Our next object, from our special CREWS-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, has a privileged position in the Cypriot gallery: standing in its own cabinet in the centre of the room. At first glance, you wouldn’t guess why this Cypriot statuette is included in an exhibition about writing, but if you move around it, you may see that it has some scratches on the back side.
Although it would seem that these are random damage to the stone, they conceal a votive inscription written in the Greek alphabet. This is the perfect excuse to talk about the presence of the Greek alphabet in Cyprus and also about how epigraphists work with problematic inscriptions like this one to untangle the text behind them.
We have mentioned in previous posts (e.g. HERE and HERE) that Cyprus had its own syllabic writing systems for writing the Greek language. These scripts were in use at least until the 3rd century BC. However, we do have sporadic samples of Greek alphabetic writing in Cyprus from the 6th century already. Although at first these may just be the result of occasional contact with other Greek speaking populations, we can see how in the 3rd century alphabetic Greek has completely taken over the Cypriot syllabaries. This was mainly caused by the inclusion of the island within the Hellenistic Ptolemaic kingdom, which used the Greek alphabet as its main vehicle of written communication.
The inscription covers a large part of the figurine’s back, from his shoulders downwards. But photos do not show up the inscription very well, and it is still very difficult with the naked eye unless special techniques are used.
The specific inscription that we are dealing with here was made at some point in the 3rd century BC and it is a dedication to Opaon Melanthios, the Cypriot god of rural life and fertility. The name of this god is actually the only point of agreement in the different interpretations of this text. In 1888 Gardner read:
Years later, Mitford published a different reading:
And the most recent publication of the inscription includes the reading made by John Chadwick, the scholar who is also famous for his collaborative work with Michael Ventris in deciphering Linear B. He read:
Ὁπάονι / Μελαν[θίω] / υπερ / προτο / κτίστου
Unfortunately, we cannot assess here which is the correct or the closest reading to the original text right now. In order to do that, we would need to perform a closer hands-on study of the inscription. One of the first methods that we could use to recognise the writing is by using a light – preferably one designed specially for such purposes, like the one we used on the Idalion Bilingual (see Pippa’s post and the image to the right).
Changing the position of the light source can be an effective non-agressive method to allow a better differentiation between damage and writing strokes. See in the image below how a change in the light can make some of the lines more evident to the human eye:
(With apologies for the quality of the image, which is from an old publication.)
There is a second method that could be used, although with a higher probability of damaging the object: squeezes. This consists of the reproduction of the surface of the object on a special paper that becomes malleable when in contact with water. The paper is placed on the stone once wet and beaten until it has adapted to the shape of the stone. When it gets dry, the paper has turned into a 3D reproduction of the inscription that allows us to see the incisions more clearly. This also helps the epigraphist to make more accurate drawings of the inscription. Below you can see an example of a squeeze of a Greek alphabetic inscription from Caria, which is in the Bean Archive of the Cambridge Faculty of Classics. Having one of these drawings in the editions of our inscription would have helped us to decide on the different readings. Unfortunately, no squeeze seems to have been produced for this inscription, according to the publications.
Although reading inscriptions might seem difficult at times, there is a bright future in the epigraphic field thanks to 3D scanning. If epigraphists move towards this new technology, we will probably be able to read this and other problematic inscriptions through its scanned digital versions without damaging the object. Hopefully, it won’t take long until we start seeing this kind of interdisciplinary project where Classics and ground-breaking technologies meet, so as to make Greek epigraphy relevant and accessible to a wider audience.
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)