Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Commodities on Linear A tablets - Part II

I am returning to a topic, the continuation of which was long overdue. It is about the item-names featured on Linear A accounting tablets. In a previous post, I analysed a few tablets from Haghia Triada just to show that commodities can be featured both in a logogrammatic and textual form on the same tablet. Yet, in most cases, they do not mix.

It appears that the Cretan scribes had special rules when it came to writing about items of trade. Whenever writing names, they tended to use as few ligatures as they could, writing out names either fully, or abbreviating them with their first syllable. However, when it came to the writing of commodities, they used ligatures as heavily as possible. They drew the picture of the more complicated items, and added syllabary signs to them (most likely abbreviations) detailing their qualities. Although we know very little of the Minoan language, therefore we cannot "read" these qualities, many Linear B parallels suggest that they must have been clear to a bronze-age Cretan scribe. For example (these are just random examples), PA+sheep could have meant 'old sheep' (παλαιός), PE+sheep+masc 'ram from the last year' (περυσινϝό), etc. in Mycenean accounting texts. The Knossos Linear B tablets are especially prone to use such abbreviations, compared to the much more verbose Pylos tablets.

But sometimes the items are not drawn at all: their name is written out fully in ligatures of otherwise phonetic signs: This way, ME+RI stood for 'honey' (μέλι), KA+PO for 'fruit' (καρπός), KA+NA+KO meant 'saffron' (κνάκος), TU+RO2 'cheese' (τυρός) and A+RE+PA 'ointment' (αλειφά). This way of expression was especially useful for goods whose image would have been excessively hard to draw on a clay tablet. Most commonly, the ligatured signs denoting a commodity are to be read in a downwards-up direction, while the qualifiers are added beside the commodity logogram. But this rule is never strict: sometimes the size and appearence of the signs can dictate alternative arrangements. It should not be forgotten, too, that people could also be regarded as "items" on accounting tablets. Therefore the names of different types of men and women, professions, etc. can also be represented in ligatures in those cases.

Tablet HT23 - Side A
 Statement   Item   Quantity 
KA-NA • CYP (barley?) 1/3
*308 (=?) 1/16
OLE+NE (oil type) 1/16
OLE+TU (oil type) 1/16
OLE+RI (oil type) 1/16
*550 (RA+JA+RU?) 1/16
VINa (wine) 10
*508 (QA+TA+RE?) 10
*509 (QA+TA+RE+PU?) 10
E (=?) 17
QI-RI-TU-QA 1/16
SA-SA-ME 1/16
*530 (ME+SI) 10

To represent all three ways of writing commodities on a single tablet, take a look at tablet HT 23 (shown above). The header KA-NA is reminiscent of the term U-NA-KA-NA-SI seen on the libation tables in various forms, and likely means 'gift' or 'offering'. This view is reinforced by the rather small quantities of various goods mentioned on this tablet. The commodities themselves appear to be exclusively agricultural products - yet quite a specialized assortment. Unfortunately, we cannot plausibly decipher most of the rare ligatures, like *550 (RA+JA+RU?) or *508 (QA+TA+RE?). But the term SA-SA-ME is almost certainly sesame seed (σησάμη, SA-SA-MA in Linear B), thus QI-RI-TU-QA must also denote another type of seasoning plant or spice - as suggested by the comparably small quantities of both goods. The term KO-RU also reminds us of coriander, written as KO-RI-JA-DA-NA (κορίαδνα) on Linear B tablets. This assembly of goods somewhat resembles the ingredients traditionally used to prepare κυκεών, an ancient Greek beverage frequently drunk on religious feasts.

The cited tablet is one of the luckier finds, where we at least stand a chance of identifying some of the referenced goods. Many other tablets are hopelessly haunted by the fact that we do not know the names Minoans used for their objects of everyday life. For example, we can at least suspect that the term MA+RU [HT 24] actually stands for wool, as Linear B also used almost exactly the same sign to denote wool (probably a lingature for the Minoan word denoting 'wool' - related to the Classic Greek term μαλλός). But frankly, I have no idea of the meaning of terms like ME+SI(+KI) or KA+JA, appearing on the very same tablet HT 24. For the purpose of nothing more than a teaser, I collected a nice assortment of item-names in pure ligatures. You can see them on the table below:

Last but not least, there is a very important class of items I did not mention until this point. As in Linear B, some Linear A tablets also mention vases, clay or metal vessels as items of trade. While the terms mentioned in Linear B remind us of Classic Greek (e.g. A-PO-RE-WE = αμφορήϝες, TI-RI-PO-DE = τρίποδες), the Linear A terms are more mysterious. They only admit a clear interpretation in a limited number of cases. Such a single case is tablet HT 38, where the phrase DA-RO-PA (*talopa or *talúpa) recalls both Greek τολύπη = 'lump of clay' and Hittite taluppa = 'clay'. The reading is quite plausible, as it is followed by the image of a chalice - supposedly made of clay. On the same tablet, a different item has the name A+KA, that reminds us of Greek ασκός = 'wine-skin', made either of pumpkins, leather or clay. Another tablet [HT39] also presents image of an askos-like vessel with a sign 'A' written on it.

Sadly, this ease of reading does not apply to tablet HT31 - one of the most spectacular Linear A accouting tablets. It not only lists different vessel types, but also adds terms to each image (logogram). For example, a conical cup carries the term QA-PA3, a handled krater goes by the name KA-RO-PA3 and a pithoid amphore is labelled SU-PU. Not a single term is easy to interpret, not even SU-PA3-RA and PA-TA-QE that denote simple, mundane vases. Apart from the faint similarity between PA-TA-QE and the Greco-Roman patera (open dish) or patané (pan), there is no plausible explanation based on Mycenean Greek. This is quite surprising, as many vessel names are "technical wanderworts" that are notoriously easily and commonly borrowed from one language to another. For example, the English words vase, urn, chalice, cup, pan and jar all go back to Latin vasa, urna, calix, cupa, Greek patané and Arabic jarrah. Even in Mycenean Greek, A-PO-RE-WE (amphores) and TI-RI-PO-DE (tripods) and U-DO-RO (hydroi) were authentic Greek in origin, but several other terms were clearly not, such as DI-PA (depas) or KU-RU-SU-PA3 (probably pronounced as *khrusupha).

In the light of this fact, it is strange to see that almost none of the non-Indo-European Greek vessel names are found in the Linear A corpus. On the other hand, the names SU-PU and SU-PA3-RA show some resemblance to the Semitic stem *spl- = 'cup', 'vessel' (c.f. Biblical ספל, sepel). If this observation is not just random coincidence, it is possible that we are dealing with a loanword from the Middle East. Borrowing of agricultural terms, plant names as well as technical terms from the more civilized areas of the ancient world is proven in quite a large number of cases (e.g. in most European languages, the word for the metal 'copper' might have come from the Sumerian term kubar, 'bronze', mediated through the Aegean), so a Semitic loan would not be suprising at all. The only mystery that remains: why did the Greeks not take any of these terms over?

Apart from the pure chance of all names gone lost, there is also a possiblility that we are dealing not exactly with vessel-names, but rather, the description of their properties (e.g. earthen or metal, painted or bare, with or without glaze, etc.). At least some vessel-types clearly have descriptors referring to their material, volume, contents, or other qualities, instead of type. This is also suggested by the similarity of SU-PA3-RA (*suphara? *suppala?) to Hittite stem suppai- = 'pure', 'brilliant', 'sacred' (Hittite suppiahh- = 'to (ritually) purify', also suppistuwara- = 'ornamented' (e.g. cup), even the supposedly Minoan s3-b-w-j-7-3-jj-d3-3 ='may it purge' found in one of the famous Keftiu-incantations). Or the resemblance of KA-RO-PA3 (*kalopha? *kalúppa?) to Greek καλυπτώ 'to cover' (Greek καλυβή = 'cover', 'shelter', Greek κέλυφος = 'sheath', 'case' or Hittite kaluppa- = 'undergarment', 'petticoat') - although these are definitely not the most convincing parallels I have ever seen. Much more research is needed before we can tell with any certainty what these terms might mean.


  1. I have to read through your excellent post some more when I get time. (I only got to the "sesame" part for now, sorry.) Interesting as always.

    One quick question though. You say that the word for 'sesame' in Greek was σέσαμα yet the Perseus website lists a different form with different accentuation: σησάμη. From Perseus' word, I'd have assumed Mycenaean *sāsámā with accent on the second syllable which in turn predicts, with due consideration of the above inscription, Minoan *sasáme. What gives?

  2. Interesting post, thank you. Why do you think the Minoans would be making lists of clay vessels (DA-RO-PA) rather than those of precious metals (or faience, of course)?

  3. It honours me that you found the topic interesting. Sorry for my error with σησάμη. It was simply foolish from me not to cross-check all the Greek words after typing them in from memory. Thank you for your correction!

    As for the matter of vessel materials, the point is good. The answer to how this vase could be so mundane, probably lies in the context of tablet HT38. Alongside with VAS*403 ("DA-RO-PA"), quantity 1 and A+KA, quantity 3, it contains entries with SUS 1 and OVIS 3. I do not think that a donor or taxpayer who could barely afford to give a few animals, would have possessed such riches as a golden or silver chalice. Of coure, I am no professional in Bronze-age archaeology, to know exactly how many clay, stone or metal vases were found at the Minoan sites; yet I am inclined to think that the earthenware probably outnumbers all other varieties. (Please, correct me if this assumption is wrong!) The same explanation could also be applied to VAS*407. Its form is quite similar to the classic Greek askos, though I have not yet seen any clay vessels from Bronze-age Crete that would have been even remotely similar. This leaves the conclusion that even if either VAS*407 or A+KA (or both) were indeed askoi, they were probably made of leather, and not of clay, stone or metals. And that would fit with tablet HT38, with animals mentioned alongside with A+KA (made of their skin?).

  4. Good point, but of course we don't know the purpose of the tablet. It is assumed that most (though happily not all) of the metal vases have disappeared so we are left with large numbers of clay replicas of their forms. Be that as it may, I like the idea of SU-PA3-RA for the little cup: 'bright, pure,' which would suggest either metal or faience (and it's a form which exists in both). It's a suggestion to keep in mind.

  5. I'm sure KA-NA means 'gift, offering'. It has an Etruscan cognate, cana, which is a commonly used word referring to various objects like mirrors and vessels (see TLE 284). So then HT 23 simply records religious devotions.

    As for SU-PA3-RA, why not *sapára 'bronze' (cf. Akk siparru, Sum zabar)?

    As for s3-b-w-j-7-3-jj-d3-3 meaning 'may it purge', that's a long shot. I have a different view of that so-called 'incantation' but nonetheless, surely s3-b-w-j-7-3-jj-d3-3 demands to be separated into smaller words.

  6. Ages apart, still there is a common feature in SMS and clay tablets: the tiny surface for writing. One would assume that the ingenuity of the SMS users were also utilised by the scribes to overcome this shortfall. Were the scribes using sg like ‘cup’+ ‘board’/’bird’ for cupboard or ‘b’+’urn’ for burn, than your comparisons to other similar sign-groups don’t work, because comparing them to ‘cup’+’ola’ or ‘t’+’urn’ wouldn’t make any sense at all. I think you are forgetting these types of possible shorthand writing tricks, because you couldn’t cope [‘cup’ with applied rebus principle!] with it, without knowing the actual language of the tablets [‘table’+t].

  7. The point is right, except one thing - Linear A, like Linear B does not make regular use of the rebus principle. This was already noted by Chadwick; and that is why I cited a few examples from the Knossos tablets, to illustrate how these logogram + phonetic sign combinations work. There is not a single example of rebus-writing: the Minoan system was more evolved than that. On the other hand, there are plenty of Linear B examples for goods + quality abbreviations and also for the redundant goods + abbreviation for goods writing (e.g.VAS+A for "amphore", where the VAS sign already looks like an amphore, but it is reinforced by the abbreviation of its name). This is the ultimate reason why these commodity logograms are seen only extremely rarely outside the context of accounting tablets (and even in those cases, they never take any grammatical element).

  8. The fundation for the categorical “There is not a single example of rebus-writing: the Minoan system was more evolved than that” is quicksand. The use of LinB to argue for the methods of LinA or Cretan Hieroglyphics is questionable, the least, because a big change to another language demanded also a big change in writing methods. A driving force is needed to make things “evolve”, and I cannot see any such force, which would make, to the small writing surfaces perfectly suited rebus-writing, to evolve to a system which needs more room. A KNoT on a string (hiero 063) is easy to draw, takes up only a minute of space, easy to recognize and is commonly known, you CaNNoT (c=k) deny that. The written forms: KNiT, CaNT, aCCouNT, CANTeen are more “evolved” then 063 K_N_T, but 25-50% of factual illiterates leaving year 12 CaNNoT read and/or comprehend them. The drawn ‘knot’ is recognized by most of the children entering kindergarten. What an evolution!
    I don’t know how can Chadwick argue about the phonetic value of hiero 063 from the bases of LinB, it’s like arguing for the phonetic value of C in Latin from the bases of its use in Tsalagi. Very professorially, John Younger don’t believe in acrophonic and rebus principles, because ‘cat’ and ‘cattle’ both don’t start with M (… in English [he slightly changed the text on his website when I pointed out how stupid this argument is]), thus hiero 063 K_N_T is not accepted by the scientists, even though its value could be derived from Greek (κανϑύλη ‘swelling’) and from Magyar (konty ‘knot’) as well.
    It would be very fruitful to argue about the Minoan writing system internally, on its own, like this: the phonetic value K_N_T for 063 on #113.d contradicts to #112.c and #112.d, because... But for a discussion like this you first have to accept a very simple plot: this text is transnumerated by my computer into numbers, the numbers were sent to your computer as electric impulses and your computer transliterated it again back into English. This coding and decoding didn’t change the wording of the text, but of course, both computers had to use the same “codebooks”.
    Now, I have a codebook, a table, based on Younger’s grid, which by a very strict univocal correspondence transliterates the Cretan Hieroglyphics into todays primer lettering, just like the computer did with this text, and it can be read without any further translation or interpretation in Hungarian. For every coding there is only one decoding. My very simple “codebook” gives contextual, meaningful texts for all of the over 200 Hieroglyphic documents so far decoded. And not just that, but it establishes the clear and unbreakable ancient unity between the outer appearance of the pictures/hieroglyphs, in other words – their pictographic-value – and their phonetic form – their phonetic-value – by the way of the acrophonic and rebus principles. It works on all Minoan writings including the Phaistos Disk, the Arkalochori Axe, the Kafkania Pebble etc. and is open and accessible for everybody to check out every single step of the decoding process or to use it on yet undecoded documents.
    There wan’t be any other codebook, not in a million years, the best you can do is to confirm my readings with the means of morphology and syntax, that is by finding similar groups of signs, from which words, expressions and even sentences could be thought to be recognized. But even for that you have to reconsider your so far unseccesful methods. I realy wish you succeed in deciphering a couple of Minoan documents.