For this week’s inscription post based on our CREWS display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, we’re going to be revisiting ancient Cyprus – this time in a much earlier period than we discussed for the Idalion Bilingual. This little item might look unassuming (it’s only a couple of centimetres in diameter, don’t be fooled by the photo!), but it is very important for trying to understand the earlier development of writing on Cyprus.
Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
The item in question is a small ball made of clay, with writing in what we call the “Cypro-Minoan” script around the outside, which is on loan to us from the British Museum. It was found at the Cypriot site of Hala Sultan Tekke, in the island’s south-east.
The ball was was a surface find at the site, and we do not have enough contextual information to date it very securely. By comparing it with other inscribed items of the same type, however, we can assign it to the Late Bronze Age, probably the 13th or 12th century BC. It was found near some quite high status objects, including gold beads, a fragmentary silver ring, an ivory disc and a Mycenaean piriform vase. (The vase to the left is a Mycenaean piriform vase from Hala Sultan Tekke, of similarly uncertain find spot, but I haven’t managed to ascertain whether it is the one in question; image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.)
There is a mystery at the heart of this post, because we do not really know what the little clay balls were used for. This one is not alone – the number of surviving inscribed clay balls is getting close to 100, meaning that, of all writing attested in Late Bronze Age Cyprus (i.e. between the 16th and 11th centuries BC), this the most numerous inscription type – clay balls account for about a third of surviving texts.
There are several theories about what the clay balls might have been used for (ball game? fortune-telling devices? identity cards?) but we simply do not have enough information to allow us to answer the question definitively. My best guess is that the objects are in some sense ‘administrative’, i.e. that they have some relationship with the literate control of resources within Late Bronze Age Cypriot society – as small documents made of clay, they look inkeeping with, if not identical to, some of the sorts of objects that could play such a role in nearby areas like the Aegean, Anatolia, the Levant and Mesopotamia.
I have actually written about the issues surrounding these unusual inscriptions before (for the British Academy Review in 2014), so rather than repeating everything, I will send you to that article if you are interested in hearing more about how we can try to reconstruct the clay balls’ usage. Click here: The mystery of ancient Cypriot clay balls (when you get to the page, look for a link in the top right corner to download the PDF).
Instead, I want to use today’s blog post to talk a bit more about how writing developed, and why we included the clay ball in our display on ancient writing.
The first known writing in Cyprus dates from the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (around the 16th century BC). The writing system that appears at this time evidently is closely related to Linear A, a syllabic script that had been used in the Aegean (predominantly Crete) since the early 2nd millennium BC. So Cyprus seems to have ‘borrowed’ writing in some sense from an earlier tradition of literacy to the west. This probably has a lot to do with some dramatic developments in Cyprus’s economy at this time, as industrial and mercantile progress led to a situation where it became important to monitor and control valuable commodities. (Cyprus is most famous for copper, with which it shares its name.)
Even though Cyprus clearly looked to the west for inspiration in its writing system, this was far from a straightforward adoption of Aegean ways of writing, and indeed there were eastern as well as western influences. What is striking is that Cypriots developed their own types of document (like the clay balls and the cylinder shown below) and their own methods of writing on them, and the result was a diverse range of inscription types with a distinctive Cypriot appearance.
Cypro-Minoan writing is still undeciphered. Actually, even this statement is a bit over simplified, because we can be reasonably sure of the value of some Cypro-Minoan signs. But there remain many uncertainties over sign values, and the underlying language has never plausibly been identified. The main difficulties are a) not having very much evidence to go on (there are only about 250 inscriptions from Late Bronze Age Cyprus surviving) and b) trying to trace the development of each sign (they can look quite different from Linear A, for instance, despite evidently being related). For the latter, the example below gives a good illustration of the way a sign can change between one writing system and another: here is the sign a in Linear A (top), Cypro-Minoan (middle) and the Cypriot Syllabary (bottom). (On the Cypriot Syllabary, the later script descended from Cypro-Minoan and used often to write the Greek language, see the Idalion Bilingual post.)
But just because it is currently difficult to improve on the state of ‘decipheredness’ of Cypro-Minoan, that does not mean that we cannot make a lot of progress with understanding the place of writing in Cypriot society (something I’ve been thinking about for a book coming out later this year). Equally, just because we cannot read the content of the inscription on our clay ball, it does not mean that we cannot appreciate its role in the history of writing – which is how it came to be in our display.
One thing I’m interested in looking at in the near future is the possible difference in methods of writing on clay between Cyprus and Crete. This may involve some experimentation – which I’ve already started to a small degree, as you can guess from the photo below (that one is an attempt at a replica of the clay ball in our display). The appearance and depth of signs in various types of clay document from each island suggest that different implements could have been used for writing. I’ll talk about this a bit more in the blog post on my Linear A replica tablet.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from trying to inscribe my own Cypro-Minoan clay balls, it’s that I was wrong in an assumption I made years ago, namely that it must have been difficult to avoid squashing the signs you’ve already written. That isn’t the problem at all – the main problem is trying to keep the line straight as you write around the outside. And as you can see from the ‘roll-out’ of our clay ball (an impression taken from the real object, provided by the British Museum), even the ancient Cypriot who wrote it couldn’t manage this!
So ancient writing might not be perfect, and we might not always have all the answers about what ancient people were writing and why. But part of the pleasure of writing these blog posts to tie in with our museum display is that every object has a story to tell that is unique (the product of an individual’s act of writing one day over 3,000 years ago) but at the same time reflective of all the amazing interconnections of the ancient world.
~ Pippa Steele (PI of the CREWS project)