Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reconstructing the family tree of ancient Aegean writing systems

Before going astray and heading straight into Cypro-Minoan matters, I would like to discuss a small but important topic. This post will be about the evolution of the Aegean writing systems: Here, we will attempt to reconstruct their intimate historic connections as accurately as possible based on a rather fragmentary set of evidence available today.

Writing appeared rather suddenly on Crete, at the beginning of the so-called "Middle Minoan period" at the turn of the 2nd millenium BC. It coincided with profound changes in society and culture as well as the accelerated urbanization of the island. These changes are best exemplified by the architectural innovations (such as the ashlar masonry) leading to the construction of the so-called "Old palaces". There can be little doubt that the sudden surge in Minoan technology, arts and culture was triggered by the establishment of regular trade contacts with the advanced Middle Eastern civilizations. With Egypt being the single most influential empire of the region, it is no wonder that the earliest Minoan writing was clearly modelled after the Middle Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Although superficially indeed similar to Egyptian symbols, Cretan Hieroglyphs are clearly distinct in both form and phonetic value. Yet the biggest difference lies in the underlying system itself. Egyptian Hieroglyphs are part of a complex writing system, where most signs have more than one possible reading, dependent on context (similarly to the Japanese Kanji characters). Signs could have both a phonetic (single consonant or syllable) value or an ideogrammatic (word) reading, but could even be utilized as phonetic complements or logograms, "reinforcing" the reading of words they were attached to. As many of these duplicities could only be interpreted by a native speaker of Old Egyptian, this system was very difficult to utilize for speakers of foreign languages. Also, the Egyptian system had over 800 different signs, which is an extremely large inventory of symbols compared to Cretan Hieroglyphs (roughly 85 or so different signs are known). Minoan scribes apparently took only the concept of writing from Egypt, creating their own signs and simplifying the system so that it became almost fully phonetic. Such a low number of individual characters is uncharacteristic of the complex writing systems of the ancient Near East, but it is fully compatible with a simple syllabary (reminiscent of the modern Japanese Hiragana or Katakana writing). Thus we can safely assume that Cretan Hieroglyphs, similarly to all later Aegean writing systems, were already syllabic in nature.

Fig. 01: Family tree of Aegean writing systems.

Hieroglyphic Cretan script is mostly preserved on sealstones, but was also used on short clay tablets, bars and labels for the explicit purpose of administration. Other uses were rare; the longest contiguous Hieroglyphic text is found on the altarstone of Malia (in a religious context). As seals might have been used by several generations, it is difficult to judge when the use of the Hieroglyphic script came to an end. One thing is clear: After the rebuilding of the palatial complexes on Crete (with the advent of the so-called "New Palace Period") the Hieroglyphic script fell out of regular use. A new script has taken its place, called Linear A. The relationship of Linear A and Hieroglyphics is probably comparable to the relation between Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Hieratic/Demotic script. All currently available evidence suggests that the underlying system remained essentially the same; it is the shape of signs that suffered profound change due to graphical simplification.

Linear A was used much more extensively than Hieroglyphs. Hundreds of clay tablets, inscribed vessels, statues, altarstones and even jewelery testifies its daily use. The triumph of Linear A is also striking in a geographical sense: Wherever Cretan traders went, Linear A followed. Perhaps due to the simplicity of the syllabary, it quickly spread to other regions surrounding Crete. While regularly used on many Aegean islands, sporadic finds suggest that it also reached the Greek mainland as well as the island of Cyprus and the Syrian coast. In the Aegean region, Linear A eventually evolved into the much better known Linear B. Apart from a few newly introduced signs, the difference between the two linear scripts is merely stylistic; anyone skilled in reading the Linear B inscriptions can still read Linear A with relative ease. Their key difference lies not in the form, but in the language these scripts record: While Linear A inscriptions are evidence of a now-extinct bronze age language of Minoan Crete and the Aegean islands, most Linear B phrases are clearly Greek, an archaic dialect now termed as "Mycenaean Greek". Linear B was used at every important Mycenaean polity on the Greek mainland, yet the largest cache of clay tablets have been uncovered at Knossos, at the final destruction layer of the palatial complex (contrary to Evans, they more likely date to around 1200 BC, contemporary with the Pylos tablets). This is also the latest evidence of the use of Linear B: Knowledge of writing was apparently lost with the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization and the immigration of Doric tribes into southern Greece and the Aegean islands.

Fig. 02: Characteristic signs in Festive Linear A

Some enigmatic findings have also been uncovered on Crete that do not fit into the above, simple model of evolution. This mainly concerns two famous artifacts with inscriptions, the Phaistos disk and the Arkalochori axe. Although their signs are perfectly picture-like, thus reminiscent of Cretan Hieroglyphs, these are NOT written in Hieroglyphic. In fact, they constitute a poorly-recorded variant of Linear A, that I will here term as "Festive Linear A". It is very clear from several signs these inscriptions feature (namely, the "hairy head", the "cat head", the "flying eagle" and the "dotted column" signs) that they cannot be Hieroglyphic. There are no signs that would depict a flying bird in Cretan Hieroglyphic, but there is a clear Linear A sign (with phonetic value KU) with this exact shape. While a cat or a cat head is occasionally seen as a decorative element on sealstones, it is never used as a phonetic sign in any Hieroglyphic inscription; At the same time, the Linear A sign representing the syllable MA very closely resembles a cat's head.

Although it is difficult to read the earliest Cretan inscriptions, it is more-or-less clear that the linear A sign with the phonetic value I evolved from a Hieroglyphic sign depicting a hand with fingers. In Linear A, this sign is not just hand-like, it also resembles a hairy head. On both the Phaistos disc and the Arkalochori axe, the "hairy head" character very likely represents a vowel, and could essentially be identical to the Linear A "I" sign.  Judged by these examples, it seems that Festive Linear A was a throwback to the more picture-like representations seen in Hieroglyphics. Yet by the time these inscriptions were written, Cretan Hieroglyphs were probably already extinct. The mnemonics the scribes used to learn Linear A symbols could have been changed over the centuries, and many of the Linear A characters clearly lost their original shape (see my example of the evolution of the "NA" sign). Therefore their "reversal" to a detailed graphical image sometimes created anachronistic depictions, and these can be quite confusing to even experts of Aegean writing systems. A good example from present time could be the mnemonics used by Japanese students to learn certain characters. The Hiragana sign ね representing the syllable "NE" may be compared to a cat figure (and by pure chance, it does even abbreviate the Japanese word for "cat" [neko]). Yet we know that this sign probably originated from a Chinese predecessor 禰 with honorific meanings "god" or "ancestor" (and obviously not depicting a cat, but rather a sanctuary or shrine).

Fig. 03: Appearance of "NA" sign in different scripts.

While Linear A never managed to gain popularity in any region of the ancient Near East, it has been adopted on Cyprus from early on. Since the languages spoken on Cyprus differed from that of Crete, the script also underwent changes; giving rise to the so-called Cypro-Minoan syllabary (its earliest evidence stems from around 1500 BC.). It might be somewhat surprising that Cypro-Minoan actually consists of less signs than Linear A. Voiced and voiceless stop consonants were no longer distinguished (as a result many D- T- P-series signs and the entire Q-series fell out of use), but an entirely new series of signs was also introduced for syllables beginning with R-. While the main language recorded by Cypro-Minoan inscriptions is still poorly known, a few clay tablets found at Ugarit contain words of undoubtedly Western Semitic origin. This enables us to read a handful of (but not all) Cypro-Minoan signs with some certainty. Unlike Linear B, the latter writing system survived the bronze age collapse, and eventually evolved into the classical Cypriot script. The Cypriot syllabary represents the latest stage in the millenia-long evolution of Aegean writing. Its signs lost all image-like appearance, becoming abstract lines and curves reminiscent of classical Greek letters. Nevertheless, the Cypriot script is still a syllabary, thus very different from the true Greek alphabet (that evolved from the family of Semitic writing systems). Most Cypriot inscriptions are clearly Greek, yet there are still a number of documents that were written in an extinct, local minority language called Eteocypriot. With all likelihood, it is related to the language of Cypro-Minoan inscriptions, becoming extinct only in the classical era. But that is a story for another time...

Monday, March 28, 2016

The great city of Troy - Aegean archaeology and reconstruction of settlements

A warm welcome to everyone! Especially to those who still await new posts. After a long silence - lasting for several years - I finally managed to secure enough free time to continue my research into Minoan matters. This time we shall explore a brand-new question: How accurate are the restorations of Bronze-age cities - if they are based on excavations of their citadels only?

A few years ago as I was travelling through Turkey, we paid a visit to numerous historical sites: from the Neolithic to the Ottoman era. Of these many, one ancient city stands out - because both of its fame and its relatedness to the civilizations across the Aegean. This is the city of Troy, known to Greeks as Ilion. Compared to the impressive hellenistic ruins found elsewhere in Asia Minor, the site of Troy does not offer much to the average tourists. Apart from the few Roman-era remains dotting the hillside, there is very little to be seen. Except for the foundations of earlier cyclopean wallings. However, the building stones seen deep on the bottom of the trench dug by Schliemann betray the lengthy history of this township.

Something that surprises even people educated in ancient history is the high age of this archaeological site. The region of Troy was probably first settled in the Neolitic. Eventually it grew into a village, then a town. As early as in the 3rd millenium BC, it already had a fortified citadel with stone buildings. Schliemann's excavations unearthed some of the wealth that looters did not take. "The golden jewels of Helen" actually belonged to a noblewoman who lived in the age when the Pyramids of Gizah were built! As early as 2600 BC (Troy, layer II), it was already a modest settlement with over 2000 inhabitants, spreading far beyond its citadel on the plains. Troy lay at the crossroads of ancient trade routes - both overland and naval ones. This gave the city a high level of prosperity rarely seen in that period. Remember, that long-range trading already began with the Sumerians. Some of the jewellery found at the excavation of Ur (southern Iraq) had lapis lazuli insets stemming from the mountains of Badakhshan, Afghanistan. The route between these two locations is more than 3000 km (1900 miles) long, and must have taken several months for ancient trade caravans to complete - if there was ever a direct connection. Similar lapis lazuli objects were also discovered at Troy itself, implying a fairly "globalized" trade network of luxuries, even in that early era.

We still have a lot to learn about this period. But it looks certain that Troy (the so-called "maritime Troia" culture) was an exception, rather that the rule. In the earliest Bronze Age, much of the western Aegean was still severely lagging behind the ancient Near East in development. The great "palace" of Knossos was built only a millenium later. The Lion Gate of Mycenae is approximately 1300 years younger, than the walls and gates of Troy II!

 Walking around the archaeological site, there is but one thing disturbing the mind. The excavated area is just too small for such a prosperous town, and we are not even talking about Homer's Troy. It is expected to be a local power, yet there are no more than perhaps half a dozen buildings within the walls of Troy II. Built some 600 years later, the walls of Troy VI form a somewhat bigger circle. Even so, the visible remnants of Troy VI or VII consist of less than a dozen or so buildings. Somewhat unimpressive for those having read Homer's the Iliad (of watched its modern recreation, made in Hollywood).

After the era of high prosperity in the 3rd millenium BC, Troy II was destroyed by fire. But the site continued to be inhabited, even if impoverished. Layers III and IV document several centuries of history, when Troy was apparently disconnected from the major trade routes of the world. Starting from the early 2nd millenium BC (Troy IV and V), the town increasingly fell under the influence of the advanced Anatolian cultures in the east. With the coming of the Late Bronze Age, the walled citadel of Troy was rebuilt again, in a more grandiose way than ever before. Thus Troy VI - roughly contemporary with the palatial complexes of Minoan Crete - was more than a match for the neighbouring Anatolian or Mycenaean city-states. From the Hittite archives, we can deduce that the town was probably called Wilusa, and was possibly a capitol of a local state Taruisa (ancient Greek
Ιλιον [Ilion] and Τρωας [Troas], respectively). Wilusa could have been a member or an ally to the "League of Assuwa", a confederacy of lesser city-states in Western Anatolia (c.f. ancient Greek Ασια [Asia], Linear B A-SWI-JA). Its very existence bothered the Hittite great kings and Mycenaean warlords alike.

 Where could the rest of the city been? Some fairly recent excavations have finally managed to answer this question, by unearthing the outer walls of the settlement, lying far beyond the citadel hill. Troy was a major city of its time and occupied a much larger area than just the hilltop fort. The lower city - the main settlement itself - was several times the size of the archaeological site open to tourists. It has been recently estimated that Troy VI had roughly 10,000 residents. Troy was a great city for its age; even if it was a dwarf compared to the largest Mesopotamian or Egyptian cities, like Babylon during Hammurappi's reign (>60,000 residents) or Avaris, capitol of northern Egypt (up to 100,000 inhabitants).

Clearly, this under-estimation of Bronze-age settlements is not restricted to Troy. The castle of Mycenae encloses no more than a dozen stone-walled buildings; and must have been supported by a major town surrounding its impressive cyclopean walls. Similarly, the Cretan city of Knossos was much more than just the "palace" (the actual city-centre): Some reconstructions depict the excavated buildings lying in a grove of cypress-trees, while this could not be any further from the truth. The outer walls of Knossos (yes, it had walls!) were only found a few decades ago, giving a more realistic impression on how big this city once have been. Knossos was the largest of the excavated Minoan and Mycenaean settlements, with an estimated urban population of 40,000 people.

But if Troy was so large, with well-developed trade relationships and an elaborate culture, why did it lack writing? All the great cities of the era had complex administration systems with written archives: Just think of Mycenae, Knossos, Hattusa or Ugarit.  Together with many others, I firmly believe that the Trojans actually did have scribes and recorded their everyday economy and deeds on clay tablets - like all other civilizations of that time. But for some reason, the archives did not survive after the fire that destoyed the Bronze-age city of Troy VI. The architectural history of the Trojan citadel gives the critical key: the upmost sections of the Troy VI-VII citadel are not preserved at all!

It was not even Schliemann, who removed these sections to expose earlier settlement layers (Troy I-II), but the ancient Greeks themselves. During the hellenistic era, when Troy was rebuilt, the Bronze-age citadel was practically levelled to make place for Greek temples (such as the poorly-preserved Temple of Athena, whose white marble fragments still dot the site). The builders also expanded the hill by systematically dismantling the ruins and using them as landfill, to increase the area of the elevated platform. If the main archives were indeed located in the upmost buildings of the citadel (a likely scenario, in comparison with Pylos and Knossos), then their remnants were irrevocably destroyed in the process. Or perhaps the archaeologists should look for the clay tablets (or rather, their weathered fragments) in the classical-era landfills used to expand the citadel area. Who knows what future excavations might yield there?

With no surviving local archives, one is left to guess what language and writing system the ancient Troyans used. They may not have been restricted to single script, either. A well-preserved Luwian seal, pertaining to a scribe hints at the Anatolian character of Wilusa. But other finds were also uncovered at the earlier excavations. Among them, two vessels bearing crude markings that might (and just might) have been Linear A. These latter finds were even interpreted as a distinct "Trojan script" by some, with Aegean origins. But building a theory on these sparse findings is pointless: We have to wait until more inscribed objects are discovered.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Minoablog - returning after a long hiatus

A warm welcome to all readers! After several years in absence, I am finally back to continue exploring the fascinating world of bronze-age Aegean inscriptions. It has been a long time and I feel sorry for those who hoped for a sooner return. In the past years, I finished my PhD studies in molecular and structural biochemistry, published two peer-reviewed articles in a row as well as finally completed and defended my thesis. (Although off-topic, those who are interested at the details, you can read our most recent article here. It deals with the language of proteins instead of humans.) Assuming that I shall find time again to do some research into linguistics and epigraphics, I resume blogging on Cretan topics once again.

In the near-future, we will embark on a journey to discover the fascinating world of Cypro-Minoan inscriptions, and the ancient Crete-Cyprus connection. I intend to examine both the doubts and the evidence behind the proposed "Aegean" languge family in a critical manner. In addition, we will tackle the archaeological question of how accurate the reconstruction of Bronze-age cities are. We will also go deeper into the world of Hieroglyphic Minoan inscriptions, and re-assess Linear A grammatic elements with an unbiased method. Stay tuned!