We have finally come to the last object in our special display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Don’t be too sad yet though, because there is still more than a month to come and see it (until 10th June 2018) if you have a chance to visit Cambridge.

This week’s object is a little stamp seal from ancient Cyprus, featuring a fish-man with Cypriot Syllabic writing behind him to the top-left, probably 7th-6th C BC. At just 2.1 x 1.2 cm, it’s the second smallest item of our set. Now part of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection, we do not know exactly where it came from but its Cypriot provenance can be confirmed because of its Cypriot Syllabic inscription.


This is quite a good opportunity to see some themes emerging from the objects in the display. For instance, this seal shares some similarities with the display’s smallest item, a Cretan Hieroglyphic seal – it is also a stamp seal, made of stone, with tiny writing and a deliberately decorative appearance. But the Cypriot Syllabic writing in this seal is only distantly related to Cretan Hieroglyphic – it is more closely related to the writing found on the Cypro-Minoan clay ball, and pretty much identical to what you find in the display’s other Cypriot Syllabic inscriptions (the Greek half of the Idalion Bilingual, pictured below, and the tombstone of Paramenon).

idalion biling set

The Idalion Bilingual – Phoenician at the top, Cypriot Syllabic Greek underneath.

Write your name in the Cypriot syllabary picWe have talked about the Cypriot Syllabic script before in several other posts (have a look back over posts with the ‘Cypriot Syllabary’ tag) so I won’t repeat everything here. One thing that is remarkable about it is that, during the 1st millennium BC, Greek-speaking Cypriots held on to this different-looking syllabic writing system while the rest of the Greek-speaking world by now was using the alphabet that had been borrowed from the Phoenicians. Until it was eventually replaced by the Greek alphabet around the 3rd-2nd C BC, the Cypriot Syllabary was a characteristic mark of Cypriot identity, which may have been one of the reasons behind its longevity.

If you’re interested in the writing system, have a look at our ‘write your name’ sheet HERE – in fact, why not try to decode the three-sign inscription on the seal before you get to the answer further down the post?

Although the writing system used in this seal is distinctively Cypriot, the seal itself is much more cosmopolitan. While the Cypriot Syllabary was derived from scripts used in the Aegean to the west, if we look at the seal as an object we start to see some further links in completely different directions. Typologically we can call it a scaraboid seal, because the back (i.e. the bit that isn’t flat) is shaped like a scarab.

back seal

That doesn’t mean it’s from Egypt, but it’s a type of seal that is evidently Egyptian-inspired. Scarab-shaped stamp seals were pretty common in Egypt for a long time and often included writing in Egyptian hieroglyphs, like the very elaborate 15th C BC example below, which came from the Temple of Hatshepsut at Thebes and reads “Hatshepsut united with Amun” (see more HERE). This shape of seal then became very popular around the eastern Mediterranean outside of Egypt.

But it’s not just the shape of the seal we have to take into account, it’s the iconography too – i.e. the style of picture drawn on its flat side. Combining a scaraboid-shape with decoration that includes cross-hatching (seen here at the bottom and acting as a sort of space filler, or ‘exergue’) is common of ‘Graeco-Phoenician’ seals – which is to say ones used around the eastern Mediterranean but not directly from Egypt. It is based on the observation of these stylistic features that the object has been dated to the 7th-6th C BC, since this is a time when such a style would have been popular.


The fish-man could be seen as an eastern motif, and in fact fish-people feature fairly prominently in Mesopotamian iconography. There was even a fish-sage called Oannes who taught humanity how to write. The fish-man motif may or may not (nobody is entirely sure) have something to do with a very prolific god called Dagon or Dagan, who is well attested in Levantine as well as Mesopotamian traditions.


But this is not to say that the object is not entirely at home in Cyprus. In fact, blending stylistic influences from far and wide and from all directions is very common in Cypriot art, and we should not be at all surprised to see such an object with a Cypriot Syllabic inscription.

If you didn’t realise how common such features are in Cyprus, however, I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking the seal might have originated from the Levant. In fact an earlier commentator on this object, writing in the 1950s, assumed such an eastern origin but was not very impressed with the inscription: “The signs above the fishman are difficult to interpret. If they were meant to be an inscription then the artist was unfamiliar with the Aramaic script.” (J.M. Munn-Rankin, ‘Ancient seals in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Iraq 21.1, 1959, p37.) Evidently the commentator was the one who wasn’t familiar with the writing system – not Aramaic or Phoenician but Cypriot Syllabic!

Diweiphilos.jpgThere are other inscribed seals with Cypriot Syllabic writing on them – sometimes you find the text integrated with an image as in our example, but sometimes only the text appears. This drawing to the left shows one of the earliest surviving Cypriot Syllabic inscriptions, featuring on a seal dating from the 8th C BC and found in Cilicia (an area of the Anatolian peninsula, now in Turkey). It reads Diweiphilô sâma tode, “This is the sign (i.e. seal) of Diweiphilos”. Even though the inscription makes up most of the seal face, the bottom line is not writing – it is just some cross-hatching, not a million miles away from what we find in our seal. The two ‘signs’ in the top-right corner are also not Cypriot Syllabic signs, and are just filling some space decoratively (but in a way that makes them look quite similar to the writing included on the seal).


So, returning to our fish-man seal, what does the inscription say? Well, on the object it reads left-to-right, but remember that this is a seal – you are supposed to impress it in a soft substance, after which it reads in the opposite direction, right-to-left (see the seal impression above). The signs are pi-lo-i, clearly denoting a Greek name built on the root philos meaning “dear” or “friend”. You would think the obvious interpretation would be as a masculine o-stem noun in the dative, “To/for Philos” (possibly used in a possessive way, “Belonging to Philos”?). But this is seen to be very unlikely because we would expect a seal to have the nominative (“Philos”) or possibly a genitive (“Of Philos”), rather than the dative, so the inscription wouldn’t make sense.

The solution is to interpret the sequence as a feminine nominative, built on the same root but denoting a woman’s name, Philôi. This kind of name is an old formation and is usually thought of as a hypocoristic (like a pet name, in this case something like “Darling”) – but on the other hand we could simply think of it as a short name.

cyp woman statue.jpg

6th C BC statue of a woman from the sanctuary site of Golgoi, Cyprus. If you think you can spot some Egyptian stylistic influence here too, you wouldn’t be wrong! See more HERE.

So our fish-man seal belonged to a woman, living in Cyprus in the Archaic period, with sufficient exposure to literacy to have a Cypriot Syllabic inscription on her seal stone. What she might have used it for is more difficult to reconstruct – we are used to thinking of seal stones as high status or administrative items, often leading to the typical conclusion that they are more likely to belong to a man than a woman. How nice to be proved wrong in this case! Whoever Philôi was, it is a huge privilege to have her personal seal in our museum display on eastern Mediterranean writing.

Well, that was the last of our object posts, but don’t think we have left the display behind – we will undoubtedly have more to say about it before it finishes (and quite possibly after!). In the meantime we hope you have enjoyed these posts, and please do feel free to contact us or leave comments if you have any questions or requests for future posts.


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa for website





6 thoughts on “CREWS Display: A Cypriot Seal with a Fish-man

    1. Thank you! I hope the blog posts are helping those who cannot come to Cambridge to ‘view’ the display – in a very different way from seeing it in the museum though.


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