Did you know that Iberian and Cypriot scripts share the shapes of some signs? Although Iberian scripts do not really fall into the research of the CREWS project, they are fascinating and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make them appear in our blog. In spite of the long distance between the Iberian peninsula and Cyprus, which were not directly connected in the 5th century BC (approximate date of the first written samples in Iberian), indeed, there are some signs both in Iberian and Cypriot scripts that have the same shape, but with different values. How was this possible?
Iberian inscription on lead from Ullastret.
The Bulwer tablet, with Cypriot syllabic writing. Trustees of the British Museum.
To try to understand how this could be possible we need to look first at the linguistic nature of these scripts. Although there were 5 different local pre-roman scripts in the Iberian peninsula, here we will focus on two that have these mysterious signs: the Meridional and Levantine scripts. These are what linguists have called “semi-syllabaries”. They have some signs that render single sounds, like the letters of alphabets, while for some consonants they have signs that render whole syllables instead. For example, there are signs for a, e, s or m. However, there is no t but instead we have ta, te, ti, to, tu.
The Levantine script of Iberia according to Maluquer de Motes 1968.
The Cypriot Syllabary (Paphian form) according to Masson 1983.
It is still a mystery why Iberians chose to use this kind of writing system, especially since at that moment the non-local scripts present in the area were Phoenician and Greek, which are alphabetic not syllabic, and evidently had a considerable influence on Iberian scripts (look, for example, at the signs for E, L and S). In addition, there is no evidence of a previous completely syllabic system in the Iberian peninsula, besides the fact that the only syllabic systems in the Mediterranean at the time were the Cypriot syllabaries.
Influence from Cyprus is not impossible at all, as the island was one of the important stops of the Phoenician trade on the route to the Iberian peninsula and this is well documented archaeologically. Therefore, it has been suggested that the inventor of the script should have been necessarily involved in this trade to get to know these signs and the syllabic script. However, the difference in the values of these similar signs in Iberian and Cypriot would have to mean that this hypothetical inventor, or the Iberians, weren’t able to read the signs. But if that is the case, how could they be sure that they were syllabic? And why should they keep half of the script alphabetic and the other syllabic? We may never be able to answer these questions, but there is always hope that new and fruitful evidence will come out in the future. Crucially, this highlights some problems with making assumptions about how writing systems are related to each other, as well as how different script types (syllabic, alphabetic, semi-syllabic, etc) developed and how we should classify them.
Masson, O. 1983, Les inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques: recueil critique et commenté. Paris
Maluquer de Motes, J. 1968, Epigrafía prelatina de la Península Ibérica. Barcelona
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)