Comfort Classics: Pippa Steele



The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.




Today’s interview is with Pippa Steele




Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?


It might seem a bit corny, but I think my favourite inscription from the ancient world has to be an Etruscan bucchero ware vessel in the shape of a cockerel, with a Greek alphabetic sequence incised around the outside. (For a blog post on this object, see here; the museum listing is here)


Pictures from The Met Museum






When did you first come across this object?


Some years ago I came across a discussion of the alphabetic sequence that was completely divorced from context and failed to mention the spectacular nature of the object on which this important inscription appears. When I looked into it and found a photograph revealing the cockerel, I was delighted!






Can you tell me a bit about this cockerel and its context?


Stylistically the vessel is thought to originate from 7th C BC Etruria, but there is not a lot of information on its context and today the cockerel’s home is the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We are not entirely sure what the purpose of the vessel is (a miniature jug or container of some kind, or perhaps even an inkpot?) but its main importance lies in the inscription incised around the cockerel’s middle, just underneath some rows of similarly incised decorative feathers.


360 Spin Series 36 columns X 11rows


The earliest evidence of the use of the Greek alphabet comes from the 8th C BC, but abecedaria (i.e. inscriptions that give the letters of the alphabet in sequence) are extremely rare, and there are lots of gaps in our understanding of the earliest development of alphabetic writing. The earliest examples of whole alphabetic sequences have been found in Italy – including this cockerel vase – where Greek alphabetic writing was borrowed and adapted by local speakers of the Etruscan language.

One really important feature of the cockerel abecedarium is that it seems to reflect a very early stage in the development of the alphabetic sequence, since it retains signs that were eliminated in attested Greek alphabets. For example, we don’t know of any regional Greek alphabet in the Archaic period that had both sigma (Σ) and san (M) to represent the /s/ phoneme – every attested alphabet has narrowed down to one or the other. But the cockerel abecedarium shows them both in their proper place in the Greek sequence according to their original place in the Phoenician sequence. At the same time, the cockerel abecedarium also contains Greek innovations, such as the supplementary letters at the end. This is an exceptionally important piece of evidence for trying to reconstruct the early stages of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean.





What is it about this object that appeals to you most?


Well I can’t help feeling that this cockerel has such great kitsch value… though bucchero ware was made using special techniques and this object was clearly a product of skilled craftsmanship, so we should probably think in terms of a moderately expensive status symbol object rather than a cheap novelty item. Actually I would definitely buy an object like this. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to buying unusual and beautiful things!

But when you combine the object’s striking visual appearance with the fact that it is a hugely important early attestation of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean, well that makes it a very special little cockerel indeed.







And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?


I love anything crafty, ranging from making my own jewellery to building things in Lego. Recently I had a go at making a cylinder seal (a type of object used in the ancient Near East to authenticate transactions) out of a cylindrical onyx earring, and that was great fun – even if I cheated by using a power tool to do the engraving! I especially enjoy work-related projects in Lego (like the ones featured on the CREWS blog here, or here).

But I have to say that the pandemic, and the lockdown, have been very mentally draining, and I’m not doing nearly as many crafts projects as I thought I might early on. Sometimes it’s all I can manage to try to switch off by playing a computer game (currently Fallout 76 or Civilization VI) or watching a favourite TV series (currently Foyle’s War, The Walking Dead or Dr Who) – I find that a bit of escapism is very good for relaxing and refreshing my brain.




Pippa Steele is a Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, and a Senior Research Fellow of Magdalene College. She has written extensively on the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus, as well as the Bronze Age and Iron Age Greece, and she is currently focusing on Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B. In 2016 she was awarded a large grant by the European Research Council to run the five-year project Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS), and her research team work on a variety of writing systems around the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean, Near East and north Africa.

“You can find out more from the CREWS blog, where we try to make our research accessible to as wide an audience as possible:

We have recently started to develop some teaching materials and videos related to our research, which can be found here:”





Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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