Scribes, blogs and cakes: Interview with Anna Judson

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Not a word, but an image – the view of Kings Chapel while walking along the Backs. It may be a bit of a cliché, but I never get tired of that view, even walking past it most days! Even better if the cows are out in the meadow or the swans are on the river.

Kings Chapel view from the Backs

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? As you analyse the Mycenaean scribes’ writing practices, what differences and commonalities between documents have you identified? Is there any sign of authorship or personal style?

I work on the Linear B texts from Late Bronze Age Greece – these administrative documents were written on clay tablets in the Mycenaean palaces c.1400-1200 BCE.

Example of a Linear B tablet

I actually started out as a classical linguist – my PhD was on the ‘undeciphered’ signs of the Linear B script, whose values we don’t know yet – but my research has been gradually getting more archaeological as I’ve gotten more interested in how the people who wrote these documents actually worked. My current project is on writing practices at Pylos in south-western mainland Greece, which is one of the sites where we have a large enough collection of texts (around 1000) to allow the identification of different writers by their handwriting (unlike Near Eastern cuneiform tablets, the Linear B tablets are never signed by their writers). I’ve been using these scribal identifications to look at issues like spelling variation – when is it acceptable or unacceptable to use multiple different spellings for the same word or sequence, and what can this tell us about how the scribes may have learned to write and spell? – as well as how scribes edit their own and sometimes each other’s texts, and what this means for how the texts were used within the administrative system and what the scribes’ priorities were in writing them. There definitely are instances of variation or of edits to tablets which can really only be put down to individual preferences on the part of the writer, as well as those which reflect rules or conventions which all the scribes must have been taught to follow.

The remains of the Mycenaean palace at Pylos. A view of the entrance (right) and archives complex (left)

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

I actually did my BA, MPhil, and PhD all in Cambridge, at Pembroke College – so I only really moved down the road for my postdoc (a Research Fellowship at Gonville & Caius). Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) are a kind of postdoc that I think can be difficult to access information about if you’re not already at Oxford or Cambridge and so have colleagues or supervisors who can help with the applications, because unlike most postdocs, they’re entirely your own project, which you have to be able to explain and sell to a committee of fellows who mostly will be in completely different subject areas. I absolutely think they should be more accessible, since they are such a great opportunity to focus on your own research for 3-4 years: I have some information and advice about the process here, and am always happy to answer questions from people outside Oxbridge who’d like more information about JRFs.

You author a blog, ‘It’s All Greek to Me’, for several years already. Can you tell about your experience in blogging as an academic? How you come up with ideas? Do you follow a discipline or schedule to keep your blog alive?

I first started blogging as a postgraduate student, when some fellow-students in the Classics Faculty set up a communal blog called Res Gerendae – ‘Things to be done’ – a play on the ‘Res Gestae’ [‘things done’] of the Roman emperor Augustus. That was a great opportunity to get started with blogging in a low-pressure way, since there were several of us contributing to it! Once I finished my PhD, I realised I wanted to keep blogging, so that’s when I started up ‘It’s All Greek to Me’. I’ve found writing a blog to be a really useful exercise in thinking about how I write – it’s a very different thing from academic writing, both in terms of potential audience and in terms of writing style. I actually find the same thing with creating and editing Wikipedia pages, which I started doing much more recently as part of the #WCCWiki project to improve the representation of women in Classics and archaeology (follow @womeninclassics on Twitter). I also like that blogging lets me write about a much wider range of things than I would in my academic writing – I enjoy reviewing museum exhibitions or novels relating to the ancient world, for instance, and I also have a long-standing series of posts using pictures of cakes I’ve decorated with inscriptions on them to talk about different ancient writing systems!

One of Anna’s special cakes depicting a Egyptian hieroglyph text

What do you do in your spare time?

I read more or less any fiction I can get my hands on, but especially fantasy and science fiction – some current favourites are N. K. Jemisin’s ‘Broken Earth’ series and Branden Sanderson’s ‘Stormlight Archive’. For classics-inspired fiction, I’m a big fan of Lindsey Davis and Mary Renault, and also recently enjoyed Pat Barker’s ‘Silence of the Girls’. Plus I enjoy baking – regular cakes as well as ones with inscriptions on them!

Know more about Anna’s work by visiting her institutional profile in Gonville & Caius College and the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, or by following her on Twitter (@annapjudson).

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