‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labyrinth”‘ now available online

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Labyrinth on the back of a Linear B tablet from Pylos (National Archaeological Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia)
My paper ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labryinth”: the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs” is now freely available online – copies can be downloaded via the Cambridge University open access repository (no institutional account or login required), or via academia.edu. The paper (published in Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici in 2017) looks at the Mycenaean word identified as meaning ‘labyrinth’, and discusses how investigating the spelling of this particular word also has important implications for how we understand the Linear B writing system to work in its representation of the Mycenaean Greek dialect, as well as on attempts to reconstruct aspects of the ‘Minoan’ language which Linear B’s predecessor, Linear A, was used to write. You can read more about this article here, and about the mythical labyrinth – and the drawing of a labyrinth on the back of a Linear B tablet from Pylos shown in the photograph – here.

Abstract:

This article re-examines the evidence for the value of the Linear B sign pu₂, in particular its appearance in the term da-pu₂-ri-to- ‘labyrinth’, and demonstrates that it stands specifically for the value /pʰu/ (contrary to the usual assumption that it represents both /pʰu/ and /bu/). It then discusses the further implications of this conclusion, in particular for the interpretation of the undeciphered signs *56 and *22, which are often assigned to the same series as pu₂, as well as any other similar signs which may exist. This discussion illustrates the crucial impact that establishing a single sign’s value may have on the wider understanding of the Linear B script, as well as on its relationship with its parent script Linear A and even the possibility of reconstructing aspects of the Minoan language.

Citation: Anna P. Judson, ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “labyrinth”: the value of Linear B pu₂ and related signs”, Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici NS 3: 53-72 (2017)

Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B

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Linear B tablet from Knossos listing a group of sheep, goats, cattle and pigs (KN Co 907; on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum)

Last month I was teaching some classes on interpreting the texts of the administrative Linear B tablets from Late Bronze Age (‘Mycenaean’) Greece, and one of the texts we looked at read as follows:

‘Kerowos the shepherd (poimēn) at A-si-ja-ti-ja watching over the quadrupeds (kwetropopphi) of Thalamatās: 1 man’   (Pylos Ae 134)

In some ways, this is nice and straightforward by Linear B standards: we can linguistically interpret pretty much every word (and even where we can’t, their meaning is clear from context and other examples of the same – a-si-ja-ti-ja is evidently a place-name) and produce a translation of the whole sentence (there are some linguistic quibbles over exactly how the syntax works, but it doesn’t really affect the overall meaning). In other ways, it’s entirely characteristic of Linear B in that it’s so laconic that translating it produces as many questions as it answers. In particular, the question my students asked was ‘So what kind of animals are these quadrupeds?’- ‘quadrupeds’ being a literal translation of kwetro-popphi ‘four-footed [things]’ (in later Greek, tetrapous). I realized when they asked this that I simply didn’t know, and in fact had never really thought about it – so I decided to look into it. Continue reading “Queries about Quadrupeds in Linear B”

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)

Continue reading “Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan”

Babel: Adventures in Translation at the Bodleian

On a recent trip to Oxford, I took in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation‘, mostly because I expected there would some nice multi-lingual manuscripts. I was definitely not disappointed about that – the display started off with some lovely texts like this codex from Mexico, written in Nahuatl and Spanish (left) and this Bible which includes multiple different versions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (right):

Continue reading “Babel: Adventures in Translation at the Bodleian”

AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems

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Association for Written Language and Literacy logo (written in English, Russian, Greek, and Chinese)

A year and a half ago, I attended my first Association for Written Language and Literacy conference in Nagoya, Japan; last month, my colleague Robert Crellin and I were privileged to bring the Association’s 12th meeting (AWLL12) to the Cambridge Classics Faculty. AWLL is for researchers working on writing from any perspective, from theoretical analyses of how writing systems are structured and how they encode language, to experimental work on how readers and writers actually learn and use writing systems. The theme of ‘Diversity in writing systems: embracing multiple perspectives’, was intended to reflect the diversity in members’ approaches and disciplinary backgrounds, as well as in the geographical and chronological spread of the writing systems they study – writing systems discussed at AWLL12 covered a time-span of several thousand years and are/were used in Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Ethiopia, West Africa, India, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea, China, and Central and North America: presentation topics ranged from ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic to present-day Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, and Yoruba via early modern English shorthand, Mayan hieroglyphic, and much much more. Continue reading “AWLL12: Diversity of Writing Systems”

A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems

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The Phaistos Disc – see below

Every so often a news article will make the rounds of the internet – or, for that matter, a paper will be published in an academic journal – presenting a new ‘decipherment’ of an undeciphered ancient writing system. Obviously, such decipherments have taken place in the past – probably most famously that of Egyptian hieroglyphs – and it’s certainly possible that more will take place in the future; but when it comes to the undeciphered writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean, at least, there’s good reason to be extremely sceptical about any such claims of decipherment. This post is a quick guide to some key facts about the various related writing systems found in Bronze Age Crete and mainland Greece, starting with the one deciphered writing system, Linear B, and then surveying the undeciphered ones roughly in order of how much we know about them, looking very briefly at where and when they’re from, what kinds of documents exist, and how much (if anything) we know about the writing system or the language it represents. Continue reading “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems”

Another writing systems conference

It’s going to be a busy time for linguists in the Classics Faculty in March – not only is there the conference I’m organising on “Diversity of Writing Systems“, but there’s also going to be another conference about writing, this one on “Exploring the Social and Cultural
Contexts of Historic Writing Systems
“. Organised by my colleagues in the CREWS Project, it looks like a wonderful programme, and I’m looking forward to attending (and chairing a session)! Programme and registration details here:

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