Introduction to the Collection
In his introduction to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, Classics professor Roger D. Woodard posits that "an ancient language is a thing of wonder – so is every other language, all remarkable systems of conveying thoughts and ideas across time and space."1
Artifacts in the De Gregorio Study Collection of Antiquities do, indeed, inspire a sense of wonder. Spanning hundreds of thousands of years, sweeping across a multitude of tribal alliances, empires, and continents, the artifacts represent one of the greatest achievements of humankind, the creation of written languages.
The truly extraordinary collection, donated to Bucknell University by Dr. and Mrs. Bart De Gregorio, encompasses wedge-shaped script on Babylonian cuneiform clay tablets, Egyptian hieroglyphs on papyrus, a Mesoamerican ceremonial implement carved on bone, and an Armenian illuminated manuscript scroll. There is a wide range of intriguing historical connections to the Greek geographer Ptolemy, the Buddha and Martin Luther, and the Blackletter typeface utilized by the Allies to interrupt Nazi communications; there is even a direct connection to the 20th century Taliban.
The languages of business and legal contracts, Islamic literature, Italian liturgical texts, and Yemenite Hebrew prayers that developed along the Silk Road from Asia to the Mediterranean, on the Horn of Africa, and in the Balkans, are artistic masterpieces of cuneiform clay pictograms, and calligraphy. Many incorporate brilliant patterns of blue fish, red flowers, and golden-haired angels.
Scholars theorize that humans have been speaking and understanding language for at least 100,000 years. Cuneiform and Sumerian writing appeared in West Asia about 3025 BCE; in Africa, Egyptian glyphs date to approximately fifteen years later. Many alphabets were sub-divisions of parent language families; others were derived from local dialects; some were distinct independent forms. Nearly all contained loan-words from other linguistic systems through clear cultural transmissions.
1Roger D. Woodard, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4.