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How to Inventory Greek Alphabets

Figure 1: The reverse of HC:1949.16 showing the original inscription. © National Museum of Ireland

by Faith Nolan, Inventory Assistant, National Museum of Ireland

Click into images at the bottom of the page​ for further information


During the early days on the Inventory Project of the Art & Industry Collections, one of my colleagues was working on the 1949 Numismatics register and encountered some coins which had Greek inscriptions. As they were not familiar with the Greek they messaged me. It was Covid times and we were all working from home, so MS Teams was our main line of communication. As I had studied ancient Greek as part of my undergraduate, I could help. Little did we know, the rabbit hole we would fall into as a result.

The Registers

Unlike today where we have word processors and collections management systems for creating the record of an object, in 1949 the museum was using the technology of the day - the typewriter. This meant that there was a bit more flexibility when cataloguing an object, like a coin, which had inscriptions using a non-Latin or non-Romanised alphabet. The curator at the time could add in letters and cyphers with pen or pencil.

For example, the register entry for HC:1949.16 (Figure 1) contains a number of Greek letters which the curator was able to hand write onto the physical document as you can see in Figure 2.

When the museum moved to digital records, the contents of the registers had to be transcribed into the collections management system, Adlib.

How to input into Adlib?

When my colleague asked me to take a look at the register entries I thought it would be relatively straight forward to identify them and input them into Adlib. However, life is rarely straightforward. The first hurdle I encountered was working with a Latin alphabet keyboard. Luckily, a lot of ancient Greek letters have survived into Modern Greek and have been incorporated into MS Word in the Unicode Symbol library in the Greek and Coptic subset (Figure 3).

However, there were some letters recorded in the register from the coins which had not survived into Modern Greek, or were written in a method called boustrophedon, or ‘ox-turning’.

When the Greeks adopted the alphabet from the Phoenicians they wrote right to left, like the Phoenicians. Later they switched to writing left to right like we do today in English and Irish. Boustrophedon inscriptions were written from both left to right and right to left. The next line of an inscription would begin below the last letter of the previous line and run in the opposite direction. In order to help the reader, the inscriber would turn the letters to the right or the left to “point” the reader in the direction the word or line should be read. For example, the register entry for HC:1949.4 (Figure 4) records an inscription written in boustrophedon on the reverse. The handwritten section shows “ИOIꞀAᕒᕒⱻM”, which is the word “MEΣΣAΓION” being written right to left. This is indicated by the direction the letters E, A, Σ, and Γ are “pointing”.

We then had to figure out a way to transcribe the archaic letters and the “ox-turned” letters into Adlib.
With the help of our IT department, we downloaded an extension for the MS Word Symbol Unicode Library. We chose an ancient scripts Unicode font developed by George Douros after examining a number of different “keyboards” and Unicode font plug ins for MS Word. Douros has developed a Unicode font which included a broad selection of scripts and symbols used in the Bronze Age, Archaic and Classical Aegean. The archaic forms we needed were include in version 13.00. However, when we tried to save these letters into Adlib, it would not accept them. Adlib will only accept symbols the standard MS Word Unicode library.


At this point the mantra “when in doubt, ask for help” came to mind. So in order to gauge what the best practice was, we contacted colleagues in other museums across Europe which had Greek coins in their collections and used the same collections management system as the museum (Adlib). The consensus reached was to transcribe using the Modern Greek alphabet for letters and to add a note to explain the “ox-turned” letters and the unusual letter forms at the end of the register entry.

As a result, we then updated the register transcriptions for the coins affected. Our two examples of HC:1949.4 and HC:1949.16 became the following:

TETRADRACHM, silver, 413-346 B.C.
Obv. Messana driving biga of mules to left.
Nike above, crowns Messana. Two dolphins below.
Rev. Hare to left with head of Pan below.

[Inscription on the reverse written in boustrophedon (ox-turn, or mirror writing) on object and in original register. As a result, the letters are reversed, and MEΣΣAΓION becomes ИOIꞀAᕒᕒⱻM.]


DRACHM, silver, 152-144 B.C.
Obv. Head of king, diademed.
ΘEOπ ATOP󠇯OΣ. EYEP[?] ETOY (traces of)
Apollo seated on omphalos

[Inscription includes some unusual letter forms in the original typed and handwritten register. The [?] in ΒΑΣΙΛ[?]ΩΣ could be an epsilon, E, for the word “Basileus” - meaning “chief”, “king” or “emperor”. This letter is handwritten in the original register without the cross bar of the epsilon, and resembles the form of the archaic digamma, but an epsilon would be more likely. The [?] in ΕΥΕΡ[?]ΕTΕΟΥ could be a gamma, Γ, for the word "Euergetes"- meaning “a well doer” or “benefactor”. As with the previous instance the letter is written in the original register in a form resembling an archaic digamma, but a gamma would be more likely. Numerous examples of this coin in other collections have an inscription of BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΛEΞANΔPOY ΘEOΠATOPOΣ EYEPΓETOY.]

By adding this explanatory note we have been able to maintain the integrity of the original register data, which was one of the aims of the transcription work of the Inventory Team. Working through this problem has allowed us to learn more about the adaptability, and the limitations, of modern museum recording techniques.

Further Reading

Cook, B.F. (1987) Reading the Past: Greek Inscriptions, London, The British Museum Press.

Douros, George (March 2020) Aegean, Scripts and Symbols of the Aegean World. Version 13.00, available: [accessed 04/03/2021, 14:48]

Marcos, Juan-José (05 April 2014) Alphabetum. A Unicode Font for Linguistics and Ancient Languaues. Users Manual, available at: [accessed 04/03/2021, 14:53]


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