Sunday, August 14, 2011

Potential 'MO', 'JO' and 'WE' signs in Linear A - lessons learned from the latest Minoan clay tablets

Instead of making any more wild theories about the meaning of certain Minoan phrases, I decided to turn back to the basics once again. After all, how can we understand words written in Linear A, if we cannot even be certain about their reading? The existence of many signs without any phonetic value assigned is especially annoying. The situation is definitely worse than in Linear B, partly because some Linear B signs do not even have a Linear A counterpart (ancestor) identified. Now, how can we reconcile this? It is very likely that at least some "asterisked numbers" do correspond to already-deciphered Linear B syllabograms. So, what I am going to present in the next series of posts is a new attempt to identify the phonetic values of the more common, yet-unreadable Linear A signs.

To achieve this goal, we have to browse through all the original tablets, over and over again, to find clues. The positional distribution of the signs in question (initial, medial or terminal) and the phonetic values of neighbouring signs offer a good deal of information. But this has to be evaluated within the bounds of the Minoan language, since we know it was radically different from Mycaenean Greek. Comparisons with Linear B sign-distributions do not help much, that was also noted by Packard. The graphic appearence and variation classes of syllabograms - on the other hand - do give us a chance to meaningfully compare Linear A signs with either Hieroglyphic or Linear B ones. The last one especially comes handy, since we may get a good phonetic value if we can find the correct assignment.

Fortunately, there are some spectacular Linear A documents that help us in our quest more than a thousand other tablets. In this post, I will be focusing upon the clay tablet KH11. Although it may appear as an oddball of a specimen at first, we shall see soon that these features are explainable with the tablet being in some sense "transitional" towards Linear B: both in style and in context!

You can see the facsimile of KH11 and the suggested reading of its entries on figure #1. Note that I have been playing with the values of fractional signs a lot, slightly altering some of the traditionally assigned numbers. Although nothing is set in stone yet, this is something that I plan to make a separate post later on. I will not mention the details here: everything comes at its own time.

The first entry of KH11 starts with the word A-DU-RE-ZA. It has two possible interpretations: first of all, it could be a pair of separate words: A-DU  RE-ZA (transaction term + toponym). But it is more probable that the table refers to persons instead of places (due to the small quantity of goods mentioned). This could also happen if A-DU-RE-ZA (as a single word) was a personal name or title somehow derived from DU-RE-ZA (mentioned on KH20, also recurring on ZA10 and ZA20 in the form DU-RE-ZA-SE), another place-name. On KH11, every donor (person?) delivers an array of different goods, often with small, fractional quantities. The most important of them was marked with the logogram *303. Based on the context of other tablets (e.g. KH6, KH7) and the shape of the sign, it must have been an important foodstuff for humans and animals alike, most likely a type of grain: barley. Two common variants exist in Linear A: the bare *303 sign - that I labelled HOR (Latin hordeum = barley) - and "fractionalized" variants, for example HOR+1/4. The meaning of the latter is unclear, though the GRA sign (grain: likely wheat) also somes with similar fractional ligatures. Another type of goods was labelled with *306. This sign is mostly phonetical in Linear A, with the possible value WO (same as Lin B WO). But on the KH tablets, it also denotes a type of agricultural goods. It comes in integer quantities only, and *306 looks like an animal head, so I assigned it the reading donkey, ASI (Latin asinus = donkey). Other tablets from Khania (e.g KH 6) also list animals with portions of barely - usually, it cannot be decided whether the barely was a low-quality one, used as fodder, or intended for human consumption.

Although the sign Lin A *303 is slightly dissimilar in shape to the Linear B sign denoting barley, it still very closely resembles a purely phonetic sign: Linear B MO. Immediately in the second line of KH11, we also see a series of two *303 signs next to each other. This is almost impossible to explain as pure logograms. Godart & Olivier noted that one of these signs contains a tiny extra stroke, so they designated it as a new sign, *348. Nevertheless, its graphic image does not support the distinction. Also, why would one repeat the same type of goods from one donor three times over? It is way more sensible therefore, to read these *303 signs not as HOR, but with a phonetic value: MO. This yields a new name in the second line: MO-RO-MO (the middle sign should be RO instead of fraction B). This is the first time we see a genuine MO (= Lin B *15) in Linear A.

And the tablet just keeps giving surprises. In the third line, we can read another name, transliterated by J. Younger as A-TO-*349-TO-I.The penultimate sign is damaged, so we cannot meaningfully decide whether it was indeed TO or NA instead. But the one identified as *349 looks fairly similar to the Linear B JO sign: especially with its "wavy" shaft. It is generally dissimilar to anything other in Linear A, except perhaps the very peculiar TO sign on the vessel KN10 (that could also be a JO, by the way). So now we have another name with a lot of 'o' sounds in it, probably A-TO-JO-TO-I. Serious caution is adviced, though, before defining a new sign-class from a single occurrance. The Linear B JO sign is also possible to derive - by simplification - from other signs, most prominently Lin A *310. At the same time, *349 could also be a regular *301 sign, to which the scribe simply forgot to add a vertical stroke. This would support a reading A-TO-WE-TO-I instead (very putatively: *Αρτοϝενθοι from Ancient Greek αρτος, bread - see the discussion later).

The last full word on the tablet is equally interesting: It starts with an A, surely enough. The second sign is a hastely written SU (and probably not TA). The third sign - for some inexplicable reasons - was given a unique identifier (*350) by Godart: I am not sure why, because it looks like a good-enough PU sign for me. The last syllabogram of this word is the well-known *301 - in its "wavy" variant. It does not only look like Linear B WE, but also gives a meaningful reading this way: the word is thus A-SU-PU-WE - known from other Linear A tablets in different forms (A-SU-PU-WA on ARKH2 and A-SI-SU-PO-A on KH9). Judged by the context (no logogram follows it), it is probably a transaction term - I have no better idea.

The conclusion that *301 can in fact be read as WE also receives a nice reinforcement from another source: The inscribed vessel TY Zb4 shows a correcture *306 → *301. Although it was probably incorrect (the form *306-KI-TA or WO-KI-TA is known from other sources), the error was not particularly big if *301 was indeed WE. This also means that we can now finally read the first words of the libation formulae in full. Although A-TA-I-WE-WA-JA or TA-NA-I-WE-U-TI-NU are a bit unexpected due to the high frequency of semivowels, we have no real reason to dismiss this reading. It is also possible that one or more additional consonants were ommitted here. Just remember that clusters like *-rw- also get simplified to *-w- in Linear B (c.f. KO-WO from *korwos = boy). If one observes carefully, the shape of Lin A *301 also shows a clear evolution. The earlier (Middle Minoan) verson is still similar to its Hieroglyphic ancestor (the "adze"-figure), while the Late Minoan versions are gradually becoming more-and-more similar to a "dollar" character. They are also frequently mirrored all the time. Finally, the central shaft is ommitted, and we have the snake-like Linear B *75 = WE sign!

But how can we interpret all these unusual names on KH11? Their most prominent feature - the one that triggered the use of "rare signs" - is the high frequency of 'o' vowels. This is uncommon in Minoan contexts, but it is perfectly what we would expect if their bearers were Mycaenean Greeks. Indeed, this tablet (as all the Khania tablets) comes from the end of the Late Minoan Ib period (approx. 1425 BC). This was a time of great turmoil, war and destruction on Crete: many of the cities were burnt to the ground, never to be re-settled again. And even in those that remained inhabited, the subsequent appearence of Linear B inscriptions (in early Greek) points to a shift of power - to a centralized Mycaenean administration controlled by a Greek-speaking aristocracy. While the destruction on the eastern end of the island was severe at the end of LMIb, the transition was probably less violent in the west (note that Khania as well as other settlements remained inhabited without a major break). And it is perfectly possible that some Greek individuals were already present on the island in the LMI era, well before a major wave of continental Greeks reached and settled on Crete in the LMII period. Linear B itself is more-or-less a straight continuation of the (150 years earlier) late Linear A script, without any major changes to the phonetic values, ortography, or the shapes of the signs. This gives hope that - one nice day - the phonetic values behind even the most mysterious Linear A signs will be deciphered.