This term has been Cyprus term at the CREWS project. We have been very lucky to have two Visiting Fellows with us – Cassie Donnelly and Giorgos Bourogiannis – who are Cypriot specialists and are working on different aspects of writing in ancient Cyprus. It also happens to be the time of year when we run a seminar where we teach and discuss a particular ancient writing system. So of course we chose Cypro-Minoan, the script of Late Bronze Age Cyprus, for our seminar theme, and you may not be surprised to hear that some practical experimentation was involved… and indeed some themed cake and chocolates!

clay balls.jpg

If you follow our blog regularly, you may have heard a bit about Cypro-Minoan before. Like the closely-related Linear A script of Minoan Crete, Cypro-Minoan remains undeciphered. Only about 250 inscriptions survive, found all over the island (and a few significant ones outside), and it remained in use throughout the Late Bronze Age (from the 16/15th C BC onwards) and beyond, beginning a tradition of distinctive Cypriot writing that did not go out of use until the end of the first millennium BC. You can read a bit more about Cypro-Minoan and in particular about one of the most uniquely Cypriot clay document types, the clay ball, in this post.

UntitledI led the first two seminars this term, giving an introduction to the study of Cypro-Minoan and describing some of the traits of Cypriot writing during the Late Bronze Age. The earliest examples of Cypro-Minoan date to the earliest phase of the Late Bronze Age, at a time when the island’s Mediterranean connections and its industrial and trading activities began to take off. Even without being able to read the content of the documents, we can tell quite a lot about how writing was being used by looking at the types of objects being written on, and their archaeological context in relation to other activities and practices – for instance, the connection with control over metalworking industries (bearing in mind Cyprus’s famous copper reserves) is obvious from an early period.

This is the theme of the first chapter of my new book, in fact, and I am pleased to say that there is now open access to this chapter: click here to read it if you are interested!

Earliest Cypro-Minoan clay tablet. Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

One of the things we did in the first session was to work through the earliest surviving clay tablet (above), dating from the later 16th or earlier 15th C BC and found at Enkomi, and bearing signs whose visual features make clear the Aegean pedigree of Cypro-Minoan. A number of the signs look very close to Linear A parallels, in fact much closer than they will later look in Cypro-Minoan. The ‘ka’ at the left-hand end of the second line, for instance, never has this round shape in later Cypro-Minoan – though it is also interesting that the circle is made in multiple strokes rather than a single curving stroke, because that is not typical of Linear A either. Already in this very early inscription we can see distinctive methods and innovation in Cypriot writing.

Map showing the position of Cyprus relative to the Aegean and Greece to the west, Anatolia to the north and the Levant to the east.

The second seminar then followed writing practices in Cyprus through the phases of the Bronze Age, looking especially at evidence for underlying languages (for which the evidence is extremely limited) and changes in documents written on and the methods used to inscribe them. In clay documents especially, we see some very interesting trends in document types, which are very distinctively Cypriot in spite of the fact that Cypriots were evidently aware of both Aegean administrative writing and the nearby cuneiform-dominant writing practices of the Near East. Writing methods, while sometimes difficult to reconstruct, also show a degree of innovation in relation to those used in nearby societies – something I have written about before.

When thinking about writing methods, we have found it valuable to conduct practical experiments to try to understand better what sorts of implements were used, what shape they were, how they were held and manipulated and how they interacted with the writing surface. For the seminar, our first experiment was to use modelling clay to try to make little cow figurines with Cypro-Minoan inscriptions, like the real one shown below. For this object it is clear that the inscription was added while the clay was still moist, which means that adding the writing was integrated with the production of the figurine.

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Cow figurine with Cypro-Minoan inscription. Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

Let’s just say that it’s quite hard making cow figurines…

Cassie gave the third seminar, focusing on potmarks, the subject of her doctoral research. Cyprus seems to have been a hub of the practice of ‘potmarking’ – that is to say, marking pots of various kinds with very short inscriptions, usually on the handle, often with just a single sign or perhaps two to three. The single-sign inscriptions have often been excluded from the study of Cypro-Minoan because they are too short to analyse in terms of their underlying language, and because they are sometimes difficult to reconcile with the script as we know it from other longer inscriptions. But, although there may be a questionmark over the type/nature of literacy involved in their creation, it is actually very important that we do not ignore these short but valuable inscriptions – and as Cassie showed, it is quite typical for them to originate from places where other types of literacy are on display.

Jar handle with short Cypro-Minoan inscription. Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

Our practical experiment after Cassie’s seminar was particularly elucidating: rather than trying to write on moist clay, we tried a completely different method, using pieces of broken pottery and scratching inscriptions on them with a sharp metal tool. This involved some therapeutic flower-pot breaking and then using a nail as a tool for writing with, so there were lots of sharp objects and we had to be careful. Please don’t try this at home without considering your safety!


pot3 pot2

aUsing a metal tool and having to use some force to scratch each sign makes a huge difference to the way you hold your writing implement and the way you form each element of the sign. The lines become much thinner and more angular, and it is also difficult to draw a very short stroke without going over it and emphasising it – otherwise it is not very visible. I wonder whether that is why the ‘a’ sign can often have a dot for its little stroke in the upper middle part of the sign when it is drawn in this way (see right).

The fourth seminar was presented by CREWS regular Philip Boyes, and concentrated on Ugarit, a Syrian site that had connections with Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age. Ugarit and Alashiya (an ancient name for Cyprus) corresponded with each other within wider eastern Mediterranean diplomatic networks (for further background see Philip’s Amarna letters post), and we have evidence of Cypriots living in Ugarit (perhaps even a ‘Cyprus Town’ area in the city?) and an Ugaritian scribe living in Cyprus. A few Cypro-Minoan inscriptions found at Ugarit, including a clay tablet and fragments of three more, add to the impression that there were some special and deep-rooted links between Ugarit and Cyprus in this period.

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Clay tablet from Ugarit with Cypro-Minoan writing. Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

The fact that Cypro-Minoan turns up at Ugarit is not the only strange feature of writing at the site. In fact several scripts and languages are attested there, of which one of the dominant ones was Akkadian with its logosyllabic cuneiform system, which was popular throughout the Near East. Some time in the 13th C BC, the Ugaritian administration had also adopted a peculiar local type of cuneiform, a consonantal alphabet composed of wedges but working along the same lines as the Phoenician script. Ugarit is unique in preserving these traces of what look like wilful experimentation with writing styles, and high degrees of interactivity between scribal habits and types of writing system. One of the Cypro-Minoan tablets (above) in particular looks like an attempt to make Cypro-Minoan sign shapes with a Cypriot rounded stylus but cuneiformlike pressing motions, and the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet itself combines cuneiform scribal methods with shapes that may have been inspired by the earlier forms of what was to become the Phoenician linear alphabet. For a practical experiment, we even tried writing linear letters using cuneiform wedges to see what the resulting shapes would look like.

Tiryns clay ball. Image from article by Melissa Vetters here.

The final seminar was delivered by Giorgos, and again looked towards areas outside of Cyprus where Cypriot writing is found. For example, an inscribed clay ball was discovered at Tiryns, a site in mainland Greece, far to the west of Cyprus. It dates from the 12th C BC, a period when literacy seems to have recently disappeared in Greece, as the Mycenaean palaces were destroyed and the Linear B administration associated with them was lost. Everything about the clay ball is Cypriot, from the document type and script to the three-sign inscription (perhaps reading pu-pu-ro?), which is also attested in documents found in Cyprus. But the clay with which it was made was probably local to Tiryns, which raises the possibility of Cypriots living and practising their distinctive writing habits abroad.

Lion’s paw from Delphi with Cypriot Syllabic inscription ‘(H)ermaios’. Image from here.

In this final seminar, we also moved towards the end of the period when Cypro-Minoan was in use. In fact, what happened to Cypro-Minoan is difficult to reconstruct: distinctive Cypro-Minoan documents continue into the 11th C BC and perhaps the 10th, and then from the 8th C BC onwards a very similar writing system (now labelled by us as the ‘Cypriot Syllabary’) is attested. The new system is clearly a direct ‘descendant’ of the old one, but we know a bit more about it because it is deciphered and because the Greek language was written in it, meaning that we can understand the content of the inscriptions. In fact the earliest attestations of the new script were discovered outside of Cyprus too, including an inscription on a bronze lion’s paw from Delphi (left).

What is clear is that, even though there are some periods where writing is sparsely attested, literacy must have continued unbroken from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Cyprus. This explains why the writing systems of both periods are so closely related, and it also reveals Cyprus as an island that showed a remarkable ability to withstand the changes and destructions that affected much of the eastern Mediterranean from the 12th C BC onwards.

Even though I’ve been working on Cypriot languages and writing systems for years now, I learned a lot from this seminar series – and I’d like to thank everyone who turned up to them, because it was a wonderful group! Special thanks go to Anna for baking a delicious Cypro-Minoan ingot cake.


This wasn’t the only edible Cypro-Minoan treat actually, because I tried my hand at making some Cypro-Minoan chocolates and also iced some fairy cakes with Cypro-Minoan single signs (cakemarks!).



I will just finish by mentioning another academic event that took place somewhere in the middle of our run of Cypro-Minoan seminars: the Aegean Archaeology Group’s Work-in-Progress seminar. Cassie, Giorgos and I all gave papers in a Cypriot-themed session chaired by Philip. I spoke about my work on stylus types and methods of inscriptions, and explained a bit about how I’ll be bringing my experiences of Cypriot writing to bear on the scripts of the Aegean (Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B). Cassie meanwhile talked us through her current project looking at inscrbibed bowls around the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean (including a particular one in the reduced cuneiform alphabet – similar to the Ugaritic one – that was found at Hala Sultan Tekke in Cyprus), and Giorgos spoke about his CyCoMed project focusing on evidence for Cypriots and their goods moving around the Aegean area in the Early Iron Age. Earlier that day we also had a presentation from our colleague Anastasia Christophilopoulou, Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum, about her exciting new project ‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the large Mediterranean Islands‘. It was very nice to see a big Cypriot presence at this event, and I’d like to thank the organisers Emily Wright and Tuksi Parikh for allowing us to be there.



Well that’s all for this post, but keep an eye on the blog because we have lots more to come in the near future!


~ Pippa Steele (PI of the CREWS project)

idalion bilingual selfie



2 thoughts on “Studying Writing in Bronze Age Cyprus

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