Friday, March 12, 2010

A marvel of Minoan finds: the double-axe of Arkalochori

It was long due to write a bit of the famous Arkalochori Axe, since we already talked about it a lot when discussing the authenticity of the Phaistos Disc. This decorative double-axe ("labrys") has become renown because of the unique (or almost unique) inscription it bears. Its signs are not from the Linear A syllabary, even if they resemble to Linear A a lot. They are clearly not Hieroglyphs either. The only other script they resemble apart from Linear A, is that of the Phaistos Disc. In truth, they are somewhat 'in-between' Linear A, the Hieroglyphs and the Phaistos syllabary.

I was not the first one to realize the high value of this artefact in our understanding of the variations of the Cretan writing systems. In fact it was Thorsten Timm, who first proposed a direct connection between the Phaistos Disc and the Linear A syllabary; using this very axe as a proof that the evolution of Cretan writing was far more complex as once we had thought. He also pinpointed that the signs of the Phaistos Disc are by no means exotic or exceptional: they are just plain variations of the well-known Linear A signs, just with some fancy design. Although I do not agree with some of the values Timm has proposed, I perfectly agree with the basis of his theory. Although I cannot link a page of his book, here is the link to his website. I think it is worth to pay a visit.

The inscription on the Axe of Aralohori is a rather short one: there are three vertical columns, filled with no more than 6 signs each. There are no word-dividers or any other auxiliary signs, but it is reasonable that the text runs from the top to the bottom. (Actually, I do not know about any writing system in the word that would have an upside-down direction of writing or reading...) The order of the columns - on the other hand - is open to debate. I lean toward the left-to right direction, since this is most natural with respect to Linear A. Remember, in Linear A, the faces of figures are not fixed to the start of lines, rather they are fixed by convention: human faces, pig-heads and eagles - for example - point to the end of script, while other animal heads like sheep or kine, point to the opposite direction. It is worth to observe that this inscription (unlike that of the Phaistos Disc) does respect traditional direction of objects - the 'cat head' (Lin AB *80 = MA) is drawn face-to-face (as in Linear A) and not in profile like on the Disc. This is how the inscribed face of the double-axe looks like:

The transliteration of the signs on the axe is again, not the simplest task. Despite their close relationship to Linear A signs, some figures are nearly unrecognizable. Keeping these problems and the doubtful readings in mind, one can give the following transcript of the axe's signs (the numbering of columns runs from left to right):

1st column: I-DA-MA-NA-RI?-*86
2nd column: I-SE?-NA-I-MA-TE
3rd column: SI?-RE-DA

We find three instances of the 'plumed head' sign. As we have seen before, it most likely corresponds to the Linear AB *28 = 'I' sign. In this instance, we not only find them as word-initials (as seen on the Disc), but they also give out meaningful words! The part I-DA-MA-NA- is strongly reminiscent of the I-DA-MA-TE phrase found in Linear A (AR Zf 1 and 2, engraved on double-axes made from gold and silver) or the place-name I-DA-MI (SY Za 1, as part of the libation formula). Our senses tell us compellingly, that this word has something to do with the name of Mount Ida, the sacred mountain of Crete. But this can be misleading: The stem we find here is *(i)-dam (or *(i)-tam), with an 'm' on its end (and not just ida), similar to the case of JA-SA-SA-RA-ME: *(j)-asasaram-e , with an 'm' in the stem (the Luwian-based analysis jasa+sara+me appears to be incorrect). The mentioned words apparently reflect the structure *(i)-dam-ate and *(i)-dam-i, the stem being *dam (perhaps *tam or even *itam). The 'i' vowel may be either part of the stem or a separate deictic particle (if I-DA-MA-TE is the same as DA-MA-TE, on KY Za 2). As for me, I suspect that this stem is originally without i- and it means 'sanctuary'. (Compare with Etruscan tmia = 'temple' and Luwian dammaranza = '[a group of] priestesses'.)

While the shape of the 'cat head' (Lin AB 'MA'), 'twig' (Lin AB 'DA') and 'dotted column' (Lin AB 'NA') signs pose no problem of reading, some signs are trickier. The last sign of the first column is undoubtedly Lin AB *86, the 'boat' sign (of a value not yet deciphered) but rotated with 90 degrees (as on the Disc). The second sign in the last column ('RE'), on the other hand, continues the Hieroglyphic tradition in depicting not only three petals of a 'lily flower' (as Lin AB 'RE'), but also a row of leaves on its stem. Since this type of design is common in Hieroglyphics (in overwhelmingly word-terminal positions, just like Lin AB 'RE'), there can be no doubts that it displays the original shape of the 'RE' sign. As we know that the Cretan writing systems originally do not distinguish between 'r' and 'l' sounds, it is tempting to believe, this glyph indeed represents a lily flower, not only in shape, but also in sound. The Greek word for lilies, λειριον, from which the Latin word lilium (and ultimately the English word, lily) comes from, is pretty much possibly of Cretan origin. The phonetic value of the lily sign (either 're' or 'le') nicely admits an acrophonic derivation from a form *le:ri or similar.

Finally, apart from simple variations of signs: mirror images, like in the case of 'DA' or the addition of extra strokes, as in the case of 'NA', there remains a bunch of problematic signs to read. For example, there is the first sign in the rightmost column, that appears almost identical to the Hieroglyphic 'arrow' sign (not to be confused with the 'arrow-head' sign, that is likely 'TI'). The same arrow-sign is also featured on the Disc, in that case with fletching. Linear A offers a number of possible descendants, among these the sign 'SI' appears to be the best candidate (though still far from certain).

The second sign of the middle column is more problematic. There are two possible approaches to decipher it. First, it is similar to the Hieroglyphic 'wing' sign, that likely reads 'KU'. But if we look for parallels in Linear A, we might get a match with the sign 'SE': even if that 'vine' winds in a different direction, it is still fairly similar in general graphic concept to this sign on the Axe. Unfortunately, both readings are possible using Linear A parallels, so we are left fairly helpless. Out of these two, I preferred the 'SE' reading, as I expected the 'wing' sign already to be turned into the well-known 'flying eagle' (KU) by the age this axe was made. It is good to observe that the columns [NA signs] were dotted like in Linear A, not solid like in Hieroglyphics. The Phaistos Disc, also displays flying birds [KU] - the Linear A version - instead of an isolated flapping wing, like Hieroglyphics.

The fifth sign of the left column is perhaps the most mysterious one. It is not even faintly similar to most Linear A signs, and finding its Hieroglyphic parallels is equally hard. Perhaps because the sign is poorly designed, lacking important details, or perhaps it is just damaged. From the Phaistos Disc, it might correspond to the 'sitting bird' sign, with two legs (that has no clear ancestor in Hieroglyphics). Based upon this observation, I very tentatively assigned the value 'RI', but I am aware that I might not even be close to the true match. If you have any better ideas of a counterpart in Linear A or Hieroglyphics, I would love to hear it!


  1. When I see IDAMATE and IDAMANA, I cannot avoid thinking about mount Ida and the words for mother in Greek mater and mana. So, I always connected it with the great mother of IDA. As for the syllables I-DA there's a further link with the unique Cretan word for "what" (unlike "ti" in all other Greek dialects) which is inta (pronounced ida).

  2. While I do not discard any alternative interpretation of I-DA-MA-TE, I still feel that a reading like 'ida-mater' is strained. First, remember that we also have forms like I-DA-MI and I-DA-MA-NA- - all these suggest that the stem has to be cut at '-m-' (i-da-m-). Another clue for the correctness of reading lies in the meaning you can get by putting the words together. If it appears too strained, the underlying theory has to be modified. If I attempted to read I-DA-MA-TE using the theory in this post, I would get the following phrase: "to the sanctuary" [i.e. the axe itself] (i- = deictic [the, that], dam(a) = sanctuary, -ate = locative with directionality "to" ). Perhaps not the best attempt, but it still appears more meaningful than "what mother" or even "Ida-mother" (remember, this is an isolated phrase, so it has to be meaningful as stand-alone). I hate to say that, but I believe you have to work more on your theory until it can bear real fruits.

  3. I just came across your blog and was interested in your discussion of the Arkalochori axe -- which is such an oddity but happily excavated and not a suspicious chance find. You might be interested in a new book by A.-M. Jasink, who has collected many of the Hieroglyphic signs excluded by CHIC: Cretan hieroglyphic seals: a new classification of symbols and ornamental / filling motifs. "Pasiphae" 8. Pisa

  4. does anyone know what kind of calendar Minoans used? thanks

  5. Thank you for your comment!
    The exact nature of the Minoan calendar is a very good question. The only evidence of a distict Cretan system we have is the so-called Drerian Calendar: used by the Eteocretan minority in the classical era Greece. (You can get some ideas of Eteocretans on this page). As far as I know, the only difference of the Drerian Calendar from other Greek calendars was the naming of months, pretty unintellegible for non-Eteocretan speakers. For example, the name Komnikarios, although hellenized, is meaningless in Greek.

    If we turn to the LInear B tablets, however, we can discover that they very often state the date of the record, with the term ME-NO = "month".The names of months are from a strage, archaic calendar, but the names themselves (or the majority) are perfectly meaningful in Greek. For example, PO-RO-WI-TO-JO was likely *Plowisthoios = "the month of sailing", etc. All these bits of evidece make it likely that the Minoan calendar was likely also similar to the Greek ones, i.e. breaking one year into a number of months, corresponding to a lunal cycle, roughly 30 days long. This was by no means novelty: the Egyptians also used a 12-month based calendar. In their sytem, the length of each month was 30 days, plus they had 5 extra days at the end of each year. Pretty simple and economic, much more than the un-systematic Greek ones or the "modern" Roman Calendar.

    One could be right to point out that a large portion of Linear B tablets actually contains month-names in their header part. While I cannot say the same for the Linear A tablets, it is a matter worth to investigate in the future. You gave me a good idea.