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Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions. Vol. 1, Analysis

July 2015 (119.3)

Book Review

Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions. Vol. 1, Analysis

By Silvia Ferrara. Pp. xvi + 326, figs. 41, tables 26, charts 13. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012. $140. ISBN 978-0-19-960757-0 (paper).

Reviewed by

Ferrara treats the documents written in the Cypro-Minoan (CM) script in two volumes. This review focuses on volume 1, the analysis. For the texts, I have consulted Olivier’s Édition holistique des textes chypro-minoens (Pisa 2007 [hereafter HoChyMin]). Based on her Ph.D. dissertation (“An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Cypro-Minoan Script,” University College London [2005]), Ferrara’s volume consists of six chapters in three parts plus eight appendices, a bibliography, and an index.

In the preface, Ferrara predicts that “[t]oday any progress in the study of Cypro-Minoan can be made only if we turn from attempting to decipher this script to concentrating on its wider context” (vii). CM was in use for more than 500 years, from the 16th to the 11th century B.C.E. In the Early Iron Age, Cypriots developed from CM the Cypriot Syllabary (CS), which was used to write Greek and Eteocypriot. Cypro-Minoan has not yet been deciphered.

Part 1 (“Function, Object, and Context”), chapter 1 (“Literacy in Late Bronze Age Cyprus” [9–42]), gives an overview of CM, which has been studied for more than a century. Arthur Evans, noting close resemblances between some CM signs and Linear A/B signs, named the script (9). Émilia Masson (1972–1987) highlighted variations in script and divided the corpus into three subsystems (CM1, CM2, and CM3), which she thought represented three different languages (13). Enkomi tablet ##001 (as numbered in HoChyMin) dates from the 16th century B.C.E. and constitutes its own subset, CM0; CM1 consists of inscriptions on Cypriot objects other than tablets; CM2 consists of other tablets from Enkomi; and CM3 comprises the inscriptions from Ugarit-Ras Shamra in Syria.

Ferrara has seen all CM inscriptions available, which appear on “an extensive range of objects” (19): metal objects, clay boules (small clay spheres), vase inscriptions, nine tablets, six clay cylinders, ivories, and stone blocks and cylinder seals. “The variety is quite impressive for such a small corpus” (28): 217 documents and an additional 26 texts (see list in appx. 1).

Totally missing, however, are sealings. And this absence brings up the problem of what CM was invented to do. In spite of the high degree of urbanization, a centralized state did not develop in Cyprus (24). Middle Cypriot III Enkomi, however, had a centralized authority with “direct control of copper refinement on a large scale” (26); it is in a metallurgical area that the earliest tablet (##001) was found. One would therefore expect any script concerned with economic production to list names of producers, commodities, and their quantities—as Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A and B do. CM, however, rarely gives numbers and never gives logograms. Ferrara cites five clay cylinders from Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios (##098–##102) as possibly administrative because three of them carry numbers (##100–##102), as verified by her autopsy. HoChyMin, however, does not include numbers in its transcriptions, and Ferrara herself omits the documents from a list of nine, possibly with numbers (table 3.5). In that list, only four documents actually have verifiable numbers. And it is unclear, moreover, whether the numbers are decimal (HoChyMin) or hexagesimal (147 n. 208; referencing J.S. Smith, “Writing Styles in Clay of the Eastern Mediterranean Late Bronze Age,” in N. Stampolides and V. Karageorghis, eds., Ploes: Sea Routes. Interconnections in the Mediterranean 16th–6th Centuries B.C. [Athens 2003] 284).

In chapter 2 (“The Archaeological Setting: Writing in the LCI–LCIII Periods” [43–89]), Ferrara sifts through the find contexts of the few early documents. The script probably originated at Enkomi (44), though most of the Enkomi documents have poorly documented findspots; half of the boules have no reported context (48). Even the idea that CM developed from Linear A is in doubt. Of the 20 signs on the earliest document (##001), only three match Linear A signs (56 n. 71). Akkadian cuneiform would have been the obvious script to borrow. Perhaps the decision not to borrow a cuneiform script was “connected to the decision … to claim a Cypriot script as a distinctive marker” (63).

Chapter 3 (“Writing in LCIIIA: The Cypro-Minoan Floruit” [90–148]) presents the greater part of the CM repertoire, the boules and the tablets from Enkomi and Ugarit-Ras Shamra. The function of the more than 80 boules, most from Enkomi, has been much discussed. Several carry the same word. For instance, two words appear on boules from both Enkomi (##055; and ##070 and ##076) and Hala Sultan Tekke (##088 and ##089). Other sequences appear both as base words and with an additional final sign (e.g., 082-095-088 on ##034 from Enkomi and ##161.2 from Kition; and 082-095-088-023 twice on ##097 from Enkomi). Ferrara suggests that such “codae implied different purposes” (115).

Masson had concluded that such recurring endings might convey a grammatical inflection. Ferrara expands on this observation (115). Compare the final signs in 027-013-110-097-023 on clay cylinder ##097.4-5 (Enkomi) and on cylinder seal ##202 (Kourion) with 102-082-069-088-097-023 on a handle fragment (##112, from Enkomi) and on an ivory plaque (##163, from Kition). Another sequence, 082-095-088, recurs on three different objects, an ivory pipe (##161), four times on an ivory cylinder (##097) with an added final sign (082-095-088-023), and a boule (##034) with the same sign isolated (082-095-088 | 023). This prompts Ferrara to conclude that such occurrences of the same word must refer to elites by name (121). The final or isolated sign would then act “as an entry related to the activity of the person” (121).

From the residence of Yabninu at Ugarit-Ras Shamra, an administrator under King Ammittamru II (1260–1235), come tablets ##213 and ##214; both carry words, probably names, judging from the cuneiform tablets (in Ugaritic and Akkadian) also in the house. From the residence of Ra┼Łapabu comes an almost complete tablet (##212), with a long text separated by word dividers (straight vertical lines) into short sequences, probably names. From the residence of Rap’anu comes a complete tablet (##215) with a long text again divided into short sequences both by word and by phrase dividers (curved lines ending in a dot).

In part 2 (“Inscription and Signary” [149–263]), chapter 4 (“The Epigraphic Presentation of the Inscriptions” [151–213]), Ferrara questions the need to retain the three subsystems CM1, CM2, and CM3. The author then goes through the classes of supports (i.e., what objects the script appears on) medium-by-medium.

After pointing out that the Enkomi tablets are larger than those from Ugarit, Ferrara then focuses on ##207 (Enkomi), joined from two fragments by Godart in 1978 (HoChyMin [282]). The author believes “this join is invalid” (192).

HoChyMin (282 n. 1) gives the publication history of ##207. Dikaios first published the smaller, worn fragment (Nicosia, Cyprus Museum, inv. no. 20.01) in 1953. Schaeffer published inventory number 1193 (Nicosia, Cyprus Museum), the large fragment, in 1970. Ferrara, however, refers to “[t]he worn state [of] the small fragment no. 1193” (189), citing the small fragment by the other fragment’s inventory number, a mistake that may derive from a museum photograph (fig. 4.5) in which the large fragment is clearly labeled “20.01.” Ferrara also notes differences in the handwriting and spacing of the signs on the two fragments (drawings in HoChyMin [283, 302–3]). On the big fragment, the signs are thickly drawn and crowded; on the small fragment, they are evenly spaced, neat, and thin. Two different hands wrote the texts on these two fragments; and since no other text was written by two different hands, this reviewer concurs that the join may be invalid.

Chapter 5 (“The Palaeography of the Cypro-Minoan Script” [214–263]) characterizes the CM syllabary as probably “open,” with signs for vowels and for consonants+vowels (222–23). If so, we should expect fewer than 100 signs in the CM syllabary, in keeping with the Linear A/B system.

Ferrara then conducts a sign-by-sign analysis (236–51) to determine which signs she can eliminate. Most problematic are the pairs of signs, to the second of which a stroke (épine) is added at the upper right: 9/10 (with épine), 53/54, 64/66, 69/70, 86/87, 91/92. Do these “spines” signal a real phonetic or semantic change from the standard sign? Of the first three pairs, Ferrara retains only the standard signs 9, 53, and 64, and keeps the remaining pairs. For instance, of the pair 9  and 10  (with épine), Ferrara throws out 10, even though both signs are written on each of two documents (##207A.I, lines 27 [sign 9] and 28 [sign 10]; and ##208A, line 7 [both signs]). Since the scribes obviously wrote both signs on both documents, HoChyMin (413) keeps all such pairs. By casting out these and other signs, Ferrara (table 5.10) ends up with a syllabary of 74 signs; HoChyMin (413) has 96.

Part 3 (“Beyond Decipherment”), chapter 6 (“Cypro-Minoan and Its Context” [267–74]), suggests that future studies might now incorporate her standard sign list, reevaluate Aegean influence, chart the transition to CS, and elaborate the strategies of script borrowing (272–73). To this ambitious agenda, this reviewer would like to add one more item. Ferrara muses: “[i]t seems counter-intuitive to even put into action such a labour-intensive activity, geared to devise a numerical system, if its use were meant to be so limited” (148). Regardless, numbers are completely absent on more than 200 of the 217+ CM texts. The script was obviously not recording incoming taxes and outgoing disbursements. It was recording something else. CM scholars need to deal with that fact.

John G. Younger
Department of Classics
University of Kansas

Book Review of Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions. Vol. 1, Analysis, by Silvia Ferrara

Reviewed by John G. Younger

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 3 (July 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1193.Younger1

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