources are therefore much scarcer.’

The Language Museum has produced several videos and animations that teach young and old about writing. ‘Students from the Ancient Near Eastern Studies programme have recorded a tutorial on how to write on a cuneiform tablet. Of course, we don’t know exactly how this was done, but they reconstructed the process as well as possible. It turned out to be a lot of fun.’

Undeciphered and interesting
What is Waal most looking forward to? ‘I think the session on undeciphered scripts on Friday 16 September. These notebooks often receive attention from pseudo-scientific circles, from people who – wrongly – claim to have deciphered them. Because of this, research into these notebooks is quickly viewed as suspicious. That’s a pity, because even though we don’t know the content of the texts in unknown scripts, their mere existence is extremely significant and indicates that the writing traditions were even richer and more diverse than we now know.’

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