Our series of blog posts on objects in our special writing-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum is drawing to an end, with just three objects left. This week the spotlight is on a replica clay tablet inscribed in Linear A, which I made as part of a practical writing experiment.
Philip has talked before about trying to understand ancient methods of producing inscriptions by experimental methods (for instance see HERE, HERE and HERE). This can help us to reconstruct what sort of implements and materials were used in the writing process, but there is even more to it. It is hard to really understand the signs you are reading and the variation found in their shapes unless you have tried to write those signs yourself in the medium they are written in. That’s because those sign shapes are often determined or affected by practical concerns.
On this occasion, I was trying to recreate a particular Linear A inscription, classified as ZA 8, a clay tablet found at Zakros on Crete. This tablet was once part of an archive and must be a record of commodities important to the local administration, who are taking the trouble to write and store these tablets. It is very difficult for us to understand the content, however, because Linear A has not been deciphered. Well, even that is not really an accurate statement, as I have pointed out before – the real problem is that even though we probably know reasonable approximations of many sign values (because of the close relationship with deciphered Linear B), we do not know the language in which it is written. We might be able to read out some words written in Linear A, but we do not understand what they mean. A lot of the time, we have to try to use Linear B to help us understand Linear A, although we can also observe repeating patterns, layout of tablets, etc, for more clues.
To help you see the signs more clearly, here is a line drawing of the original tablet, taken from GORILA, the Linear A corpus publication (Godart and Olivier, Recueil des inscriptions en linéaire A, hence the acronym). You can actually find free online access to GORILA – volume 3, which has this tablet on p164-5, can be found HERE.
One thing we can make out that gives a hint about the tablet’s content is that, on the top line, the two signs in the top right corner clearly record a commodity rather than spelling out words (as most of the rest of the signs do). These two signs are the ideogram for figs (we know this because it is the same in Linear B) followed by a sign denoting a measurement or quantity (we do not know exactly what quantity but we know the sign is used this way). The ideogram for figs is interesting because we know from Linear B that the same sign can be used in spelling out words, with the value ni. When used as an ideogram representing the concept of figs, this seems to have been an abbreviation for a Minoan word. In fact, the word is recorded by the later Greek writer Athenaeus (quoting the author Hermonax) as nikuleon, a special Cretan word for the fig.
Otherwise, it is quite difficult to make sense of the inscription. Several words are spelt out, with signs for fractions or measures coming between them – these are not neatly in columns like they would usually be in a later Linear B text (Greek speakers seem to have done some tidying when they borrowed the idea of writing on clay documents!). Just because it is hard to understand the exact content, however, it does not mean that we do not have a great deal more to learn from this tablet. Today I want to focus mainly on the practical experiment in which I tried to recreate it.
Here is a photo of the tablet, next to my replica so that you can see what degree of accuracy (i.e. a limited one!) I’ve managed to achieve.
I aimed to keep very closely in size to the original, which is 8.2 x 5.9 x 0.9 cm. I didn’t try to recreate the damage to the text (you can see some cracks and missing areas in the photo), though sometimes this meant making an assumption about what signs would have looked like if undamaged. Getting the outer edges straight was a bit harder.
I have a confession to make: this was my second attempt at making this tablet. My first attempt went badly (see the image below), probably because I had the conditions all wrong.
See how indistinct the signs are and how much extra clay has been thrown up by the incisions? I think I had two problems here: my implement wasn’t thin and pointed enough, and the clay (which is just standard air-drying modelling clay that you can buy in craft shops) was too dry. One of the factors that helped a great deal when I made the second version was that I kept the surface of the clay nice and moist as I was inscribing.
The tool I was using to inscribe was a cocktail stick. I tried a plastic one but it was too flexible, even after varnishing it to try to make it harder. So instead I resorted to a wooden cocktail stick – but because it was too blunt, I had to sharpen it using a nail file to get it to as thin and sharp a point as possible. (I’d had better results trying out a friend’s acacia thorn when we had our Linear A clay play day back in 2016, but didn’t have one to hand on this occasion.)
So I learned a lot about how to – and how not to – make a decent Linear A clay tablet. No doubt I have many improvements to make to my technique as I continue with my research.
Making a replica tablet (as with Philip’s Ugaritic one) also allowed us to include Linear A as one of the writing systems in our display. When you put all these items together you can start to tell the fascinating stories of how writing developed – as I hope you are noticing if you keep up with the blog posts. Like the Ugaritic and Babylonian cuneiform texts in the display, we have here a clay tablet being used for administrative purposes. But the Linear A writing system is not related to cuneiform – it is related to Cretan Hieroglyphic (appearing in our display in a seal), as well as Cypro-Minoan (seen in a clay ball) and the later Cypriot Syllabic script (in three different inscriptions in the display including the famous Idalion bilingual stone statue base). Unrelated writing systems might be used in very similar ways to each other, while related writing systems might start to be used for new purposes – which shows us that, to some degree, we can study writing systems and uses of writing as separate (though related) issues. There are a lot of complex relationships here, not just straightforward unidirectional ones.
No doubt there will be more blog posts on our writing experiments (in fact, Philip and I have some plans in this regard – stay tuned for more news on that in the future!), but in the meantime there are two more posts to come on items in our display. The display is on until 10th June and is free, so do have a look if you have a chance to visit Cambridge.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)