Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan

My fellow ancient writing system researchers in the CREWS Project have organised a Cypro-Minoan seminar/’reading’ group this term, to coincide with the visits of two visiting researchers who work on ancient Cyprus (Cassie Donnelly and Giorgos Bourogiannis, who have written about their research here and here). Cypro-Minoan is an undeciphered writing system used in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age, mainly on the island of Cyprus but also at the site of Ugarit on the coast of Syria. My recent(ish) post about undeciphered writing systems focused on those found on Crete, so didn’t include Cypro-Minoan, but a lot of the same issues arise with trying to understand it: the corpus is very small (200-odd inscriptions), widely dispersed both geographically and chronologically, and consists of a very wide range of different types of inscribed objects (from probably administrative clay tablets and balls to inscriptions on metal bowls, clay figurines, ivory pipes, and seals); and we don’t know what the language(s) it represents is/are. As is now traditional, for this week’s seminar I made a baked version of one of the inscriptions we’ve been looking at: six signs incised on a miniature copper ‘oxhide’ ingot from the site of Enkomi.

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Cypro-Minoan inscription on a miniature copper ingot, in brownie form (##175)

In the course of the seminar, we’ve heard from Pippa Steele about the current state of research into the Cypro-Minoan script (or scripts – it may actually be more than one related writing system), including significant progress that’s recently been made by Miguel Valério in particular into understanding more about the script, its relationship with the Cretan writing systems (it’s closely related to the also-undeciphered Linear A) and with the later Cypriot Syllabary (used to write the Greek language in the 11th-2nd centuries BCE), and possibly the sound-values of some of its signs. Unfortunately, the small size and diversity of the corpus means it’s still not possible to be remotely certain about the values of most signs, or to infer nearly enough information about the language(s) of the inscriptions to read any of them.

However, epigraphic and archaeological studies of the inscriptions – focusing on their format, the objects they’re written on, and the contexts they’re found in – can still tell us a lot about how people used this writing system. Cassie has also told us about her research into Cypriot ‘potmarks’ – usually single signs found on the tops or handles of jars used for transporting goods around the Eastern Mediterranean. These clearly form part of some system(s) of organising this trade, but their exact function is unclear; they often resemble Cypro-Minoan signs, but whose status as ‘writing’ (as opposed to marks which convey non-linguistic information) as debated. Since a lot of these marks show similarities in their placement and format to longer inscriptions found on similar jars, however, studying these together – and considering the possibility that these single signs should also be counted as inscriptions (they could, e.g., be abbreviations) can significantly advance our understanding of both these potmarks and of Cypro-Minoan. This week, Philip Boyes told us about the Cypro-Minoan inscriptions found at the Syrian site of Ugarit, the main place outside of Cyprus where this script appears, and how the use of a Cypriot script in Ugarit may fit into the wider context of trade and diplomatic contacts between the two places, including the possibility of an established ‘Cypriot quarter’ in Ugarit.

We’ve also, as has become traditional in these seminars, had a chance to play with clay and make our own inscriptions – I decided to make a copy of the oldest known Cypro-Minoan inscription, which I’ve also previously made a version of in cake form:

We’ve also been thinking a lot about the different ways in which writers could physically make signs in clay – Pippa in particular has been investigating differences in the kind of implements used (e.g. differently-shaped styli) and in how these are used to incise the lines which make up each sign (styli can be dragged through the clay or impressed into it, producing quite different-looking versions of the same sign). This week, Philip asked us all to experiment with writing the Roman alphabet as if it were a cuneiform script – i.e. adapting the forms of the Roman letters, which would be comparatively easy to write by drawing lines in the clay with a sharp stylus, so that they could instead be written by impressing cuneiform-style wedges with a square-ended stylus. This led to a lot of head-scratching as we all tried to work out the best way to do this – how to simplify signs enough to make them easier to write this way, while still enabling all of the letters to be distinguished from each other. I’m not sure how successful my attempt (below) was, but it was certainly an interesting experiment in thinking about how physical differences in the way of making marks on clay could lead to very different-looking writing systems or inscriptions! If you want to try this yourself at home, all you need is some air-drying clay and a square-ended chopstick – try pressing this into the clay at different angles to make long and short wedges, and see how easy (or difficult) it is to come up with versions of the Roman alphabet – you can share the results in the comments!

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

6 thoughts on “Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan”

  1. I’ve had an interest in this topic (meaning, writing systems, clay tablets, etc.) since I was young (from a VERY amateur standpoint, let me emphasize). I always have liked the look of clay tablets. I am an artist and work in clay – the idea of making tablets like these has not come to my mind. I love this idea and I want to try something with it. Hmmm. Thank you for these posts, even for a person with little knowledge, you make the topics very clear and I enjoy revisiting my childhood interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found this post interesting Claudia! Please do share any pics if you do make your own tablets 🙂

      Like

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