Welcome to the first in a series of posts on the objects taking part in our display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. You can read more about the setting up of the display, which is an exciting collaboration with the Fitzwilliam and the British Museum, in our previous post. The idea is to use a small set of objects from these museums (plus two replicas made by the CREWS team) to highlight what we are working on and to tell some of the stories behind writing in the ancient eastern Mediterranean.

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One of the stars of the show is this limestone statuette base found in the remains of a religious complex at Idalion in Cyprus, known as the Idalion Bilingual, which is on loan from the British Museum for our display (you can see its BM listing HERE). This is inscribed with a dedication written in Phoenician (Phoenician consonantal alphabet) and Greek (Cypriot syllabic script). The Idalion Bilingual was the inscription that provided the vital key needed to decipher with Cypriot syllabic writing system, and is sometimes thought of as the ‘Rosetta stone’ of Cyprus.

Cypriot languages, and the city of Idalion

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During the first millennium BC (especially the period between the 9th/8th and 3rd centuries BC), two languages are well attested on Cyprus: Greek (a quite unique local dialect) and Phoenician (a Semitic language originating from the Levant). There is also a less well attested language that we label ‘Eteocypriot’ (“original Cypriot”) but do not understand very well – Eteocypriot isn’t very relevant to this post, but if you are interested, I’ve written about it before, e.g. in an article HERE.

The independent kingdoms of the island each had one language or another as their official language of administration. Paphos in the west, for example, has produced mainly Greek inscriptions, while Kition in the east has produced mainly Phoenician inscriptions. The map below, which I made for a book on writing in ancient Cyprus (coming soon!), gives an idea of the distribution of surviving inscriptions in each of the languages (circle for Greek, star for Phoenician and sunburst for Eteocypriot; the size of the symbol correlates to the overall number of texts discovered).

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Idalion is an interesting site because it lies in a central area of Cyprus that is quite close to both Greek-speaking and Phoenician-speaking areas, and in fact we know that the city’s administration at some point changed. Earlier inscriptions are usually in Greek, most notably the longest of all Cypriot syllabic Greek inscriptions, a bronze tablet recording medical provision on the occasion of an unsuccessful attack on the city by Persian and Phoenician forces (the latter being Phoenicians from Kition, another Cypriot city).

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The Idalion Bronze

By the fourth century BC, however, a Phoenician annexation of Idalion had clearly been completed successfully, after which time the kings of nearby Kition styled themselves as ‘King of Kition and Idalion’. The Idalion Bilingual – the star of our new display – dates from this period, and in fact begins with a date that sets it in the reign of a Phoenician king called Milkyaton. But what is striking is that even though Idalion was clearly under Phoenician administration by this point (as reinforced by the discovery of hundreds of Phoenician documents from the city’s administrative buildings), Greek was certainly still spoken there. The Idalion Bilingual was found in an area that seems to have been used by both Greeks and Phoenicians, the Sanctuary of Apollo, where other monolingual inscriptions in both Greek and Phoenician were found nearby.

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Originally the stone bearing the inscription would have had a statue on top, but it is very rare for such statues (usually made of bronze) to survive – they were often melted down for their valuable metal content long ago. However, you can still see a hole in the top of the stone where part of the support for the statue would have been fitted in.

A 3D model of the stone on which the inscription, made by Amelia Knowlson, is freely available to view HERE, and if you turn it round you can see the hole. Do clock the link and have a look – it makes a big difference to see the stone as a three-dimensional object rather than a flat surface bearing an inscription.

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Two languages, and cultures, in contact

Why is the Idalion Bilingual such an exciting inscription? Well, bilingual inscriptions have the potential to give us a lot of information about languages, writing and social and cultural context. The basic content of the inscription might seem like quite a bland religious dedication (the question marks and brackets are there because damage has obscured some areas of the text):

Phoenician text (top):

On day ? of the month ? in year IV of King Milkyaton King of Kition and Idalion: this is the statue which Lord Baalrom son of Abdimilk gave and raised to his Lord Reshep Mikal because he heard his voice: may he bless.

Greek text (bottom):

[In the fourth year] of King Milkyaton, reigning over Kition and Idalion, on the last (day) of the period of five intercalary days, the prince (Baalrom), son of Abdimilk, has dedicated this statuette to Apollo Amyklos, from whom he has obtained the accomplishment of his wish. To good fortune.

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But there are some very interesting details in there. For instance, notice that the god referred to as “Lord Reshep Mikal” in the Phoenician half is given a completely different name in the Greek half, “Apollo Amyklos”. While the words Mikal~Amyklos are clearly related to each other, Reshep and Apollo are distinct deities well attested in Phoenician and Greek religion respectively. The synthesis here is as much religious as linguistic, making the Phoenician god Reshep and the Greek god Apollo equivalent to each other (as well as being worshipped in the same space in the sanctuary).

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Phoenician-style statuette found at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Idalion, representing an Egyptianising depiction, possibly of the god Reshep himself or one of his worshippers (the object can be found in the British Museum)

There is also an equivalence of the votive text at the end of each half: the typical Phoenician religious formula “because he heard his voice: may he bless” is not translated word-for-word into Greek, but instead an equivalent phrase typical of Cypriot Greek religious dedications is used, “to good fortune” (sections highlighted below).

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There is little doubt that the person who commissioned this inscription was a high-status Phoenician, a man named Baalrom son of Abdimilk. So why did he want it to be in both Phoenician and Greek? Was it to make it accessible to local Greek speakers in the sanctuary, or perhaps to provide a reminder to local Greek speakers that the city was now under Phoenician administration? Whatever the reason, we are very lucky that he made this choice, because this very bilingual inscription is the one that provided the necessary key to decipher the Cypriot syllabic script.

The Idalion Bilingual and the decipherment of the Cypriot syllabic script

Phoenician and Greek on Cyprus were written in different writing systems. Phoenician used a consonantal alphabet (sometimes called an ‘abjad’), written right to left, which had been deciphered in the 18th century. This is the same script that was used by Phoenician speakers around the rest of the Mediterranean. Cypriot Greek, on the other hand, used a strange-looking script that was still a mystery when the Idalion Bilingual was discovered. Later on, it was to be revealed as a script closely related to Linear A and B from Minoan/Mycenaean Greece, and a syllabic system just like them (with each sign representing a whole open syllable) – but at the time, nothing else like it was known.

If you want to investigate these writing systems for yourself, have a look at our ‘write your name’ sheets: Phoenician is HERE (though NB this is an earlier form of Phoenician than found in the Idalion Bilingual, without the long tails on some of the signs), and the Cypriot syllabic script is HERE.

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The Assyriologist George Smith (also famous for his work on cuneiform) was one of the first people to attempt a decipherment of the Cypriot script (1871), and his work was refined and improved on by other scholars at the same time and after, including Moritz Schmidt, Wilhelm Deecke and Heinrich Ludolf Ahrens. It was the Idalion Bilingual that gave them a way into the writing system, because of its placing on the stone alongside closely related text in the already-deciphered Phoenician. It was perhaps also easier to guess that the Cypriot script would turn out to represent the Greek language, given that the presence of the Greek language on Cyprus in this period was already historically attested.

As with many decipherment attempts, one of the important features of the inscription was that the same proper name was recorded in both languages (something we have commented on before). The name of the king, Milkyaton, is preserved in both halves of the text, as MLKYTN in Phoenician and as mi-li-ki-ya-to-no-se in Cypriot Greek. In fact, once it had been deciphered, this gave us some useful information on what vowels may have been pronounced between the consonants in the Phoenician word (remember that Phoenician does not write vowels, so it is very difficult for us to reconstruct them).

The decipherment was somewhat hindered, however, by the unfortunate fact that other proper names in the damaged inscription are only preserved in one language or the other! The dedicant, Baalrom, is only preserved in the Phoenician half (BʿLR[M]), while his father Abdimilk is only preserved in the Greek half (a-pi-ti-mi-li-ko-ne, with Greek inflection in the genitive case). Even the names of the cities Kition and Idalion are only preserved in the Greek half (ke-ti-o-ne ka-e-ta-li-o-ne), although they are attested in other Phoenician inscriptions (especially Kition).

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This made attempts at decipherment more difficult, although the text does have some other useful features, such as regular word division in the Greek half (you can see this in the close-up above – very small vertical lines appear between groups of signs that make up individual words). It was obvious from the arragement of signs that it reads from right to left (which is the usual writing direction for the ‘common’ Cypriot syllabic script). Combining evidence for patterns in the text with a thorough philological knowledge of both Greek and Phoenician were also essential components in the script’s eventual successful decipherment.

Just as with the Rosetta stone (on which, see this nicely illustrated short article), the Idalion Bilingual provided the first step in the race to understand the Cypriot syllabic script and the Cypriot Greek dialect written in it. And the story is ongoing – we still find new inscriptions today that help us to correct and refine our understanding of the script and language.

The Idalion Bilingual in our display at the Fitzwilliam Museum

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If you’d like to come and have a look at the famous Idalion Bilingual, you can see it in our display in the Fitzwilliam Museum until 10th June 2018. It is positioned on its back with the inscription facing upwards, to allow you to see the text better, at the right-hand end of the case.

 

Thank you for reading, and if you have a chance to visit the display, please do let us know! See HERE and HERE for information on how to find it. Inevitably we were unable to provide this much information in the labels and panel text for the display, so we hope that this series of blog posts will help by giving further information, as well as more clues to the story of writing we can piece together through the objects in the display.

 

~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project – here seen with the Idalion Bilingual in the background!)

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