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Minoan Names

Another entry on the work Richard Vallance has been doing on the decipherment of Linear A.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the research has been the various eponyms, or personal names, that have turned up.  With these names come questions:

  1. Are the names male or female?  With some, I think we can say that they're definitely male.  Dumirewe the shepherd, for example.  With many others, however, it's unclear, because we don't know how the Minoan names differentiated between men and women.  Is "Turunuseme" a man or a woman?  What about "Adunitana?"

  2. How do we normalize these names?  Linear B is an early form of Greek, so it's much easier to normalize, or get the spoken/regular form of the name, because Greek is still a living language.  E-ke-ro, for example, becomes "Hector."  A-pi-er-a becomes "Amphiera," a woman's name. What do we do about the names we find on Linear A tablets.  Was "Siramaritai" (which I suspect is a woman's name) pronounced just so, or might it have been pronounced "Sirmarta," or "Siramarti?"  (Personally, I think "Siramaritai" is pretty just as it is."

Hopefully one of my readers who has more insight into Linear A and B can speak further as to this question.

Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

It's taken me this long to talk about Richard Vallance's Linear A and B linguistics blog because it's not only dense with the kind of material that makes aficionados of ancient languages go weak at the knees, but also a bit intimidating for the average layperson. I remember taking a semester of linguistic theory for my Master's, and even my eyes glaze over at the talk of supersyllagrams and ideograms. If you're thinking Michael Ventris as I mention all this, you're on the right track. Richard's blog even has material relating to the late pioneer in the decipherment of Linear B.

Linguistic technobabble aside, there are some fascinating things to learn about Linear A and B from Richard's blog. Prior to this, I did not know that Linear A tablets differ in appearance from Linear B tablets; Linear A tablets are a bit taller than long, shaped more like Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets than Linear B tablets, which are more rectangular and cigar-shaped. Richard also has some beautiful photographs of parts of the various phases of the Knossos palace that you don't often see; he chose to photograph more of drainage gutters and different kinds of masonry than decorated rooms.

Richard's recently done some work in attempting to decipher Linear A based on, I believe, the similarities between certain Linear A and B signs.  I say I believe because I'm not knowledgeable enough about ancient languages or decipherment to fully understand how he gets from point A to point B, but Richard is the kind of guy who thoroughly documents his process and rationale, he's affiliated with a number of respectable academic institutions and individuals, and his work does look promising.  Minoan Linear A seems to be more of the same kind of inventorying that we see in Mycenaean Linear B.  If you're into linguistic geekery, check out his work:

Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae


The easternmost palace of Minoan Crete, Zakros was smaller than the other palace/administrative centers at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia.  By land, Zakros is very remote, in a part of Crete that was never heavily populated to begin with, but with its proximity to the sea via its main northern gate, Zakros probably acted as a hub for trade from the Near East, as archaeological finds such as Canaanite jar, ox-hide ingots, and an elephant tusk suggest. 

The upper portion of the palace complex is known as Epano (Upper) Zakros, and the lower portion, nearest the sea, is called Kato (Lower) Zakros.  A ravine called the Ravine of the Dead runs through both parts of the site, and is so named for the many burial caves cut into the cliffs.

Zakros is unique for its many water features, which include an open-air "swimming" pool that might have been used for ritual bathing or rites to ensure the safe return of merchant ships, sailors, and fishermen.  12 houses were excavated in the town below the palace at the turn of the last century, and a small archive of Linear A tablets has been found.

From Linear B documents we know that in the Bronze Age Zakros was known as "o-du-ru-we."  Linguists have not been able to normalize the name because it's probably of Minoan origin.

The apparent suddenness of the palace's destruction meant that many artifacts were left in situ.  It has been argued that Zakros lay directly in the path of the Theran pyroclastic cloud and was destroyed at that time.

Lo! Rosetta Stone Minoan

  • Are you tired of those uppity Knossians talking smack about you behind your back?

  • Are you worried that King Minos is about to toss you to the Minotaur?

  • Can't follow the instructions Princess Ariadne gave you for navigating the Labyrinth?

  • Not sure whether Queen Pasiphae is whispering sweet nothings in your ear or a recipe for grilled octopus?

  • Can't play that Phaistos Disk board game you received last Christmas because you don't understand the rules?

Following on the heels of the bestselling Rosetta Stone: Mycenaean comes the language program you've all been waiting for:

Let Rosetta Stone's Minoan language program guide you through the tricky Labyrinth of ancient Cretan.

  • Learn the rudiments of Linear A, the Minoan written language

  • Decipher dozens of inscriptions and learn to make your own votive offerings with buxom native priestesses who will shake their heads at your baffling adherence to monotheism

  • Engage with native Minoan speakers who will mock your foreign accent and lack of refinement

  • Take dictation with Daedalus, who has no time for beginners

  • Haggle like a boss with Minoan merchants.  Laugh with them as they berate your lack of finesse

  • Revel in a sense of superiority as you interact with your Aegean neighbors

The Phaistos Disk

The Phaistos Disk is one of those archaeological oddities that defies explanation.  It was discovered during excavations of the Minoan palace of Phaistos in southern Crete in July 1908.  The disk was found in the main chamber of an underground repository thick with ashes and dark black earth, but few artifacts apart from some burnt cow bones and a fragment of a Linear A tablet; the rooms above appear to have collapsed during an earthquake.

Most historians and archaeologists agree that the Phaistos Disk is authentic, though experts have not been able to determine an exact date for the artifact, or explain its function or purpose.  It may be a record of a religious offering, or even an ancient board game.

45 pre-processed clay stamps were used to produce the writing on both sides of the disk, making it the earliest known example of movable type in the world.  However, the script may or may not be Linear A; no one can quite agree on what language the disk is written in.  It may be some unknown syllabary or alphabet, and the fact that there are no other examples of the script makes deciphering the disk all the more difficult.

You can peruse some of the attempts at decipherment here, though keep in mind that most of the claims are pure pseudoscience.

Linear B, Part 1

The Mycenaeans had writing, which archaeologists and other scholars refer to as Linear B; Linear A is the Minoan script, which is still being deciphered.  When the Mycenaeans took over Crete around 1450 B.C., they modified Linear A to suit their own language. 

In short:

Linear A: Minoan/Anatolian/not yet fully deciphered

Linear B: Mycenaean Greek/deciphered in 1952

Linear A and B were both used to keep tallies.  Signs represented sounds, while ideograms represented oft-recorded items such as wool, copper ingots, swords, etc.  The palace archives found at Pylos and Knossos are very dry reading, but do give historians and archaeologists a unique view of Bronze Age palace life.  The tablets paint the Mycenaeans as a very bureaucratic people, with the kings and their scribes keeping track of every lentil, grain, fig, and olive in the palace storerooms; it's not very heroic at all.  But the tablets do lovingly inventory military gear such as chariots and swords, and that is something Homer's warlike Achaeans would have appreciated.

Linear B is a very abbreviated, archaic form of written Greek.  For example, the Greek word tripod was written as ti-ri-po-de.  Linear B had no consonant clusters, and followed a strict consonant-vowel formula, even adding vowels where none existed.  Note: this is not the Mycenaean spoken language.

After chapter 3 of Orestes, I will return to discuss the clay tablets themselves, and the possibility that the Mycenaeans could have written letters and other documents that simply did not survive.  

Below is a clay tablet found at Pylos.

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