Basically, there can be several problems with the reading of a Linear A document (I assumed that you are familiar enough with the Aegean syllabaries in order to be able to read it): First, the tablet can be physically damaged, or be rendered illegible by improper scribal work (erasures, corrections). But even if it is otherwise well readable, the compressed context (and hard-to-interpret words) can make reading a real nightmare. I decided to break this lengthy topic into two parts: so I shall leave the "logical games" for the next time.
To begin, let us take a look at the tablet HT6. This is a tablet with quite a mixed context: Side A lists a variety of commodities (probably foodstuffs: figs and other edible materials) linked to a few names, while the tablet clearly switches to a simple list (of one commodity) on side B. To be more precise, this change in context already starts on the first side, following the entry referring to goods associated to the name DA-QE-RA. All the further entries on side B thus must refer to either PI-TA (bread?) or NI (figs), due to the "continuity principle" (as established by J. Younger). Though we cannot determine the exact goods, it is certain that all the names mentioned are somehow connected to food supplies. A few entries are definitely references to towns. Unfortunately, it cannot be decided whether some of the names are personal ones or all refer to places; though they could also plausibly be a mixture of these two. Nevertheless, tablet HT6 shall be a good example to illustrate how damage (wear, abrasion, breaks and missing pieces) cause problems in reading.
On side B, the first two names are easy to make out, but problems start to mount from the third one onwards. This term (name) spells at first sight as MA-RI-?-I (reading suggested by Olivier, Godart & Younger). It is pretty hard to identify the third sign of this sequence. It looks faintly like a malformed 'I', although the Lin A *28 signs never have a downward-directed right stroke like this. Olivier and Godart tried to suggest 'RE' (this is also how they presented it on the GORILA's official facsimile), but the sad truth is, it is nowhere near *27 (RE) in shape. Because of these difficulties, John Younger did not even try to read this sign. I also suggest the dear reader to ponder a bit on the problem before looking at the solution.
The answer to this question is provided by a simple observation. The table is badly abraded at both of its right and left side on many spots. That's why the baseline of the 'RI' sign is missing. But the same abrasion also covers the lower left end of our mysterious sign. Only a very faint crack is left. Once we draw that small trace with full width, we get the answer. The "mystery sign" is nothing but an ordinary 'KE', a bit damaged, but still legible. One should also note that the 'I' sign is in fact not a plain Lin A *28, but - observing the strokes above its right extension - it is the sign what Godart and Olivier labelled as *28b. Based on its distinct usage pattern, and its undeniable similarity to Linear B *43 (I3 or AI), I would propose to read it as 'JI'. The difference between this and the ordinary 'I' might be negligible, but 'JI' would fit the junctional rules (E-I → E-J) a slightly bit better. These observations yield the reading MA-RI-KE-JI for this name: simply and clearly. Logically, it should be a name, possibly a personal name, being a hapax (though I am not immediately swayed by random parallels like Semitic *mlk = 'king').
But the true riddles just start here! Immedietaly after MA-RI-KE-JI, the text seem to end abruptly. However, the traces of a '1/2' numerical sign following the three clearly visible strokes warns us that the text is probably abraded, but the row is not empty. The faint traces on this part probably belong to two additional syllabary characters, that start the word readable in the next line. The abraded pieces of lines are themselves perfectly compatible with the reading KU-DO-NI. The rest of the phrase reads DA-MA. This is not a compound word: the word-separator dot is small, but clearly visible after KU-DO-NI (placed to the base of the sign, as on side A). While KU-DO-NI is clearly a place-name (= Lin B KU-DO-NI-JA, modern Khania), the meaning of DA-MA is less clear: nevertheless, it does resemble the stem of Linear A words DA-ME [HT86, HT95, HT120] and DA-MA-TE [libation vessel KY Za2]. The following word is equally tricky to read: it consists of merely two signs (the traces before it belong to an 'L2' fraction sign (number), possibly 2/15), but the first one is damaged. Following the traces on the abraded surface, a 'TE' sign would be the most reasonable reconstruction. This yields a name TE-KI, which is - again - a toponym (perhaps denoting the ancient Greek town of Tegea on western Crete, near Khania). The text continues with further putative tomponyms, such as SA-MA [HT10, HT52] and PA3-NI-NA (as on HT93, an adjectival form of PA3-NI [HT85, HT102]). The last two lines also show traces of erasures: the 'MA' sign of SA-MA was erased, and then re-written, similarly, before the PA3 of PA3-NI-NA, there are traces of an erased sign, probably KU, but it was later completely overwritten with numbers belonging to SA-MA.
|A-DU • *307+*307 (women?) • |
VIR (people) • DA-RI-DA
|KI (=KI-RO?) • KI-RA-JA •|
To verify our corrected list, we should turn to other - much better preserved - toponym lists. The best counterpart could be HT85 (see the table above). Not only many of the terms seen on the second part of HT6 recur here, but their relative order and grouping is also similar. Here, KU-DO-NI is directly followed by TE-KE (=TE-KI), just like on HT6. These two terms also directly stand next to each other on HT13 - the tight association of the two places could be very elegantly explained by the geographic proximity of Khania (Kydonia) and Kissamos (Tegea). But this is not the only pair repeated here. Though a much more obscure term, WA-DU-NI-MI is also paired with RE-DI-SE (=RA-TI-SE?). While I have no idea of the identity of the former, the latter name could easily be a declined form of RA-DU [HT58, probably also on the toponym list HT122], the name for ancient Lato (Lin. B RA-TO), near modern Aghios Nikolaos. RA-TI-SE and RE-DI-SE could both be slightly erroneously written versions of *RA-DI-SE then (c.f. QA-RA2-WA [HT86] which is undoubtedly equal to QE-RA2-U [HT95] as the rest of the two lists are the same). Note that HT 85 also contains plenty of abbreviations. While the sole KI sign on the header of side B is probably an abbrevation for KI-RO (=missing), other single syllables likely stand for well-known places: PA = PA-I-TO (Phaistos), KA = KA-NU-TI (?) and DI = DI-NA-U (?). All these three re-occur on HT97, where two of the three are written out in full (save DI, which is probably DI-NA-U [as on the toponym list HT9]). This slacky habit of Minoan scribes to abbreviate commonly used names is unique to Linear A; Mycenaean Greek scribes using Linear B had more strict rules and names were never abbreviated to a single syllable.
Lists counting persons are just as common in Linear A as in B, but they attempt to be as compact as possible. The scribes were often so absorbed in this goal, that they also sacrificed clarity for shortness, leaving behind considerable ambiguity. In some cases, the context can still help to solve these issues: for example, what could a sign 'NI'(*30) mean? First, and foremost, it can designate a type of goods, namely 'figs'; but it can also abbreviate transaction terms and even names. Because of the context, we can almost be certain that it meant the fruits on tablets like HT6, but it is an abbreviated transaction term on HT88 and HT99 (in contrary to the opinion of J. Younger, these tablets almost certainly count people as shown by the consistently integer values and have nothing to do with figs).
But it is not just the wear of centuries that can cause troubles at reading. The slack of certain scribes is definitely a contributory factor. The tablet HT29 shall be a good example of this. This small clay piece if full of erasures, hastily-written, malformed signs in irregular lines. As the scribe tried to salvage a tablet by erasing its previous contents, he sometimes unconsciously re-used earlier, half-visible strokes. The result is a complex maze of lines, parts of half-erased and rewritten signs. There is no surprise why all scholars had problems when attempting to read this document. But we shall see soon, that some names written on this tablet are fortunately not unique and thereby reconstructible by comparing the sign-groups with those on other, better-looking documents.
When attempting a reading, we already run into difficulties right at the first line. Although the term RU-MA-TA can be read with some effort (this name is also seen on HT99), the upper right corner of the tablet is broken off, preventing us to identify any logogram describing the goods assessed. But the strictly integer numbers themselves already suggest that it may count people; the suspect is just reinforced when finding traces of an earlier, erased VIR sign just at the initial position. So we may relatively safely assume that the numbers refer to people (just as Schoep has suggested) - and as we shall see soon - many of the names (entries) are probably places.
While the fourth term on this list can be easily identified as PA-JA-RE (also found on HT8 and HT88) despite its last sign being missing, the second and third names are a real headache. As they are apparently hapaxes and both miss some signs (on the broken-off segment), they cannot be restored with any level of certainty. And we are also plagued by the fact that some of the visible signs are in fact re-used fragments of erased ones, frequently making them nearly unidentifiable. One of the possible readings of the second line is ?-DA?-QI?, with the 'DA' sign seemingly being a salvaged upper part of an erased *310 one. The last sign here is so malfomed we cannot be certain of its reading, either. I only put 'A' as the hypothetic missing initial syllable, because a word exists on the Khania tablets (KH92: A-DA-QI-RI) that faintly resembles this garbled one.
The third name is much better legible, but it still has at least one initial syllable missing (as judged from the size of the broken fragment). Fortunately, the erasures that make our life hard, now also offer some help. In most cases of tablets with visible erasures (as on HT86), the erased text contains the same or almost the same entries as the latter one. HT29 is no different in this regard. Actually, behind the syllabograms 'DI', 'JA' and 'I', we can regognize earlier traces of the same, hinting that this name was erased, but then the scribe re-wrote it to almost exactly the same spot. Careful examination also reveals that an additional sign was originally also written in this line, right before the other three: judged by its shape, it was possibly JE, so we may use this information to reconstruct this term as JE?-DI-JA-I (still a hapax, and hard to interpret).
From the fouth line, we have an easier job. Not that the signs were written with more clarity: The fourth word reads as either SA-?-RE or SA-?-SI at the first sight. The middle sign was interpreted as a somewhat misshapen *323 logogram by Godart and Olivier. But at a closer look, it rather resembles a hastily-written 'MA' sign (the 'cat head'), to which the sloppy scribe simply forgot to add the ears and eyes. This means that the word recorded here was probably SA-MA-RE, a declined version of the putative place-name SA-MA [HT10, HT52, also SA-MA-TI on HT39]. Again, the erasures reinforce our reading: traces of earlier, erased 'MA' and 'RE' signs are discernible somewhat right from the actual term (this also helps to make clear that the last sign was indeed 'RE', and not 'SI'.)
Immediately thereafter we can see another suspicious term. This was read as ?-KI-TA by J. Younger. Godart and Olivier even labelled the misshapen initial syllabogram with a novel identifier as *340. But this one really looks like the upper half of a well-known *306 sign - of which the lower half was accidentally erased by the scribe, when plowing over the next line to be obliterated. If so, the reading was originally intended to be *306-KI-TA or WO-KI-TA - perhaps unsurprisingly - another place-name. This time again, the traces of all 'WO', 'KI' and 'TA' are also visble under the erasure, shifted rightwards with two positions (partly under the next word).
The last two words appear to be hapaxes, and - as a consequence - difficult to ascertain. The logic of erasures - both A-RE-DA?-I and QA?-DU-MA-NE were re-written while shifting leftwards - still helps a bit. Since there is a nicely visible erased 'RE', and there was clearly an 'I' sign behind the 'DU', it is probable that the sign at the beginning of line 5 is a superimposed image of an earlier 'DA' (that the scribe failed to erase) and another one with a rounded top, possibly 'QA'. Note that originally there was another term after WO-KI-TA (the 'SI' is still visble under the 'RE' of A-RE-DA?-I), but it was later completely removed from the list after a revision. This way, most of the erased remnants of QA?-DU-MA-NE were not overwritten (the earlier 'MA' and the 'NE' can still be found with some effort).
Thus we have seen, that it is possible to read at least some of the names on this garbled tablet. But to decipher the true meaning behind these names, it is obligatory to look at the Zakros tablets. Interestingly, both SA-MA and PA-JA-RE recur on the the same list (ZA10), that lists donors of cheap wine (VINb). RU-MA-TA is also seen in the form RU-MA-TA-SE (declined variant, genitive?) on ZA20. The wide variety of goods per name, their consistent grouping and the considerable geographic distances between archives taken into account, these names are less likely to be persons (unless they are extremely common personal names, unlike even Linear B Greek ones), and much-much more likely to be places. This appears to be a striking difference between Linear A and B: Mycenaeans were more "individualistic", in the sense that their accounting also recorded the names of persons, while it mostly sufficed for Minoans to only state the place of origin or destination when speaking about groups of persons, taxes, gifts, supplies, or other types of deliveries.