Friday, April 22, 2011

Gleaning Cretan place-names from Linear A tablets

After a lengthy absence, I have returned once again to share you some novel pieces of research. About four months ago, I started am ambitious project aimed at classifying most of the terms, especially names occurring in the Linear A corpus. My chief aim was to separate place-names from personal names and (at least approximately) annotate most of the words. But how could one determine the meaning of the Minoan terms by any certainty, given the small size (less than a thousand complete words) of the corpus?

Fortunately, the tablets themselves offer the key. The enduring scribal tradition, that also dictated the form of Linear B tablets, had born centuries earlier: despite being in a different language, and much more compressed, Linear A tablets were built around essentially the same principles as their late Linear B children. Most of the tablets record items - typically agricultural goods - collected as tax, marked by the name of their donors. But there are other topics as well: Just like in Linear B, certain Linear A tablets record the workforce at the disposal of the kingdom. These people-listing tablets come in three main varieties. Some of them list people by their place of origin, containing city-names as entries. Others list people by their gender, age or profession. And, last but not least, some Knossos Linear B tablets count people individually, by name.

It is relatively easy to pin-point toponyms in Linear B texts - even if the people mentioned have more than one qualifier - because of the very characteristic Greek adjectives in -JO or -JA or the dedicated allative (-DE) and locative cases. The numbers and other terms can also help to identify the listing principles: If the commodity is 'VIR' (men) and all numerals are '1', then the terms listed at each entry are most commonly personal names. If the tablet lists multiple 'VIR' per entry, then the terms are most commonly place-names. In some rare cases, there are higher than one 'VIR' quantities listed besides terms that describe professions, rather than places; in the latter case, terms are frequently ligatured or abbreviated.

Although Linear A tablets are much shorter, typically containing single-term entries in all contexts (on tablets dealing with taxes or payments as well as those assessing the workforce available), we can still use the above principles to identify their precise context. Most improtantly, we can identify a number of tablets with multiple 'VIR' entries, counting more than one human subject/term. It is utterly tempting to believe that at least some of these tablets deal with places of provenience. If we would be able to distinguish which ones, we would be able to draw a map of Minoan Crete!

My first table shows expressions that appear to be place-names, using the principle above. Interestingly, some of these terms also admit a nice interpretation as places, when compared with known Linear B toponyms. Examples include city names like PA-I-TO = Phaistos or KU-DO-NI = Kydonia / Khania (KU-DO-NI-JA in Lin B).

There is still one powerful tool to identify the meaning of entries on the Cretan clay tablets: this is overall context. Since most of the tablets are just simple lists, if we can ascertain the meaning of neighbouring entries, we can also have a good guess at those not yet identified. Thus if we identified some terms as place-names on a tablet dealing with taxes or workforce, there would be a very good chance, that the remaining, unidentified entries are also toponyms - and not personal names or profession-groups.

In my next collection, I listed the terms (names) that co-occur with those on Table #1. Unfortunately, I had to ommit many "absolute hapaxes" (single names with unique form, without any recognizable similarity to others), otherwise the table would have been too long. I also intentionally left out three further terms (KA-PA, KA-RU and A-KA-RU). These have the nasty tendency of frequntly occupying the initial position of tablet-headers, thus they are very likely transaction terms, not proper places. The remaining list still contains plenty of intriguing terms - many of them showing semi-regular variations (declensional forms?), that might be interpreted as case endings (locatives, elatives, allatives) or adjectives (ethnics).

One might have noticed, that most of my examples come from the Haghia Triada archive. That is because the fragmentary nature of most other archives does not enable us to conduct true contextual analyses. In absence of any other clue, we may still identify some toponyms, merely by comparing them to Linear B or Classic Era place-names known from Crete. On my last table, the the results of such a comparison are listed (only those terms are displayed, that have not been mentioned on previous lists).

Although the last list is the least reliable, it does feature most of the terms we would expect to be featured: the names of the holy mountains, and (although tentatively), names of many large townships. What is surprising, though, is the meager overlap between Linear A and Linear B terms, and the fact that most identifiable place-names on the Haghia Triada tablets refer to Western Cretan localties. We shall look into these matters to a much greater depth in the following posts!


  1. Very interesting posts. I was reading about Linear A recently and found your blog. Please keep up. Thanks.

  2. I've been assuming MA-DI stands for *Máθia [ˈmaðiə̯], hence Malia (Μάλια).

  3. MA-DI could have been Mallia as well. You were absolutely right to point out that many Minoan toponyms ending in -i or -e were regularized in Greek with the addition of a -ja ending. Thus we would expect a form *MA-DI-JA or *MA-TI-JA in Linear B, but it is not found. We should not forget, however, that Mallia is a modern place-name, the ancient name of the location is unknown. What little I can understand from the Linear A context of MA-DI, suggests that it was probably reasonably close to Phaistos. The term is very common on the Haghia Triada and Phaistos tablets, but not seen at Khania, Zakros, or at the rather fragmentary Knossos archive. Matalon ( = modern Matala - once the seaport of Phaistos) is a rather bad candidate based on phonology, but at least its name is likely preserved since the ancient era. That is all I can tell at the moment.

  4. The choice of Matalon needs to be explained better. For me, I still think that "D" in the transcription is reflecting actual [ð]. Even if "Malia" fails to be ancient, recall Μαλίς which is confirmed to be old.

    And given a hypothetical *Máθia in Minoan, I would expect rather Linear B MA-RI where "R" is for Greek /l/ to approximate the foreign edh-sound. Is Linear B MA-RI attested somewhere perhaps?

  5. Indeed we do have a Linear B place-name MA-RI, occurring at least 4 times on the Knossos tablets [according to G.R. Hart, 1965]. None of these list other places, yet the owners (of flocks) recur on other tablets, mentioning towns like RA-SU-TO, SU-RI-MO and MA-SO-MO. Unfortunately, the precise locations of these are not known - yet if RA-SU-TO has anything to do with the modern Lasithi plateau, they should lie south-east from Knossos. When we look at the 'meta-context' (i.e. the whole graph of co-occurring toponyms), we find places in the neighbourhood like WI-NA-TO (Inatos), U-TA-NO (Itanos?) and RU-KI-TO (Lyktos) - in full accordance with the hypothesis that MA-RI lies in mid-eastern Crete, probably beyond the Diktaian range.

  6. After browsing the Barrington Atlas (and its entries), I found out that there was a place called Malla, known today as Males, on south-eastern Crete, not far from Biannos. Not sure if they found any Minoan ruin near the village, though.

  7. Congratulations on a beautifully illustrated blog site for LA.
    I believe your toponym net may be too large (first post), although most probably all are proper names.
    On HT 13, one out of three ain’t bad (see Re-Za- and Te-Ki below)
    So here goes:
    Te-Ki = Te-Ke is well known site (north of Knossos)
    Re-Za is a known site south of Chania = (Minoan Ki-Do-Ni) that today grows oranges (?)
    The above site is important because it has an A-Du (A-Du-Re-Za), similar to the A-Du word commonly referenced at Haghia Triada.
    I am conflicted as to Adu = admin site or admin person? (Cyrus Gordon thought it was a morphed form of the WSemitic storm god Haddad/Baal, sorry Gordon, no cigar!)
    Ki-Ni-Su (Semitic, probably pronounced “Ki-Ni-Shu”) is something you eat, not where you reside.
    And you missed the most important (informative?) sequence of toponyms:
    Ma-Ka-Re-Te (300 yards north of Knossos)
    Ki-Re-Ta-Na = Gortyna
    Se-Ki-Re-Ta (located in the Amari Valley?)
    Pan-Ka-Ra-Te (is that a Benjamin word!)
    Any takers on the root?

  8. I see that A-DU-RE-ZA seems to be two words, A-DU (isn't that used to mark the beginning of some of the tablet transactions? Something like "Bill Of Goods"?) and your proposed location name RE-ZA.

  9. If DA-RE, JA-MI-DA-RE and SI-DA-RE are indeed toponyms, I think they're excellent candidates to examine as compound toponyms, like ZE-I-JA-KA-RA-NA and KE-I-JA-KA-RA-NA in Linear B.

    Tangentially, RE: ZE vs. KE in the above Linear B, some additional thoughts:

  10. Note the glyph to topography correspondence.
    Expand on it. Follow this through...
    Don't focus on sounds, focus on the concept OF the glyph. Each word then becomes an abbreviated sentence, idea, noun or verb, etc. Not far different than our abbreviated text messages of today. Mind, if you had to write everything in stone you would take every shortcut possible, wouldn't you?

    I started with the "Rondels". It was clear to me these were "stamps" for goods that were sold or traded. The "leg" and "axe" are really "arm" and "hammer"...Baking Soda! Hence, I believe, this language actually HAS been translated, and is being withheld, contorted, unnecessarily confused by academic rhetoric. Crete was THE universal trade center at one time, and the language needed to be so simple anyone who arrived at port could understand it.

    I've been playing with this concept for a while,
    and it works well - even with Greek.