Linguistics Baking Part V: Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic

I admit that this one is obscure even by my usual standards, but then, what else is the Epigraphic Cake series for if not increasingly obscure undeciphered scripts? Allow me, therefore, to present the Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic cake:

Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic Cake


As the name implies, this script is from Byblos, a city on the coast of what is now Lebanon – possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, at least according to Wikipedia. The name ‘Byblos’ (the Greek version of the city’s Semitic name Gubal/Gebal) is, by the way, the origin of the word for ‘book’, since papyrus, the material used to produce book scrolls, arrived in Greece via Byblos. Byblos was a major Phoenician centre during the Iron Age, but its history goes much further back into the Bronze Age, when it was in very close contact with Egypt: the Pseudo-Hieroglyphic script dates from this period, though the exact date is debated (anywhere between the 24th and 14th centuries B.C.E., though most scholars would place it in the middle of that period, probably around the 18th century).

The rest of the script’s name similarly does exactly what it says on the tin: it was named for a superficial resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphs (not at all obvious from this inscription, but you can see it better on some of the other texts here), but although influence from Egypt is quite probable, it also bears some resemblance to some of the later scripts in use in the Levant, such as the Phoenician abjad, though it’s not certain whether the two are in fact related. Despite these various similarities to scripts we can read, Pseudo-Hieroglyphic still isn’t deciphered (though there have been plenty of attempts). It’s likely to be a syllabic script, like Linear A and Linear B, since the number of different signs (c.114) is too many for an alphabet but not enough for a logographic system (in which each sign represents a word – compare to the modern Chinese system, which has thousands and thousands of characters; for comparison, Linear B has about 90 syllabic signs). But as we don’t know what the language is, nor how closely the script is related to any of the superficially similar writing systems, and there are only about 13 texts in the corpus, it’s not likely to be convincingly deciphered any time soon.

So what can we say about Byblian Pseudo-Hieroglyphic? Well, depsite its small corpus, it’s found on a range of different supports, from large stone steles to small bronze tablets “spatulas” (one of which the cake text is taken from; the original is inscribed on both sides). That suggests a range of different functions, possibly including some kind of ritual/dedicatory function for the spatulas (*insert appropriate note of caution about religious interpretations here*) as well as some more monumental function(s) for the steles (also dedications, or decrees, laws, memorials…??). More broadly, it fits into the general context of the Bronze and Iron Age Levant as an area with a lot of different influences and connections, including Egypt and the Near East, reflected in the range of different writing systems in existence, many (but not necessarily all) derived from or inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs and/or Near Eastern cuneiform writing systems. Some of these scripts, like Pseudo-Hieroglyphic or the later Ugaritic cuneiform abjad, were confined to local use in a single city or area over a short period of time; presumably they fell out of use under pressure from more widespread writing systems such as Akkadian cuneiform (the lingua franca of much of the Near East) or Phoenician. All of which means there are plenty more Levantine scripts, deciphered and otherwise, for me to put on cakes in the future.

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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