This week we are having a closer look at the smallest object in our special CREWS-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a tiny seal stone made of green jasper and featuring signs of the Cretan Hieroglyphic script. At just 1.4 by 1.1 cm, and dating to the 19th-17th centuries BC, it is a minute but fascinating testament to the earliest writing system attested in ancient Crete.
In some ways the above image (courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, who kindly allowed us to borrow the seal for our display) gives a misleading impression of what it is like to engage visually with the inscription – whatever device you are using to look at this blog post, you will certainly be looking at an image that is at least several times larger than the object itself. In fact, it is so small and the variety of jasper sufficiently dark that my camera refused to focus on it for a while – see the image to the right!
Seals were popular vehicles for Cretan Hieroglyphic writing – in fact, a large proportion of the surviving corpus of texts written in this script are either seals (the stones themselves) or sealings (impressions from such an object made on other items). We know that they were used in administrative contexts, in relation to the control of commodities. But we do not understand the content of this inscription, for various reasons.
The first problem is that Cretan Hieroglyphic signs often look like little pictures of recognisable objects, and were for a long time assumed to be pictographic – i.e. each sign represented the thing it looked like. This is indeed the assumption upon which they were labelled ‘Hieroglyphic’ in the first place, by the famous archaeologist who excavated Knossos, Arthur Evans (his work Scripta Minoa is available to read online – see vol. 1 HERE).
If we interpret each element as representative of what it looks like, our seal would have something to do with a plant, a human leg and a gate. According to Evans, the gate would convey the sense of a keeper or guardian associated with the other objects, and he already noted in 1909 that what we have in our seal is quite a common combination of these three particular signs, which appear together in other inscriptions as well.
But getting hung up on the ‘pictorial’ nature of signs doesn’t help very much. In fact, a study of sequences of Cretan Hieroglyphic signs suggests strongly that the script is at its basis syllabic in type (though sometimes also using individual signs as ideograms), just like related Linear A and Linear B. Sometimes we can even propose plausible relations between signs of these three writing systems, and therefore possible values for the Cretan Hieroglyphic signs. Our seal is composed of three different signs (each one is assigned a number for transcriptions and the pictures below come from a standardised font often used in publications):
(031) is quite similar to the Linear A and B sign re.
(010) has been suggested to be a cognate of the Linear A and B sign ri.
(038) looks a bit like Linear A and B sign ja (pronounced ya).
If those identifications sound a bit vague, it is not because they are not based on sound rationale (chiefly analysis of palaeographic variation and attestations of each sign in each script), but rather because the limited corpus of Cretan Hieroglyphic texts (usually regarded to be c.300-400 in number, most very short) makes certainty impossible. For this reason the script as a whole is usually referred to as undeciphered. Nevertheless, you might hope we are approaching a reading of the text here, via comparisons with Linear A and B – perhaps it says re-ri-ja or ja-ri-re, depending which way you read it.
Now look again at the seal. Here is what it looks like in impression (image courtesy of the CMS Database, Heidelberg), which may be the way it is intended to be read:
What you have here is evidently not a line of text of the sort we are used to reading in a lot of writing systems. The ‘plant’ seems to be at right angles to the ‘leg’ and is not in line with the ‘gate’ on the other side. So where do you start reading from, and are you supposed to turn the seal to see each sign in the ‘correct’ orientation? Is the cross-hatching around the signs just decorative (a space filler, often referred to conceptually as horror vacui) or does it have some relationship with the text of the inscription? We are faced here with a set of problems that can also be identified with other heavily pictorial/decorative-looking writing systems, like Egyptian and Luwian Hieroglyphs and to an even greater extent Mayan.
On reading Mayan, see this old blog post, where you can see some illustration of the script’s flexibility in terms of the way different signs can be combined with each other to form the same meaningful combination; see also this tweet from Christian Prager. I’d like to shout out here to my colleague Roeland Decorte for stimulating discussions of the Cretan Hieroglyphic and Mayan material – I very much recommend his chapter in Understanding Relations Between Scripts.
For Cretan Hieroglyphic, there are some longer texts that give a better impression of how sequences of signs might appear in longer groups, in a manner not so different from lines of text – see the four-faced bar below, for example. But in a short isolated text like the seal in our display, the relationship of each sign with the others is harder to establish, and is also affected much more by the shape and layout of the surface on which the text is inscribed.
We chose the seal for our display because it tells an important part of the history of writing in the Mediterranean. Cretan Hieroglyphic is a writing system that may well have been a local invention with little or no influence from writing in other areas. Although relations with other scripts like Egyptian Hieroglyphs have often been assumed, they are impossible to prove because there is very little plausible overlap in sign shapes or even in script structure. Whatever we think about the origins of writing, the Cretan Hieroglyphic texts represent distinctive local developments in how to write, and what to use writing for, by the inhabitants of ancient Crete.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)