Did you know that between the 8th and 5th/4th centuries BC, there was more than one alphabet used in ancient Greece? Each region had its own alphabet – all similar to each other but with a few distinctive features (e.g. extra letters, or a special value for a letter that had a different value elsewhere). In this post I want to talk about the island of Crete, which was one of the areas that had its own unique alphabet.

Gortyn law code.jpg

Perhaps the most famous inscription written in the Cretan alphabet is the Law Code of Gortyn of the early 5th century BC, a section of which is shown above. This gives a good illustration of some of the Cretan alphabet’s features, which include some unexpected letter shapes (an iota shaped like a Roman S, a pi shaped like a Roman C, the use of san M where other alphabets used sigma Σ, etc).


If you want to try learning the Cretan alphabet, you can use our ‘Write your name in the Cretan alphabet’ sheet (download a pdf HERE). You can also compare with the ‘standard’ version of the Greek alphabet, the sort you find in text books today that was the result of a late 5th century BC writing reform in Athens (see HERE).

You can also see if you look closely at the inscription above that the direction of the signs reverses in alternate lines – this is because the direction of reading alternates, in a pattern known as boustrophedon. Single-direction writing was also known (L>R or R>L), but boustrophedon was a popular choice, especially for long legal texts like the one above.

The differences in regional alphabets is something we’re very interested in at CREWS at the moment. Natalia’s PhD work looks at the early development of the Greek alphabet, which necessarily involves trying to understand how the situation of multiple local alphabets came about. I am also currently writing up a paper I gave at our first CREWS conference, where I talked about the variant forms of early local Greek alphabets and how we try to understand their creation.


Crete is interesting as a case study because it looks a bit different from other areas of the Archaic Greek world in terms of its written record. It is home to the earliest Greek legal codes, which were displayed on stone in public spaces (see the Gortyn Law Code in situ above). By contrast, we have relatively few of other kinds of text, like graffiti or dedications. This could be an accident of survival, but one aspect I am interested in looking at is whether the type or context of an inscription makes any difference to the appearance or type of writing used in it.

This is where the Dolphin Stone comes in. This is a large piece of rock housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (local to me, so I can go along and look at it any time!), bearing a Greek inscription. It also bears a nice little drawing of a fish or dolphin, hence its name. This is a far cry from the legal codes written in (relatively) neat rows in what became quite a (locally) standardised form of Cretan alphabet. Although a few do exist, this type of inscription is not common in Crete, and it is also probably significant that this object was found far in the east of the island, on the coast at Itanos.GR.1.1854.jpg

The Dolphin Stone. Image from HERE.

If you look at the inscription itself, what you notice first (well, second after the dolphin) is that although its letters are broadly in-keeping with forms found in the Cretan alphabet, it contains something else that is for the most part not attested in Crete – the letter phi (4th letter from the left in my rough sketch below; the whole thing reads -n egraphe me, “X wrote me”, R>L). That’s significant because phi is one of the ‘supplementary’ letters of the Greek alphabet, i.e. one not directly borrowed from Phoenician. In turn this has some repercussions for thinking about how the transition from Phoenician to Greek alphabet worked in the first place – when was phi added to the sequence and why do most Cretan inscriptions not have it?



There are different ways of trying to explain the phi in the Dolphin Stone, such as contact with other areas where phi was used, or developments within the Cretan alphabet itself. I might come back to this in a future post once I’ve finished work on my chapter – but for now I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the world of writing in Archaic Crete.

(And maybe you’ll join me in wondering, as I always do, why the dolphin looks so sad!)


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS Project)


Further reading

On issues related to the multiplicity of early Greek alphabets, try the following books/articles:

L.H. Jeffery (with A.W. Johnston) (1990) Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, 2nd edition, Oxford.

A.W. Johnston (2012) The life and death of Greek local scripts; not so long durée?, Mélanges de l’École française de Rome – Antiquité [Online], 124-2.

N. Luraghi (2010) The Local Scripts from Nature to Culture, Classical Antiquity Vol. 29, No. 1 (April 2010), 68-91.

J. Whitley (1997) Cretan Laws and Cretan Literacy, American Journal of Archaeology 101, 635-61.

The article I’m working on will be published next year in Steele, P.M. and Boyes, P.J. Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets (forthcoming as an open access publication with Oxbow Books).



7 thoughts on “The Dolphin Stone and the Cretan Alphabet

  1. Many thanks, Pippa, for your illustration and discussion of the Dolphin Stone. I used to use the song ‘As time goes by’ to help me remember the differences of the ‘Red’, ‘Blue’, and ‘Green’ alphabets: ‘A Phi is just a Phi’ (sigh/groan). This inscription, however, is a memorable exception: http://epigraphy.packhum.org/text/200392. When Rupert Thompson discussed it last term, I was ready to assume that an inscription from the East Coast with Phi was the work of a (visiting) non-Cretan. It sounds as if the letter forms are too Cretan for that. I hope post your follow-up discussion sometime soon.


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