Following on from my Linear B tablet cake, the mission to raise the profile of obscure Bronze Age scripts through the medium of baked goods continues — this time with Cypro-Minoan, which was used on Cyprus from the 16th century B.C.E. until at least the 11th century. It has also been found at Ras Shamra, Syria (ancient Ugarit), from where this tablet comes:
Unfortunately, Cypro-Minoan is undeciphered, so I can’t tell you what this tablet says, or even what its function was; in fact we really know very little about Cypro-Minoan at all. One of the few things we do know is that it’s related to the Cretan Bronze Age scripts, in particular Linear A. Many of the signs look quite similar – hence the term ‘Cypro-Minoan’, coined by Arthur Evans on the basis of this visual similarity. Obviously this isn’t a very secure method of tracing related scripts, since similar-looking signs can easily arise by chance — but although we can’t read Linear A or Cypro-Minoan, we do have a source of confirmation in their deciphered descendants, respectively Linear B and Cypriot Syllabic. The latter was used to write (mainly) Greek from the 11th century B.C.E., remaining in use even after the introduction of the alphabet right up until the 4th century, so as with Linear B the phonetic values of the signs are known — and the existence of signs with a very similar form in all four of these scripts, and identical or very similar sound-values in the two deciphered scripts, is very strong evidence for the Cypriot scripts being related to the Cretan ones.
What we don’t know is how this relationship came about: there’s very little archaeological evidence for contact between Cyprus and Crete in or before the 16th century, such as would presumably be required for Cypriots to adapt a Cretan writing system; on the other hand there’s even less to support the alternative theory that the scripts share a common ancestor from somewhere else in the eastern Mediterranean.
Equally little is known about the actual use of Cypro-Minoan. It’s found on a very wide range of materials (clay, stone, metals, ivory) and objects (tablets, pottery, rings, pipes, seals, and plenty more).
Because we have so few inscriptions (c.200) on so many different materials, from all over Cyprus and also from Ugarit, covering a period of at least 500 years, it’s very hard to analyse; in fact there currently isn’t even any agreement on how many scripts ‘Cypro-Minoan’ actually represents. It’s possible that there are at least two if not three different scripts, which may represent more than one language; but equally some of the differences may look more significant than they really are because the inscriptions are so disparate. I can’t even tell you why Cypro-Minoan is found at Ugarit — Cyprus and the Levant have always been very closely linked, but the exact origin of these inscriptions is still a mystery. Were there Cypriots living in Ugarit, or Ugaritians who knew the script?
This has turned into really a rather pessimistic blog post: sadly such pessimism (alongside wild speculation) is quite common when dealing with undeciphered Bronze Age writing systems. But never fear, the baking series WILL continue, and I’ve promised that the next one will be a script and language you’re all a bit more familiar with! Watch this space…