You are here

Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and Its Context

Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and Its Context

Edited by Philippa M. Steele (Cambridge Classical Studies). Pp. xviii + 191, figs. 13, tables 8. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $95. ISBN 978-1-107-02671-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

For well more than a millennium, from at least the 15th century through the third century B.C.E., Cypriots wrote in syllables. Why and how they first began writing is unclear, and the language(s) expressed by syllabic writing during the Bronze Age is/are still unknown (ca. 216 inscriptions [ch. 2]). The earliest syllabic inscription that can be read dates to the 11th century and expresses a Greek name. But when and how and why Cypriots adapted their syllabic script specifically to write Greek remains unclear. Most of the 1,360 syllabic inscriptions (ch. 7) written in the course of the next 800 years express Greek. Why and how syllabic script persisted after the introduction of alphabets (Phoenician by the ninth century B.C.E., Greek by the sixth century B.C.E.) is not yet well understood.

Anyone interested in any of the questions raised above will have an interest in this volume, though it should be noted that most of these essays are not easy reading, and some will be downright challenging for the uninitiated. The collection is bookended by two giants, Olivier and Perna, whose work in collecting and presenting the fundamental data is the modern scaffolding for continuing substantive progress. Olivier sets the stage with his succinct and scrupulously referenced overview of the histories of the Cypriot syllabic scripts, a tour de force of coverage within 19 short pages. Duhoux and Egetmeyer provide detailed calibration (the latter of a nature that this reviewer is not competent to comment on), Ferrara distills some of the key arguments of her recently published magnum opus (Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions. Vol. 1, Analysis [Oxford 2012]), and Sherratt and Iacovou demonstrate why and how the study of these scripts matters. All the essays are meticulously and thoroughly referenced. As a result, this slim volume packs a walloping punch. The careful reader will come away with an understanding of the state of the field, the major issues of contention, and the history of scholarship.

One of the contemporary voices missing direct representation here is that of Steele, though her careful editorship is its own contribution. Her introduction explains the genesis of this volume (a 2008 conference), helpfully sets forth the chronological nomenclature, and is especially useful in its guide to the many different terms (and the reasoning) used to designate the various syllabic scripts of Cyprus.

For Bronze Age Cypriot writing, the big questions are still the fundamental ones: defining the corpus, decipherment, origin, and transition to Greek. Olivier underscores that the sine qua non for significant progress in the study of Cypriot syllabic scripts is the full documentation of inscriptions and the compilation of corpora of sign and vocabulary lists, based on firsthand inspection and published with adequate images and drawings. He himself took up the challenge of the Bronze Age scripts and published Édition holistique des textes chypro-minoens in 2007 (Pisa). It was, by his own admission, a significant step forward but not the final leap. This has been undertaken by Ferrara (2012), but at the time of publication of the volume under review (and at the writing of this review), Ferrara’s presentation of the corpus itself (vol. 2) was still forthcoming. It is thus unclear whether she was able to consider and incorporate Duhoux’s proposed corrections (detailed in ch. 2 nn. 4–5, 10, 21, 52–4, 65, annex 2.1) to Olivier’s catalogue. Certainly this needs to be ascertained when Ferrara’s corpus becomes available.

How far we are from identifying the “facts” of Bronze Age writing on Cyprus is exemplified by the lack of agreement even about how many writing systems and/or languages the inscriptions represent. There is consensus only that a single tablet from Enkomi is the sole example of the earliest preserved stage of Cypriot syllabic writing (9, 30, 56–7); Olivier and Duhoux agree that the writing on this tablet represents a trajectory different from later Cypro-Minoan. Both argue that Cypro-Minoan 1 and 2 are distinct scripts and that they represent two different languages; Cypro-Minoan 3 may represent a third, but more data is needed to be sure. Ferrara dissents, “there is no reason to assume that Cypro-Minoan was used to record more than one language and little reason to assume more than one Cypro-Minoan script” (75). The crux of her argument is an insistence on valuing archaeology equally with paleography (67–74). The approaches of Olivier and Duhoux on the one hand and Ferrara on the other are a case of apples and oranges. This volume, unfortunately, does not record the discussions that their respective oral presentations surely provoked.

Of course, one wants most of all to read the Bronze Age writing. A few partial attempts at decipherment have been proposed—Hiller (Die kyprominoischen Schriftsysteme. AfO Beiheft 20 [Horn 1985] 61–102) remains the best overview—but none has been generally accepted. Olivier and Duhoux separately address the question of whether a decipherment is even possible, given the lack of a bilingual and the small number and brevity of the inscriptions. While Olivier is cautiously optimistic about deciphering Cypro-Minoan 2 (14), Duhoux argues that it is theoretically possible to decipher all three and presents tentative readings in annex 1 (41–2).

The Iron Age syllabic script, on the other hand, can mostly be read, and it expresses Greek. The crux of any discussion of the transition between Cypro-Minoan/indigenous language(s)/Bronze Age and Cypriot Syllabic/Greek/Iron Age is the single word inscribed into a bronze spit found in a tomb in the Palaepaphos region, in a context dated 1050–950 B.C.E. It is generally agreed that the five signs spell the Greek name Opheltas, in its genitive form, and most scholars accept the 11th or 10th century as the era of transition between Bronze and Iron Age writing systems. Here, however, Olivier (16–19) makes the surprising argument that although the language has changed, the script has not and does not (on present evidence) until the eighth century (20–3). The conference discussion following this paper is another that one would have liked to have been documented in this volume; Duhoux’s written contribution (27 n. 2) indicates that he has not been convinced.

Sherratt’s essay (ch. 4) is the bravest. She reasons that writing came to Cyprus from the Levant or southern/southwestern Anatolia. The usually accepted theory that there was a direct link between the earliest Cypriot writing and Cretan Linear A—based on ductus (signs drawn rather than impressed into clay) and perceived similarities in sign forms—has always stumbled against the scarcity of archaeological evidence for Cypriot-Cretan relations at the time when the idea of writing would have necessarily been transmitted. In Sherratt’s words, “It is very difficult to imagine an appropriate context [historical, cultural, economical, practical!] in which Crete could have introduced Cyprus to writing” (81). It is time, according to Sherratt, to shake off the agenda set by Evans and still implicit in the term “Cypro-Minoan.” The questions traditionally asked about the origins of writing on Cyprus are too narrowly focused on the circumstances of transmission from Linear A. Rather, look to the broad and early sea of Levantine (para)literacy that is admittedly irregularly but surely emerging in the archaeological record. She reminds us of Cyprus’ long-standing, close connections eastward, with Anatolia and the Levant—the latter with a demonstrably long history of writing experiments by the time of the first inscription on Cyprus; the former plausibly so. Furthermore, Sherratt points out that syllabic writing was a latecomer in a longue durée of shared notational systems. The habit of marking objects first appears on Cyprus in the context of the Philia culture (mid third millennium B.C.E.), a period of regular and intimate contacts with Anatolia. This is an era, too, when the techniques of metallurgy were transmitted from East to West. Not a coincidence, following Sherratt. She proposes a link: the initial appearance of potmarks (in the Aegean as well as on Cyprus) was associated with marking systems developed to guarantee weight, purity, and other properties of metal objects and that these notational systems, long in use at the earliest appearance of syllabic writing, played some role in its development (89–90, 99). In this author's opinion, Sherratt has provided a convincing demonstration of plausibility. But can we ignore the unique (Aegean?) flavor of the marks? Which trumps, context or form? As so often in Cypriot studies, the unknowns of Lycia are key.

Iacovou (ch. 6) also focuses on how Cypriot writing was used, in this case during the Iron Age and specifically as an indicator of power and authority. Starting with the observation that from the seventh through fourth centuries B.C.E., Cypriot Syllabic was used extensively throughout Cyprus for documents issued by or in the name of Cypriot kings, Iacovou argues that the transition from Bronze Age collapse to Iron Age polities happened quickly and that the process had nothing to do with Phoenicians. Her clearly articulated argument is densely interwoven with observations that invite the reader to consider tangents: on the nature of early Greek immigrants (not colonists, but economic migrants) and their leadership (basileis), the phenomenal endurance of the local Greek dialect (more than a millennium), the significance of Opheltas' three spits (symbols of status and perhaps units of exchange), Paphos’ privileged position (Cypriot Syllabic appeared first and lasted longest here), the surprisingly early use and local standards of Cypriot coinage, and the shifting geographies, politics, and economies of the Iron Age polities, especially those of Qardihadasti, Kition, and Idalion.

Perna’s contribution (ch. 7) brings this volume full circle. Olivier closes his overview of first-millennium Cypriot syllabic scripts with a plea: “What would be really useful would be tables of signs, place by place, epoch by epoch, kind of support by kind of support, but that will require years of labor” (26). Perna replies with the welcome announcement of exactly that effort well underway, to be published as IG 15. Important to the methodology is personal inspection of the inscriptions and by more than one set of eyes. The necessity for wholesale restudy is underlined by surprises discovered in the reexamination of two objects collected and (summarily) published in the late 19th century: a limestone tablet variously identified as Cypriot syllabic, Eteocypriot, or unidentified, now recognized as Greek alphabetic; and a chalcedony seal previously considered Greek alphabetic, now identified as expressing a non-Greek name in the Paphian syllabary. It is a fitting exclamation point to a volume dedicated to the reevaluation of material long known but not yet known well enough.

Nicolle Hirschfeld
Department of Classical Studies
Trinity University
San Antonio, Texas 78212

Book Review of Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and Its Context, edited by Philippa M. Steele

Reviewed by Nicolle Hirschfeld

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 4 (October 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1184.Hirschfeld

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.