Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Exploring the patterns on the (in)famous Phaistos Disc

Here I am again, back to blogging after a brief pause - the FIFA football (soccer) world championship can really make one attach to the TV screens - even if your own country's team is not playing...
For everyone's favour, I am returning to the Phaistos Disc. This is an all-time hot topic of fame-hungry amateur would-be decipherers and pseudo-linguists, so I promise to be as cautious and methodical as possible. We have to maintain a strictly scientific appproach even when half of the world love to think otherwise. Just to make clear: my objective here is not to "read" the disc word-by-word, but to understand a bit more of its structure, and thereby - so I hope - reveal something of its true meaning.

After a brief look at the disc, it becomes clear that the text recorded here is strikingly repetitive. Not only words are repeated, but entire phrases, even complete sentences. As problematic these repetitions in interpretation might be, they enable us to reconstruct the sentence-boundaries on the disc. The rules are quite simple: Whenever a complete phrase starts to repeat, it is at the start of a new sentence. Pertial repetitions may hint at parts of a compound sentence. With this method, we can get a structured version of the disc's contents (see the next figure below):

The disc actually contains two almost equally long texts. The texts occupy the shape of two snakes, and seem to be continuous from one side to the other. Though side A was historically considered to be the initial one by Evans, just looking at the repetitions of words (the first invocation on side B overflows to side A) suggests that the first side where the text starts is actually side B. The structure of the text is quite unique: After one or two long sentences (that I labelled introduction) a strongly repetitive part starts, perhaps 3 or 4 sentences long. The rich use of many special terms, conjunctions and pronouns in these repetitive parts inspired me to call them invocations (more on that later). This overall pattern is repeated two times - once on side B and once on side A. If we use a technique similar to what bioinformatics call "sequence alignment", the structure of the disc is even more easier to oversee:

This structural grouping reveals plenty of interesting features. First of all, there are the words marked with a 'wedge'. Markings of this sort were common in contemporary writing systems, for example, in Cuneiform Hittite, wedges ("Glossenkeil") were used for foreign words, like modern-day single or double quotes. In Egyptian, the ring-like cartouche marks were used to emphasize personal names, just like a capitalization. The only question: what was the objective of the scribe when putting these markups on the disc to stress certain words? It is obvious that the markings are associated to certain words and stems, but not specific positions in a sentence, so they are not phonetic or 'rhythmic' marks. Some words can apparently loose their marking if their grammatical case changes. This makes the phenomenon similar to certain modern languages, that capitalize proper names in writing, but not their adjectival or other derivatives. (English is a bad example, but the ortography of my native language, Hungarian, behaves exacly that way.)

The hint that these markings could signify proper names comes from the other corner of the Aegean. The Enkomi Cylinder, the longest Cypro-Minoan document discovered so far, shows a slightly similar feature. Though word-divisors (•) are commonly used on Linear A documents to divide words, they quite often divide phrases only, with individual words written continuously together. A similar dot can be encountered on the Enkomi Cylinder, but strictly and exclusively after certain phrases. The dots do not divide words in this case: rather, they are markups for some important terms, very likely names (for example, TA-LA-KA and SA-RA-NI, the latter being suspiciously similar to the Philistine term for 'prince', seren). This leaves us to ponder if the wedges on the disc are actually appropriately modified word-divisor dots, featured only after names. So the markups are likely equivalents of the Egyptian cartouche - used to stress proper names or any other important term, object or title that can be interpreted as a name.

Our second most important revelation is that the words on the disc show both prefix and suffix elements. As I expressed it in many posts before, the 'prefixes' are typically of a pronominal nature in Linear A, in fact attached particles and not grammatic prefixes. On the other hand, the disc also yields a number of suffixes, some of which we are already familiar with: like the -TE suffix (*-(a)the), used in the context of place-names in Linear A (as a type of locative or elative case). Its counterpair, the -QE suffix is fully novel. Judged by their consistent contrasting, I would suggest a locative-like sense of meaning to the -QE suffix as well. It is pure speculation, but the difference of meaning between -TE and -QE could have been based on something simple, like distance contrasting (-TE pointing afar and -QE pointing near). This would explain why the -QE suffix is never encountered on administrative tablets. But no matter how enticing, we clearly need to understand the text better before drawing such conclusions. Alternatively, this suffix could also mark an adjectival derivative or a different case.

The prefix-like pronominal elements are certainly the most interesting features of the text, not only because of their frequency, but also their uniqueness. No Linear A text has ever yielded particles I-QE-, MA- or SA-. Their use here can perfectly be explained by a change in context: While the tablets are strictly accounting texts, the Phaistos Disc is of a very different nature. This is hinted at by the similarity of the MA- and SA- particles (possessive pronouns?) to the well-attested Linear A verbal endings in -MI (1st person sing.) and -SI (3rd person sing.). The I-QE- prefix I already analysed in a previous post: it seems to be a simple conjunction (...and...), too redundant to be featured in the tablets' compressed context. Although likely derived from a deictic *i-, it carries the meaning 'and' instead. Such shifts in meaning are not uncommon in languages: for example, there is the Hittite conjunction nu-, literally meaning 'now', but typically used in the sense of 'and'. Another strange parallel between Minoan and Hittite we find here is the (stylistically perhaps bad) habit to frequently start new sentences with a conjunction ('and') in otherwise fully coherent texts.

The cited prefix elements can easily be read because of the fairly unique 'cat head' (MA) and 'linen' (SA) signs of Linear A. Others are trickier: for example, there is the bell-shaped sign Pha *07. It is undoubtedly a prefix-like element too, but not that easy to read. We can approach it from several direction. If we took a pure statistical (position and frequency) approach, we would get the best parallel in Linear AB *57 = JA. This is what Thorsten Timm already suggested, but there is a problem: the shape of Lin AB JA sign is so different from Pha *07, that a direct derivation is impossible. On the other hand, if we sought for similarly shaped signs in Linear A, we could get the sign Lin AB *37 = TI as the best match: and that is also a reasonably good match based on the terminal-heavy distribution of Pha *07. Linear A sign *41 = SI has a similar distribution too, but a somewhat dissimilar shape. But there is still a minor problem with this approach: Hieroglyphics have no bell-shaped signs at all. To overcome this problem, we can apply a third approach: searching for signs (in Hieroglyphics) that depict the same object as Pha *07. As the most probable object it could be is a female breast, the Hiero sign *34 (depicting a pair of breasts), clearly corresponding to Lin AB *59 = TA offers itself as a viable parallel. Now there is a different problem: the disc does have a sign (Pha *14) similar to Lin AB TA in shape, but obviously not depicting a pair of breasts!

To sum up, it seems that the disc contains first person references as well as numerous instances of proper names and phrases never seen on the tablets. I have a growing feeling that it is fitting to see the Phaistos Disc as an early example of poetry, a hymn very likely serving a religious purpose (as hinted at by the snake-shape, an attribute of a certain Minoan goddess). Religious hymns and prayers very often combine a rigidly repetitive structure with a high frequency of first and second person pronouns. As a simple example, let me cite the Lord's Prayer (Anglican/Catholic traditional version, the pronouns are highlighted in bold):

Our father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
as on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead not us into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power
and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Kafkania Pebble - testament to the strangest of religious practices?

In this post, I will turn our attention to one of the more peculiar pieces of inscribed objects found at the Aegean. The object I speak of is not a tablet, not a vessel, not an idol, and not even a ring. It is a tiny piece of rock-chunk: the so-called Kafkania Pebble.

Discovered on the Greek mainland, near the small township of Kafkania (or more precisely, Kafkonia, Καύκωνία in modern Greek), a few miles from the site of ancient Olympia (Αρχαία Ολυμπία) in 1994, it immedietely received much attention. Because it is likely the oldest known inscription in Linear B (tentatively dated to the 17th century BC), what it got was not just attention, but also the scrutiny, and even the scorn of scholars. Many believed - just because of the circumstances the pebble was found - that it cannot be genuine. The inscription - while relatively easily legible - also resisted attempts of easy decipherment. Some sources (I do not want to cite the book) claimed that "no one has ever seen a Linear B document with a ridiculous radiant axe symbol" or that "it likely featured the name of its discoverers". But the case is unlike that of the fake Psychro tablet. Those who disparaged it should first take a look at the Idol of Monte Morrone and contemplate a bit on Linear A and Cypro-Minoan inscriptions. My mission is clear: what I attempt is to convince every reader who would have doubted its authenticity to understand the true background of this fascinating find!

Relatively recently, I came across a video on youtube, made from the presentation of Colin Renfrew on his excavations. Renfrew and his team spent a good deal of work excavating Cycladic sites: his most important discovery was a peak-sanctuary at the island of Keros. What they discovered was truely amazing: they have not only uncovered a temple, where the solid bedrock was somehow an object of worship - other, even stranger habits of Early Bronze-Age Cycladic people began to surface. Next to the temple (at Kavos), they discovered sacricial deposits containing fragments from hundreds if not thousands of marble statuettes. When examined, the sacrificed objects turned out to be originating from all around the Aegean, including the Greek mainland. The temple was built atop the tiny rocky island of Daskaliou, yet the stones that once fomed its walls were not local, but all imported; and - against any sense or rational reason - from a considerable distance. What is more, a huge quantity of small, round rock-chunks - that is, pebbles - were found at the site, most of them gathered nicely in a special round room. When examined, they turned out to be all of a foreign origin. Even Renfrew contemplated at this point, if the pebbles (that were all of a "standard" shape and size) were brought to the temple by visiting pilgrims as an act of worship.

This sort of ritual gift is still in use by some cults of modern era, although not for temples, but for graves. Take the example of Jewish burial customs. It is believed that by bringing a stone to the grave, one can contribute to it so the memory of the fallen shall remain ethernal. It does not takes much imagination to believe the same practice existed in some places of the Aegean, but not in the context of graves, rather in that of the sacred peak-sanctuaries.

Bringing pebbles to a sacntuary was a habit not limitied to the Cyclades. Most Minoan peak-sanctuaries contain a considerable quantity of pebbles (very likely of foreign origin), supposedly brought to the temple by followers visiting the shrine. Finding nice, rounded pebbles in a high mountaneous area, along with pottery shards, clay figurines and burnt ash are the main hallmarks archaeologists identify these hilltop shrines by. Up to date, at least 25 such sites were confirmed on Crete alone, and the number continues to grow.

Although the details of Kafkania site or the circumstances the pebble was found in are are hard to come across, and even detailed publications on the matter tend to be short and uninformative, the data I was able to glean seems to point to the fact that the Agrilitses Mound the pebble was found at, is a genuine peak-sanctuary, or a more generic sanctuary. It was apparently still in use in the Mycenean (Late Helladic) era. If so, then the conclusion seems clear: this pebble was the same as many thousand others, brought to the peak-sanctuaries by devout pilgrims. Just one difference: the man who brought this gift was a literate individual. He also wrought a tiny text into the pebble, in addition to the double-axe symbol.

Let us look at the artifact itself! First of all, the most prominent feature of the pebble is the huge double-axe symbol (compared to the syllabary signs). It is unlikely to be part of the script itself, but it still yields important clues on the nature of the artefact and the text. On the contemporary Crete (and likely also on the Mainland), the double-axes were a religious symbol: found on altars, paintings and carvings, even on jewellery depicting divinities. Because of this frequent usage, it is most probable that double-axes were not associated to a specific deity - rather, they seem to indicate a far more general concept: the presence of a god or divine power. It is also important to realize that the double-axe symbol was also part of the syllabary (Hieroglyphics as well as Linear A, even featured on the Phaistos Disc), with a phonetic value 'A'. I will present evidence here that it is not entirely beyond reason to suppose the double-axe symbols were (literally) an abbreviation to the Minoan word for 'god', 'divinity'. As for the "rays", there is nothing special about them: even the Minoan artists tend to draw surreal representations of the axe (e.g. two axes are often embedded within each other).

As for the text carved onto this tiny piece of stone, trouble is imminent: due to erosion of the surface, many symbols are damaged or barely visible. The only obvious observation is that we have 6 or 7 signs on one side (in two rows) and two further ones, below the double-axe with rays. The most widely accepted reading is (following Godart): A-SO-NA   QO-RO-QA and the reverse: QA-JO. It is interesting to see both the QO and the JO signs so typical of Linear B, but lacking from Linear A. Having studied the shape of these signs, I can confirm that their reading is correct: the shape of QO is identical to those on other Linear B documents, though the JO appears slightly different, somewhat archaic.

Unfortunately, some signs can only be read with doubt: the NA in the end of the first line is sometimes interpreted as DI (though I could not discern the sidestrokes characteristic of DI at all). Between the first and the second line, right before them there is a deep scratch - I am uncertain if it belonged to a (damaged, Linear A-like) RI sign continuing the first line, but (based upon the spacing) this is unlikely. In the second line, the secodn sign could also be KA (perhaps there is a circle around the strokes), but phonologically RO is much better (QO-KA-QA would be peculiar, if pronounceable at all). The last sign is barely visible, but was perhaps QA.

What does the text mean? This is the point when specialistst of Mycenean Greek and Linear B inscriptions begin to scratch their head. While QO-RO-QA could have been a proper name in Mycenan Greek (a lot of other names ending in -QA were found at Knossos and Pylos), the others do not admit a good meaning. Especially problematic is the phrase A-SO-NA. But if we look at it from a different perspective, taking all the Aegean scripts into consideration, not only Linear B, we might be able to get help. Because at Cyprus, on one of the Amathousian gravestones, the word A-SO-NA recurs, in a slightly different context: A-SO-NA • TU-KA • I-MI-NO-NA (a phase recurring twice in a longer text).

As for the meaning of A-SO-NA - if we looked outside of Greek as well - the Etruscan word aisuna (='divine') would offer itself as a viable parallel. Looking at the cited Eteocretan text, the meaning 'divine' can be fitted well with the context, if we equated TU-KA with Greek Tyche = Fortune (as a divinity, personification of luck). This way, the inscription would become: "I-MI-NO-NA [adj = of I-MI-N(O)] (blessed?) by divine Fortune".

Now, if we go back to the pebble, and plug this meaning in, we might be able to get a good reading of the text. Despite the fact that it features a Greek-like name QO-RO-QA (a theonym?), it uses the adjective A-SO-NA, and not I-JE-RO (hieros) that would be expected from a native Mycenean Greek speaker. Thus, while the shrine might have been that of a genuine Greek divinity, the person who left this pebble apparently spoke a different language. In the light of this revelation, we may also re-interpret QA-JO as a derivation of some Non-Greek Aegean verb. Endings of this kind (-o) are relatively common in Minoan words attested in Linear A (e.g. KI-RO), where they likely represent past participles (e.g. KI-RO = 'missed', KI-RI-SI = 'is missing'). Although this is nothing more than a wild theory (as we know no verb with QA- stem in Linear A), but it was nevertheless, worth considering. Alternatively (since it is on the reverse), the term QA-JO may not continue the text on the other side - it may be a simple epithet of the divinity, or even an abbreviation - who knows?