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|
|KA-NA •||CYP (barley?)||1/3|
|OLE+NE (oil type)||1/16|
|OLE+TU (oil type)||1/16|
|OLE+RI (oil type)||1/16|
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.