Sunday, December 5, 2010

The most peculiar Minoan sign ever seen

I would like to present a short post here, on a rather petty, but nevertheless interesting topic. As I was conducting a rather fruitful discussion with Kim Raymoure about the orgins of several Linear A and B signs, I realized that the evolution of Minoan signs is rarely discussed by professional scholars, and it is something that needs to be explored in detail. To make a tiny contribution, I will share some of my not-so-recent discoveries with you, that apparently no one has proposed or published before. So here goes a small discussion about Linear A sign *301, Hiero *46 and their images.

It was several years ago, when - in an attempt to make sense of some Minoan seals - I stumbled upon a Hieroglyphic version of Lin A *301. It is an easy thing to identify (and has been known for at least a decade), because this sign is so peculiar, and characteristic to the Cretan scripts. A strange, heavily gnarled object, with a straight line piercing it on one end. CHIC (Olivier et al.) terms this sign (*46) as 'adze'. Initially, I also believed it to be some kind of a tool (hack, rake), but was unable to explain either its strangely-shaped "handle", or the thickness of its "upper part". Fortunately, the Hieroglyphic signs do give a clue about the object it depicts: In some cases, the sign also has a strange "rayed disc" under the main bulk. Although frequently ommitted, its consistent recurrence in Hieroglyphic texts show this detail clearly belongs to the sign itself, and not a ligature.

The same is true to the Lin A *301, that it sometimes comes as a variant: *606 (*301 with an open circle below). In contrary to the opinion of Godart and his colleagues, this is not a ligature (*301+*311), either - because "sign *311" does never occur alone, and the composition is exactly the same as the "Hie *46 with disc" variant. We are left to conclude that this "disc" or "circle" is in fact a commonly-ommitted detail of the original image. In most cases, it is not connected to the main bulk, but if you drew a line to connect the two, then it may suddenly become clear what the sign depicts!

To make a long story short, this is what you would get: a human figure, bending towards and grabbing a pole. From its pose, it could either be an acrobat (in a somersault) or a captive or a slave, chained to a pole, bending forward in a submissive pose. The "rayed disc" turns out to be his head! Now, this interpretation can nicely explain the thickness of the upper part as well: because this is a human torso. And the "handle" is gnarled, just because it represents legs. I shall also direct the attention of my readers to the fact that the Phaistos Disc also has a sign (Pha *04) that depicts a 'captive' or 'slave'. The only difference is, that in this instance, the man stands upright and his hands are tied behind him, and not in front. One could argue that the disc is always separated from the main bulk, so the man is "decapitated"; Yet I find the probability small, that Minoans would have depicted an image of 'gore', while none of the Old World's writing systems did anything similar (The Mayas, with their dreaded customs are naturally taken out of the equation). Although the shape of Hiero *46 does resemble the Egyptian setep (a ritual tool, used in the opening of mouth ceremony, but not in everyday life), it does not match an adze well - not even the bronze-age variants, as far as I know (please, correct me if I am mistaken).

The phonetic value of this sign is equally problematic as its image. Although it does not have any clear, direct Linear B counterpart, the sign is relatively common in Linear A. Although much of its occurrences likely come from the same words and constructions repeated over-and-over, like A-TA-I-*301-WA-JA. Interestingly, in Hieroglyphics, many of its occurrences come from a single word, either: *46-*44 (*44 being the 'trowel'-sign, with unknown value). This does little to help us decipher its reading. From careful examination of the phonetic values of following signs, one could get to the conclusion that the most probable vowel-value of Lin A *301 is u. Because the only simple Cu-sign that has not been yet identified in Lin A / Lin B is ZU (and readings like A-I-ZU would indeed make sense) this value could be suggested from one point of view. On the other hand, sign Lin A *301 is often mirrored with a vertical axis, and it only takes a mere 90 degrees clockwise rotation from such an image to get a shape identical to the Linear B JO sign (*36) - not yet identified in Linear A. Yet the latter theory would contradict the fact that Lin A *301 is very often followed by signs beginning with w- (WA or U [=*wu]), where O-series signs seem to attract pure vowels (compare A-SU-PU-WA [ARKH2] with A-SI-SU-PO-A [KH9]). This leaves the reading of Lin A *301 unexplained as of now.

Linear A *301 was also used as a stand-alone sign on the Haghia Triada tablets. It is so frequent (over 100 occurrances) that many scolars were tempted to read the sign as a logogram. But because of the given interpretation of its graphic image, I seriously doubt that Lin A *301 would have been used as a true logogram (i.e. the image of the object cited). In cases it was used for a commodity, it was very likely an abbreviation of the commodity's name, and not an actual pictorial description. Somehow, I doubt that they would have stored men in wooden boxes down the temple cellar. Or - if we stick with the original adze-theory - hundreds of the same tool, in one house...

Update: After doing some in-depth research on the cited Egyptian item, I found that it it was also called the Adze of Upuaut. It was not just a ceremonial item, but supposedly a model of a real-life one. Seems like this tool of ancient Egypt was dissimilar to the adzes of other ages and civilizations. Given the close interconnectedness of Minoan and Egyptian civilizations, it could explain the shape of both Hiero *46 and Lin A *301. If the "rayed circle" were to be interpreted as a pile of wood-chips, that could give a solution to our riddle.


  1. I. A311 Origin?
    Is A311 attested individually anywhere? It'll be a bit before I'm back at the library to check GORILA v. 5. FWIW, I think it's important to consider A311 in the context of A553 (AB73 (MI) + A301 ligature) from KH Wc 2099, A605 (A301 + AB73 (MI) ligature) and the various interesting symbols which appear inside of A301 (including A311 and AB73 (MI)) on the Khania roundels KH Wc 2046 - 2053.

    KH Wc 2050 offers an interesting history on A311, which may be the shorthand for what was previously 2 symbols. In KH Wc 2050, it looks very much like a bow and an arrow. I've submitted a paper on this for Cretan Studies vol. 11 in which I suggest for A301 the side profile of a pregnant woman and this particular variant of A311 as arrow/phallus/Apollo bow/girl/Artemis thus making the combination a good candidate for the goddess Leto, mother to the hunter twins Apollo and Artemis.

    2. Sun / head / Apollo?
    That your acrobat's head looks like a sun is very interesting and relevant to my own differing notions ... if it's a pregnant or birthing woman rather than an acrobat or someone holding a poll, it just so happens that Apollo is a god of light and a sun god.

    3. AB73
    How AB73 fits into either of these hypotheses wants some attention, methinks. I neglected that in my initial "Leto!" hypothesis.

    Given Egyptian's use of similar symbols like DI/give, I often look at AB73 and think of a hand extended with a seed in it (or, maybe more generically, a gift - esp. when I consider the upside-down variant of this symbol from KNZA19 which is "pouring out" the dot; libation?). From what little I've read, it seems that seed and semen often share the same word in languages from our relevant time period, but I would need to do more research to confirm this. For the moment, that's the closest conjecture I can come to to tie AB73 into my Leto hypothesis. So how does AB73 work with the acrobat? Hm.

    4. Acrobats in Linear A?
    There is a Linear A symbol which I keep eyeing when I think about your acrobat hypothesis (which I very much like, and which I think definitely has merit). On HT12, there is a symbol normalized to A626 (A303 ligatured to the klasmatogram A704) by both GORILA and Younger. I definitely see how the original symbol could indeed be A626, but I also see how it could be a person cartwheeling acrobatically with their head aloft before they enter into your configuration. A626 doesn't appear elsewhere on the Hagia Triada tablets, so there is some teensy contextual evidence that the normalization here is worth questioning. What do you think when you have a look at the original photograph for HT12?

  2. omehow, I doubt that they would have stored men in wooden boxes down the temple cellar.

    -laugh- :>

  3. One more! I'm at a coffee shop so I'll have to owe you the symbol ID when I get home, but if I forget, I'll do one better and provide an image:

    overloaded ligature

    Of all the ligatures in Linear A, this one seems to most resemble the Hieroglyph we're discussing. That it's also ligatures to a labrys and to QE might provide some kind of additional interesting hints and ideas.

    Those 2 horizontal dashes on the left-side vertical appear on a few other items, and seem worry of some attention. I might add it to my to-do list, as I haven't seen their significance discussed before. The scribes seem to render them specifically to the right of the horizontal to avoid any confusion with a PA ligature...

  4. " I shall also direct the attention of my readers to the fact that the Phaistos Disc also has a sign (Pha *04) that depicts a 'captive' or 'slave'."

    Given the Phaistos Disc has never been translated (and is unlikely to ever be, unless we find some more of the script, if it is a script), it is certainly not a "fact" that that symbol represents anything.

  5. On your second picture, out of the 5 hieroglyphs only the first and the fourth are real 046 hiero-signs. The second is a jumping monkey; the third is a windbag, – an Irish bagpipe-like – on the CHIC facsimile you can even see the air coming out at the reed end.
    Most of the hieros are drawings of simple everyday items; this one is not any exception, being a tool for carving arches and full circles: the middle, thicker part is the handle, on one side is the arm which fixes the tool to the surface and on the other side is the blade which incises the surface. This blade can be adjusted with the clearly visible screw. Its phonetic value is V (for Vájó ‘gouge’, Wedge).
    By the way, the “trowel” sign is a burning wick/candle and its value is _G (éG).
    With a slight paradigm change, – by taking hieros for what they are: picture-writing elements – a whole new world opens in front of you. Hiero is any picture you can draw with enough certainty and clarity for your readers to recognise and name it. Naming is necessary for applying the acrophonic or rebus principles. It is not a sine qua non for a hiero to have an equivalent in LinA or in other scripts. The 046 hiero and the 301 LinA signs are pictures. 301 is a linear drawing of a swinging/flying string/flag on a pole, and its phonetic value is L (for Leng).
    You are putting to much weight on resemblance of signs: the English P is a Russian R; C has a couple of phonetic values in English, but neither is the same as its only one in Hungarian.

    To Nick: the “fact” is that symbol by its nature symbolizes something. What you meant to say is that in a picture-writing not every picture-sign counts, some are only decorations. But which ones? And who to tell, you or the scribe? I know, you will decide which picture-signs to read and in what order (normalization!), because you know better. The poor scribe cannot complain anymore for this late censorship!

  6. Just to make some things clear: Although the reading of Cretan Hieroglyphic documents is as of yet uncertain, there are a number of clear facts: (1) Hieroglyphic Minoan uses an even lower number (approx. 70) of symbols than Linear A (but more than a pure alphabet), so it must be a (simple) syllabary, like the later scripts. (2) Also, Hieroglyphics were ancestral to the Linear scripts, preceding them chronologically. Do not forget, though that Hieroglyphics continued to be used on stamps and signet-rings while Linear A slowly took over its role in administration. A good parallel is found in the evolution of the Egyptian writing system: The scribes kept the original, pictorial images on decorative applications, while simplifying the script for the purpose of writing on scrolls. The latter evolution led to the emergence of Hieratic and Demotic scripts.

    The direct comparison of Cyrillic and Latin scripts is not scientifically valid, because the two systems are not direct descendants of each other. On the other hand, Linear A is a descendant of Hieroglyphic Minoan. While the signs of the Phaistos Disc may appear excentric, they are not exotic. Certain items, such as the Axe of Akalochori or some signet-rings show a transitional style of writing, falling in-between Linear A, Hieroglyphics, and the 'Disc-style'. This phenomenon can only be adequately explained, if all these scripts were merely stylistic variants of the same, single, core Minoan writing system.

  7. I've been thinking about the possibility of decapitation. Based on what I've read (and there's always more to read than I can keep up with...), I think we have too little archaeological evidence for this conclusion.

    If there was a symbol for decapitation, then it would have to serve some official purpose - sacred or perhaps judicial ...

    We've got the ready-for-sacrifice body at Anemospilia which did indeed have evidence of being tied (heels were almost touching his thighs). I'm not so sure about the forensics here, but I don't think a 400g 40cm knife could accomplish a decapitation? Given the forensic evidence of the coloring of the bones, it appears as with animal sacrifices that they were draining the blood from the body. It's our only evidence of a sacred human sacrifice, and there's no evidence of decapitation.

    Alternately, it could be decapitation as capital punishment, but I don't think we have any archaeological evidence for that either?

    Have you read anything on the burial process of the non-wealthy? I've gotten the feeling in my past readings that there's not nearly enough bodies to account for the Minoans, like maybe cremation, burial at sea or funerary cannibalism were a part of their culture. However, I have not dedicated myself to a study on this topic so I can't speak to it in any useful way (yet!).

  8. Since from what i have read on this Blog about this symbol appearing when libations are taking place this could put the sign in a religious context. I put forth a suggestion that it could refer to human sacrifice and the circle could be the blood or container for it. Also wind seems to feature on one of the versions on the Blog which was certainly worshipped and connected to sacrifice. Also there seems to have been a greater incidence of this sort of offering after the major upheavals due to natural causes on Crete during the bronze age.

  9. Your logic is good, dear Bayndor, but you should check your premises. You know the GIGO principle …
    - Your first of the 5 hieros is from #257. On this 3 sided prism, CHIC and Younger lists 7 hieros. As a matter of facts, there are some more: on side a. there is the ‘cat’ and the ‘snake’; on side b. there are 025 T-s and couple of ‘arcs’, and on side g. the ‘spirals’, the rounded versions of the 035 S signs, are all ignored and, of course, there is the head of your decapitated slave, a ‘circle’. With other texts, the selection of – to CHIC and/or Younger sympathetic signs – a kind of censorship is even more severe.
    - But let it be 70 (or 90 from an earlier count of yours), counted on 330 very short inscriptions, coming from just a few localities, written in a very short period of time (only days before the accidental firing from the palace destruction) and coming from some very fragmented texts. Compared this to the Egyptian hieroglyphic volume and time span to number ratio is actually quite a large number.
    - Don’t mix the relation between Minoan Hieroglyphics and LinA, and the relation of the two to other scripts, like LinB.
    - Minoan Hieros and LinA are contemporary to the Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdom writings. Why are you than comparing them always to the late LinB, which was composed in one moment of time for a different, new language?
    - By saying that all the scripts are stylistic variants of the same, one would expect to add all this signs up in a count, if the number is that important.
    I could even agree with you that the comparison of Cyrillic and Latin is not very scientific, but there was a second part to that sentence, and I’m not sure that the relation between LinA and LinB is much closer than for the above two, are you?

  10. Hi, I have talked about this sign with Kim and she showed this picture it reinforced my thinking that it may be sacrificial in nature and it also made me think that in the small picture you have in this post {the top left of three pictures} the object to the left looks like the handwashing pedestal in the jpg and swirls could be the winds that are being sacrificed to. Am i right in thinking that this practice increased during times of danger. Wasn't Thera within the Linear A period ?.

  11. After looking at your post about The Libation Formula and studying John Youngers website i have been wondering if sign 301 could mean Supplicant see example below.

    document T/A-TA-I-301- or TA-NA-I-301 Place Name? Personal Name? J/A-SA-SA-RA U-NA-RU-KA-NA-SI (Verb?) I-PI-NA-MA SI-RU-TE I-NA-JA-PA-QA
    PK Za 12 A-TA-I-301-WA-JA A-DI-KI-TE[ ] SI-[ JA-SA-SA-]RA-ME[ ]A-[ ]-NE U-NA-RU-KA[ ]JA-SI A-PA-DU-PA-[ JA[ JA-PA-QA

    Could it be Supplicant of {Place name}, {Personal name} etc. The reason i suggest this is because in the pictures you have on the blog about 301 look like someone being suppliant . As i am new to this i would appreciate any feedback.

  12. I don't think sign Lin A *301 would qualify as a logogram. Just because we have been unable to pinpoint its Linear B correspondent, we should not declare it a logogram. In most cases, Lin A *301 is clearly a phonetic sign (a syllabogram), often occurring in a medial position within words. However, the tablets themselves contain a high number of abbreviations, and there are hundreds (!) of roundels with a mere 'KU', 'TA', 'RO' or 'SI' written on them. Most of these abbreviations were used systematically: for example 'DI' was regularly used for a name (perhaps for the place-name DI-NA-U), while 'SI' abbreviated the name of a certain agricultural commodity. Because many Linear B tablets also used such "short notations" (e.g. transaction term 'O' for O-PE-RO [οφείλων = 'owing']), we should better accept that such abbreviations have always belonged to the Cretan scribal tradition - no matter how ambiguous are they now, almost three and a half millennia later.

  13. It seems to me there is an interesting possible progression of A301 towards LB AB55 / SO. A301 in its more linearized form, like on IOa8, and AB55 on HT9a & HT9b shows how the left line of AB55 can be very curved, much like A301.

    I think A301 as LB SO is more likely than as LB TI or any of the other triangle-based LB symbols like PI, WI, etc., at any rate.

  14. See also A324 ... it both has this left curve and, in my mind, somewhat complicates matters in an interesting way because it resembles some of the renderings of the logogram for MU / ox.

    I need to drop back to GORILA v. 5 at the library to see on which artefact(s) A324 appears before I comment further ...

  15. Hi Andras,

    Quick question for you if i may. If you were cross referencing one language against another what sort of percentage of symbols would you need to match in both languages for there to be a possibility that the two languages are related ?. Sorry the question is a bit wordy.

  16. Hi Dr Andras,

    Do the syllables RE-RI-PA3 mean anything backwards or forwards or even a very similar word. I ask as i have looked at sealstone and as yet i cannot read the language.

    Many Thanks,


  17. I keep reading about invocations and the mother goddess. Do we have in Linear A or B the name of Europa or an earlier derivation. Not just mother goddess her actual name. I would interested to know.

  18. Sorry for my long absence; I will attempt to give all answers in a single post. First, I do not think that a "Swadesh-list"-like approach could be validly applied to extinct languages, to determine their relationships. If attempting to infer the words from an imperfect writing system (like Linear A), the chances of getting a previously unknown stem correctly are equally low. Therefore I would refrain from using such methods. Even if a considerable vocabulary is known, the relationships are better determined by grammatic comparisons (e.g. only a small fraction of Hittite words are actually Indo-European, but this does not mean we cannot classify the Hittite language securely as Indo-European).

    Please be more specific with the items you read inscriptions from: this way I can give very little confirmation if a reading is plausible or not. When I checked the databases, I was unable to find any object with the exact text RE-RI-PA3.

    As for the theonym 'Europa', I would like to point out that this term is an undoubtedly Greek feminine name (="wide-eyed"). Unfortunately, we know very little of the earlier Minoan or Mycenean religious tradition, to determine if a version of that myth already existed at that time, or it was a later invention.

  19. Bayndor's response just reminded me to go check my notes on Europa. They're limited.

    Willetts 1962 gives evidence of Europa largely long after the Minoan and Mycenaean era:

    - 5th century BCE Europa as a bull on coins at Gortyna and Phaistos; Europa on coins at Kyzikos
    - 220 BCE Europa on coins at Knossos
    - 202-111 BCE Europa on coins at Sidon, Phoenicia
    - the cult of Demeter Europa was at Lebadeia

    I love the way Willetts writes, and it's one of the more affordable books on the topic (though old so potentially out-of-date in a few places). The Civilization of Ancient Crete.

  20. I found RE-RI-PA3 on the Daidalika website and then choosing the languages sub header. At the bottom of the page there is a heading An introduction to Cretan hieroglyphics which when clicked brings up a pdf document. On the last page of the document at the bottom of the middle column there seems to be a seal stone with the three different signs mentioned above. On that as well would it be possible that at this early stage the PA3 symbol could actually be the NU symbol which then got simplified later like some of the signs. If so that would spell RE-RI-NU which is very close to Earth Goddess Erinu possible precursor to Demeter. Once again Andras i thank you very much for answering because other than the books i am reading you guys are the only other place i can learn and it is much appreciated.

  21. Actually, Bayndor, Europa can also mean "wide-faced" since ὤψ referred also to 'face' and 'appearance', not just the eyes.

    I've also addressed Bipolar Boy's same question on my own blog. I really start to wonder if the name Europa is not a Greek translation of a Minoan name using a possible noun *amáira 'face'.

  22. Also, note Greek Ἀμαρία (Amaría), an epithet of Athena of Achaea. This confirms my suspicions of an underlying Minoan term for 'face' here. (Athena may be linked with the moon, btw.)

  23. Well, the sign clearly resembles LB jo, just turned on 90 degrees. As far as I know, there is no Linear A counterpart for LB jo found yet.