Practical epigraphy, or, Linear A Clay Play Day

p1080420This term in the Faculty we’ve been having a series of seminars looking at Linear A, an undeciphered script from prehistoric Crete (and the script out of which Linear B, which I mostly work on, was developed). We started off with a general introduction to what Linear A is – Sarah Finlayson gave us an overview of the different sites across Crete where Linear A inscriptions have been found, their chronology (roughly between the 19th to 15th centuries B.C.E.), and the general context in which they were written (some are from ‘palaces’, others from smaller administrative centres, and some come from religious sanctuaries). I then did a survey of the kinds of documents Linear A was used to write: these ranged from administrative texts on clay tablets or on small lumps of clay (used for, e.g., labelling objects, or sealing storage jars or store-rooms) to non-administrative inscriptions on clay or stone vases, metal objects, and even a couple of graffiti scratched onto walls (there are some pictures of different kinds of inscriptions here).

Looking at the administrative tablets in particular, it’s possible to get some information about the tablets’ meaning and function even without being able to read them: for instance, both Linear A and Linear B have groups of symbols used to stand for objects or commodities that are being counted, and some of these are recognisably the same in both scripts, so we can tell, for instance, when a Linear A tablet is recording grain, or sheep, or people (what we can’t tell is what’s happening: is the grain, for example, being collected in by the administrative centre, or distributed out to people?). We can even work out what some words mean: the word for ‘total’, for example, is easily identifiable since it appears at the end of lists next to a number that equals the total of all the entries in those lists; unfortunately, there aren’t many words whose meanings can be identified in this way (most of the terms in the texts are likely to be the names of people or places anyway).

Next up, we had Roeland Decorte and Pippa Steele talking about other scripts that are related to Linear A and found on Crete (e.g. Cretan Hieroglyphic) and Cyprus (Cypro-Minoan), and how different ways of approaching these scripts (about which we generally know even less) might help us tackle the Linear A script. Ester Salgarella told us about her own PhD research and suggested ways in which analysing the script differently, and especially paying more attention to regional variation (since lots of Linear A signs appear at only one site), might help us understand more about both Linear A and its development into Linear B. Finally, Torsten Meissner reviewed what (little) we do know – and what (a lot) we don’t/can’t – about the language Linear A was used to write, known as ‘Minoan’. To some extent we may well actually be able to ‘read’ Linear A, because it seems likely that many of the signs have similar values to their equivalents in Linear B (which we can, for the most part, both read and understand, since its language is Greek): the problem is that 1) we don’t know how much the value of any individual sign might have changed in the course of the script’s adaptation and 2) using the Linear B sign-values for Linear A texts doesn’t produce anything that looks like any language we know about. Which means that either the signs’ values did change much more radically between Linear A and Linear B, or that ‘Minoan’ is simply unrelated to any known ancient language. Either way, our chances of fully deciphering Linear A and understanding Minoan don’t look particularly good at the moment.

Finally, the last session of the series was dedicated to the actual subject of this post, a little bit of experimental archaeology/practical epigraphy, aka Linear A Clay Play Day: we got hold of a large amount of clay and various different pointy implements, and set about making and inscribing our own Linear A tablets (the photograph above is one of my attempts!). It was an interesting exercise, for several reasons: when you generally work from photographs, it’s easy not to think much about the physical aspects of the tablets, how they were made and shaped, how they were held while being written on. For instance, there are a lot of tablets with writing on both sides, which I was curious about – how do you write on both sides of a clay tablet without squashing the first side? Answer: I can now say from experience that it’s possible to hold a small tablet by the edges once you’ve written the first side, and still be able to write on the back: here are pictures of my two-sided tablet to prove it (the back is meant to look that scrappy, honest: part of the original was erased by the scribe, leaving just a few traces on the lower part of the tablet).


Similarly, I never really thought much before about the shape of the writing implements that were used – but I found very quickly that the bamboo skewer I was using, although it was perfectly sharp on the end, widened far too quickly for me to be able to write signs as small as the originals, whereas a large sharp thorn contributed by Sarah was actually pretty good for writing small but detailed signs! So a very valuable exercise in thinking more about written documents as objects and the ways that people could have produced them – but also a huge amount of fun, and a good excuse to get covered in clay for academic purposes!

Oh, and there was also linguistics cake, made by a colleague this time!


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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