Philippa Steele, of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Classics and a McDonald Institute Fellow, has been awarded a a 1.5M euro European Research Council grant to run the 'Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems' (CREWS) project, described as an “innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the history of writing”
Beginning this April, Steele will lead a four-person team exploring how writing developed during the 2nd and 1st millennia BC in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, and will investigate how different writing systems and the cultures that used them were related to each other. The project is set to shed light on the history of writing, revealing connections to our modern alphabet that cross cultures and go back thousands of years.
Says Steele: "The links from the ancient past to our alphabet today are no coincidence. The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician writing system and they still kept the same order of signs: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. They transported the alphabet to Italy, where it was passed on to the Etruscans, and also to the Romans, who still kept the same order: A, B, C, D, which is why our modern alphabet is the way it is today.”
That such an apparently simple idea remained so stable and powerful over thousands of years of cultural change and movement is an historic mystery. “The answer cannot be purely linguistic”, Steele said. “There must have been considerable social importance attached to the idea of the alphabet having a particular order. It matters who was doing the writing and what they were using writing for.”
Steele has worked on ancient languages and writing systems for over ten years and previously specialised in the languages of ancient Cyprus.