Monday, March 8, 2010

A few notes on the altar-stone of Mallia

I am devoting our next post to one of the smaller yet interesting pieces of Minoan writing. The object I am talking of, was found at the ruins of the "palatial" building complex of Mallia: it is an altar-stone, with a conical depression on its top, supposedly used for burnt offerings. The most interesting feature of this crude monolith block is however, the inscription it bears: There are 15 Hieroglyphic Minoan signs arranged in a single row, tilted at 90 degrees.

The text lacks any meaningful word-separators or other auxiliary signs well-known from Hieroglyphic texts, apart from the (dubious) '16th' sign (a simple vertical line). Despite this fact - as 15 syllables are way too much for a Minoan word, we can be certain that it consists of several words whose boundaries are not indicated by any markers.

The first problem we have to solve relates to the direction of reading. As we have seen before, the Hieroglyphic Minoan texts lack a well-established, conventional reading direction. Therefore they can be read from right to left as well as left to right. To avoid ambiguities, the Minoan scribes used special indicators: the start (X) sign, and the termination (Z) sign. Yet none of these can be observed on the above text. The only auxiliary sign is the (rightmost) vertical line. It looks like as the word-separator line of Hieroglyphic texts. In spite of the fact, that it does not actually separates words within the rest of the text, we can be almost sure that a text does never end with a word-separator, so it is wise to start reading on the right. Later we shall see that this reading direction (although exactly the opposite to the one Linear A uses) is also reinforced by the reading (with words meaningful in Linear A).

The next thing we have to solve is to get an approriate transliteration of signs, into Linear A, so we can read it. This is where troubles begin. Unfortunately, during the roughly 500 years while the Minoan writing system evolved from Hieroglyphs into an abstract syllabary, the shape of signs changed a lot. What we can see that the signs on this document are actually much closer to the origins of the script, than to the simple, undecorative Linear A figures. But since the shapes already seem to diverge from the initial picture-like Hieroglyphs, scientists label this style as 'Hieroglyphic B'. It is regarded as the direct precursor of the Linear A system.

At first sight, there are only a few signs that can be equated with Linear A ones. These examples include the leftmost sign with double twigs (Lin A 'NI'), the 'window' sign next to it (Lin A 'JA') and the 'double hills' sign (Lin A 'TA'). With a careful eye and thourough examination, however, most of the signs can be assigned an approriate Linear A counterpart. For example, a simple 'elimination of the improbable' strategy leads to the identification of the 'column' sign with Linear A 'NA'. The same way, the arrow-head sign can be assigned the value 'TI' (though the related value 'SI' cannot be completely excluded). Now, if we put all these identifications together, we can give the following reading of the text:


What really interesting is, is the sequence of the last 6 signs. Here we see a natural word-initial sequence in TA-NA-SU?-TI-JA-NI (or rather, phrase-initial to be correct). The sequence TA-NA is not only common on Linear A tablets (adjoint to other phrases), but also on Hieroglyphic documents (as separate). Recalling our previous experience, we may identify it as the accusative case of the demonstrative pronoun, meaning 'this'. Finding this term is a further reinforcement, that our choice of reading direction was correct. The rest of the sequence, with the somewhat tentative SU sign, shows resemblance to the phrase TA-NA-SU-TE-(?)-KE found on a libation table (PR Za 1). That should not surprise us, given the context: this text likely also mentions offerings. While the rest of the text remains ambiguous, we may translate its last phrase as '....this(acc) offering' (if nominal) or this(acc) [we] offer (or similar, if verbal).

1 comment:

  1. According to my decipherment of Phaistos, the direction of writing is indeed right to left.
    It's possible to make sense with this string with Hurrian. i read:
    ku-dzu-du-w I will keep
    ti-Su-Sa-w my heart,
    ta-gu-du-lu May become beautiful
    tsi-ya-ru my flank!

    Sounds reasonable for an altar.