Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Commodities on Linear A tablets - part I

Time has come to discuss an interesting topic. As our knowledge on Linear A tablets and the underlying "Minoan" language is mounting up slowly, we may start to interpret some of the tablets directly. And this is exactly what we will do at this time.

For the first moment after a brief look at the tablets, it will become obvious that they are poor in content. The scribes did their best to abbreviate everything they could, using logograms for wares, numerical characters for numbers and single-sign abbreviations for transactions. They were so devoted to this tendency, so that most of the words written are almost exclusively personal names. The only common exception is the header of tablets, where the scribes often added one or two words to record the event or significance of making the balance ledger.

Fortunately, there are a few tablets (and really low in number) that contain more than just logograms. They contain written-out names or qualifiers of some goods - almost certainly because logograms were not enough or not good enough to record the goods precisely.

There are three tablets: HT6, HT23 and HT31 of special interest, regarding this matter. For the current post, I will only write about the tablet HT6 (the rest comes later).

This is how side A of the HT6 tablet looks like (interpreted as referring to multiple commodities):
KA-PA • DA-TA-RA • TE •NI (figs)15
DA-QE-RA •QE   PI-TA22.75
NI (figs)15.5
(Side B is referring to other subjects paying only FIC as tax - therefore it is a mere list of names and numbers, without any commodities mentioned)

The main proof of this tablet being a multiple-commodity one is the occurrance of a ligature: RU+JA or JA+RU. Both the Linear A and Linear B scripts are very orthodox in one thing: personal names or transaction terms are never abbreviated like this, therefore ligatures can only signify a logogram used for a commodity. But that means, this tablet has at least two different commodities (NI = FIC = figs and RU+JA/JA+RU). This hits that the words caught in-between of the two signs (PI-TA-JA) and likely all the other following ones (until another transaction term comes in) are all names for commodities, and not personal names.

The occurrances of the sign QE in second half of side A were always a bit of mystery to me. This sign would not normally stand as a prefix or postfix to words. Also keep in mind that the Minoan language does not seem to use (grammatical) prefixes too frequently (you can find more on this matter in Glen Gordon's Paleoglot). Therefore its interpretation as a logogram (perhaps the same type of ware the words PI-TA and PI-TA-JA are referring to) helps to yield a better understanding of the structure of this tablet.

'TE' is obviously a transaction term. It is commonly occurring on tablets that refer to the collection of goods (probably as a tax, e.g. HT13), therefore a meaning like "gives" seems more than appropriate. Its usage here merely reinforces the multiple-commodity theory. The goods are collected, not paid: but the ubiquitious summing-up term KU-RO (total) is missing from the tablet's end. The best reasoning is that one cannot sum up different types of goods to get a single number, explaining the lack of totalling the goods.

KA-PA looks more like a transaction term ("taxation", "payment", "additional" or such) than a name. Its repetition on side A together with QE does not necessarily mean a new subject: it is possible that DA-TA-RA gave a further 5 JE quantity of QE or PI-TA. Remember, in the next line, QE and PI-TA stand together: it is thus most probable that these refer to exactly the same commodity.

DA-QE-RA is perhaps a name: it occurs on other tablets' headers as well (HT57, HT120). The other possibility is that this one, too is a transaction term: on HT120 it stands with DA-ME, a putative place-name. DA-TA-RA, on the other hand, is unique to this tablet. It does not seem to be related to DA-QE-RA (unless 'TA' is a scribal mistake), so its meaning remains unknown.

Now that we have a bunch of terms that refer to goods, the question arises: what kind of wares do they mean? The meaning of the sign 'NI' as figs is already well-known. RU+JA on the other hand, resembles the Greek word for pomegrenates, 'Rhoia'. This would mean that the tablet refer to special agricultural goods: edible fruits and other comsumables.

PI-TA(-JA) is a harder nut to crack. If it really stood as an explanation for the logogram QE, it might have meant something other than a fruit: the shape of sign 'QE' closely resembles some sort of "cake" or "flat bread". Then it is perhaps not impossible to see a similarity between PI-TA and the Aramaic flat bread, also called 'Pita' since ancient times (funny thing, but flat pastas under the name pita are still a popular food today...). A potential problem with this interpretation lies in the quantities: fractons can only be understood if the numbers stood for some (unknown) weight-units, and not the actual number of breads or fruits.

For the last remain words like MA-*321 and O-RA2-DI-NE. While I have no idea about the former one's meaning, the latter does show some faint similarity to the Greek Rhétiné = resin. I have no clue whether this identification is linguistically correct or not, yet it is clear that resins are used in Greece since olden times (maybe since the Minoan era) for the conservation of wine. For this aspect, they can be regarded as "consumables".


  1. Very interesting. I was thinking of pomegranates too because of ῥοιή. However, I get a slightly different notion from KA-PA • DA-TA-RA • TE with kapa being a person rather than a transaction term.

    Your point about te is possible, particularly if we treat it as a bare verb unmarked for person. With a value of 'giving (to)', we might translate 'kapa giving (to) datara ...' followed by the goods offered.

  2. Talking about the possible meaning of KA-PA, I took the idea of the word being a transaction term rather than a proper name from other tablets. For example, on HT8, or on HT140, it can be interpreted as referring to 'added' goods (in addition to the already listed ones). Of course, other occurrances, like HT102 admit a reading as a name. Interestingly, on HT94 and on HT105 it stands as a header for lists of a (considerably large) personnel. So in case if it stands for a name, I would vote for a place-name, rather than a personal one. (The name-theory is somewhat reinforced by the limited distribution of this term: it only occurs on the Haghia Triada tablets.)

  3. On HT6b, what designates the tax context for FIC?

  4. Side note on QE / PI-TA ...

    One of the HT31 containers with a sign group above it is PA-TA-QE.

    So if your flat bread hypothesis is confirmed, then the container here should make sense for bread ...

  5. KA-PA ...

    I've been really scrutinizing the SA-RA2 sign group in recent weeks, and I've come to feel pretty strongly that it's in the same sign group class as KI-RO and quite possibly some of the transaction signs, though I'm still pondering that latter option.

    HT102 begins with both KA-PA and SA-RA2. I'm not sure if I agree that KA-PA has a transaction type of value to it, though I by no means exclude it. What would it mean to have 2 transaction sign groups together like that at the beginning of a tablet? KI-RO and SA-RA2, which are 2 of our most frequent recurring digrams, don't appear together like that, though of course it may only be because their meanings aren't complimentary and perhaps KA-PA and SA-RA2's are... just something to think about.

  6. Thanks for your comments!

    As for the value of KA-PA, I believe a 'transaction term' is a strong possibility. But do not think of a term like KI-RO, KU-RO or SA2-RA: The term KA-PA behaves more like A-DU, i.e. being a qualifier or a direct substitution of any given name ("wildcard"). To give an example from English, one could use generic terms like subject, city, populace, etc. to avoid word-repetitions and to form an economic way of writing. This is when the Linear B records are of little help, because they are often very "uneconomic" (that is very repetitive and redundant). Of course, if KA-PA turns out to be a place-name, that explains much, but not all of its observed properties.

    As for side B of HT6, you are right to say that there is an abrupt change in topic - logograms are no longer mentioned, and the list carries on with the names (some of them might be place-names) with numbers. One has to assume that the type of goods is the same as the last entry of side A: i.e. figs. This is also the most probable one, since many other tablets mention figs but none the more exotic goods seen here.

    Just a brief note on the other suggestions: Since there is a considerable difference between the forms of PI-TA(-JA) and the vessel-qualifier PA-TA-QE, not mentioning the contexts, every connection seems remote if any. Though I wrote as such, I am unsure of the correctness of the KA-PA QE separation. Alternatively, the entire term (without separation) could have been an item-name, making the arrangement of the tablet more logical.

  7. I'm increasingly sure that the reason for Linear B's uneconomic-ness and overly explicit-ness is Linear A's implicit-ness - there is so much implied that was no doubt obvious to Minoan scribes which seems to remain elusive to us and may, in its elusiveness, have been the impetus for making Linear B more explicit.

  8. Ah! Thank you for the clarification on KA-PA. That makes sense.