Script, Image and the Culture of Writing in the Ancient World

The Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents undertook, between 1 October 2001 - 31 December 2004, a group of related projects which together constituted a programme entitled 'Script, Image and the Culture of Writing in the Ancient World', funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Programme Components

1. Epigraphic Sources for Early Greek Writing

The development of the Greek alphabet is one of the more remarkable and formative episodes in the history of the ancient Mediterranean World. The variety and ingenuity of local alphabets in the Archaic Greek world offer a striking reflection of the creativity of this period of Greek history and of the impact of the introduction of writing on Greek society. The CSAD's research collection includes the unpublished papers and photographs of the late L.H. Jeffery, whose Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (LSAG) has become the standard treatment of early Greek writing. The CSAD has catalogued and digitised Jeffery's drawings and photographs together with associated material in her papers, to provide an on-line resource for the study of early Greek writing. This resource complements the Centre's current image database of squeezes of Greek inscriptions which illustrate the development of Greek writing on stone from the fifth century BC into the Byzantine period.

The on-line publication of the Jeffery archive can be found here.

2. Greek Inscriptions in the Ashmolean Museum

The CSAD in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum has undertaken a programme of photographing the Museum's important collection of Greek inscriptions using a high resolution digital studio camera. As part of the project, the possibility of creating virtual reality models of the inscriptions was explored. Images of all the inscriptions will be made available from the Centre's web site.

3. Photographic Archive of Papyri in the Cairo Museum.

In the 1970s and 1980s an International Photographic Mission initiated and sponsored by the Association Internationale de Papyrologues and UNESCO made slides and photographs of the several thousand Greek papyri held in the Cairo Museum. This unique photographic archive, which consists of about 5000 slides and large format negatives, in equal proportions, held at Oxford and Copenhagen, has never been fully catalogued or made widely accessible. The CSAD has undertaken a programme of cataloguing and digitising the photographs with a view to making them more readily available to the scholarly community.

4. Gazetteer of Papyri in British Collections.

The large-scale discovery and acquisition of Greek papyri in Egypt, by excavation and purchase, from the 1890s onwards resulted in the export of huge numbers of texts to Europe and North America. In the process archives of related texts from particular sites were dispersed and many remain fragmented and only partially published. It seems clear that a detailed reconstruction of the process of acquisition of papyri from Egypt by excavation and through the antiquities market would allow connections to be re-established between groups of texts that have become dispersed and lead to advances in our knowledge of the archaeology and documentation of Egypt.

To this end and following a recent pilot project undertaken by Dr. Willy Clarysse of the Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven (, the CSAD has compiled a complete gazetteer, as far as is practicable, of the source, content and location of papyrus collections in libraries, museums, universities and private ownership in Britain, describing holdings, provenance, circumstances of acquisition and archival elements. The gazetteer is organised as a MySQL database, maintained, updated and made available through the website.

5. Romano-British Writing-tablets from Vindolanda.

This component of the programme involved the design and creation of a website consisting of texts and images of the Vindolanda writing-tablets and supporting material. The foundations for this project were already substantially in place: the edition by A.K. Bowman and J.D. Thomas of all the major ink texts was completed with a third and final volume in December 2003, and the creation of an archive of high-quality digital images of the ink texts was completed early in 2002.

The core of the website comprises linked databases of these texts and images from which the user will be able to proceed to other elements in the site offering: full supporting commentaries on the individual texts; an illustrated guide to the palaeography and the characteristics of early Latin writing; evidence for the physical context of the deposit at the site of Vindolanda in relation to the topography and buildings of the early forts; archaeological evidence for the artefacts, places, military institutions and other items mentioned in the texts - all this supported by references to relevant material from other archaeological sites.

The Vindolanda website was adopted by the University Computing Service's Academic Computing Development Team (ACDT) as a project for the Academic Year 2001/2.

6. Curse Tablets from the Uley Shrines (Gloucestershire).

The CSAD has developed a database and website for the texts and images of the lead curse-tablets from the shrines at Uley in Gloucestershire. The cache of tablets from this unique site consists of 140 examples, 86 containing traces of writing of which about 15 have been published. There is also an exceptionally good published archaeological context for this material which offers an opportunity to create a small but pioneering application in which new imaging processes specific to incised lead texts can be developed, and the tablets themselves can placed in their archaeological and material context and a vivid impression reconstructed of the religious and literary culture within which they were produced.

To meet this aim, the tablets have been imaged using the techniques of 3-D shadow stereo already developed in the imaging processing project for incised wooden stilus tablets which the CSAD undertook in collaboration with the Department of Engineering Science; and by linking the images to electronic versions of the published texts and commentaries. Material from the detailed archaeological reports has been used to provide plans and reconstructions of the structures of the Romano-British temple complex and the location and nature of the deposit of votive objects which included the curse tablets.