Moving Beyond Decipherment: A Holistic Approach to an Unreadable Script

Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions, Volume 1, Analysis, by Silvia FerraraTHE ‘CYPRO–MINOAN’ SCRIPT of Bronze Age Cyprus has baffled scholars since its discovery at the turn of the twentieth century.  Though it has been found in several locations on Cyprus and at the Late Bronze Age trading emporium of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, several missing pieces have prevented this script from being deciphered, despite decades of concerted attempts to unlock its meaning and read its original writers’ messages.  These omissions from the archaeological record are significant enough to have kept Cypro–Minoan in the same category as the also-undeciphered Linear A and Etruscan, rather than joining the Mycenaean Linear B, deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, as a readable script.  Despite its five hundred years of use on Cyprus and elsewhere (from the Late Cypriot [LC] I through III periods), archaeologists and epigraphers still lack three key elements necessary to successfully decipher this unreadable script: a substantial corpus to study and compare (to date, the roughly one hundred signs appear fewer than three thousand times in toto); a bilingual inscription pairing Cypro–Minoan with a known script; and knowledge of the underlying language that Cypro–Minoan encodes.


Given this state of affairs, Silvia Ferrara, a research fellow at the University of La Sapienza in Rome, has decided that a new approach to the study of the Cypro–Minoan script is needed.  Rather than joining those in the field who have given in to what the author calls “the frequent, and at times obstinate, urge to decipher” Cypro–Minoan, Ferrara’s contribution “focuses on ways of understanding an undeciphered script, without attempting to decipher it” (p. 1).  This “holistic approach” to understanding an unreadable script in every way but that which may be most obvious – by reading it – includes considering “its historical, archaeological, epigraphical, and paleographical” context (preface, p. i).

Though such an approach may seem counterintuitive on the surface (after all, what point is there to studying writing if gaining an ability to read it is neither possible nor a goal?), a study of this type is actually long overdue. Writing in 1989, Thomas Palaima, an expert in Aegean scripts and prehistory, called for “a unified and standardized corpus of Cypro–Minoan inscriptions that will allow us to see the whole script and its various clases of inscriptions…in a clear historical context,” saying that “until this is done, [scholars studying Cypro–Minoan] shall continue to be plagued by piecemeal readings, guesses, and speculation.”* Ferrara’s study, a revision and initial publication of her doctoral dissertation (University College London, 2005), is an attempt to provide just that context.

CYPRO–MINOAN INSCRIPTIONS is broken up into three parts, which are subdivided into six total chapters, with the one-chapter Part Three, “Beyond Decipherment” (pp. 267–274) serving as a summation and forward-looking conclusion.  Part one, “Function, Object, and Context” (pp. 7–148), deals with the subject of literacy in Late Bronze Age Cyprus (pp. 9–42) and writing in the LC I–III (pp. 43–148) from an archaeological perspective, with special emphasis on LC IIIA, the “floruit” of Cypro–Minoan writing (p. 90).  Though constrained by the aforementioned limitations of the corpus, Ferrara uses the most current information to “frame the emergence and development of Cypro–Minoan” and “assess the geographical distribution of the script” (p. 17) in an effort to reconstruct a proposed spatial and temporal diffusion of literacy and writing on Cyprus.


While inscriptions have been found at all of the island’s key coastal cities, as well as several inland sites, the greatest number have been recovered from Enkomi, Kition, Kalavassos–Ayios Dhimitrios, and Hala Sultan Tekke on the southern and eastern shores of Cyprus (p. 21, Fig. 1.1).  Of these, Enkomi stands head and shoulders above all other sites, with 133 of the 243 total inscriptions, or 55.2%, having been found there (p. 20, Table 1.2).  Of the 133 inscriptions found there, 84 are clay boules, which, Ferrara writes, “seem to be a literacy carrier peculiarly characteristic of Enkomi” (p. 21), and though she cautions against the use of this fact as reinforcement of the frequent assumption that Enkomi occupied the pinnacle of a hierarchy of Cypriot sites in the Late Bronze Age, the author does refer to Enkomi as “the earliest user and producer of writing,” a “status [which] bears direct implications for its role in the adaptation of the script and its significance as a political strategy” (p. 27).

The author’s classification of the artifacts bearing Cypro–Minoan inscriptions is a significant contribution to the field. The overwhelming majority of previous literature as focused almost entirely on the inscribed tablets found at Enkomi and at Ugarit, despite those tablets making up merely 4.2% of the corpus, while the inscribed boules which Ferrara dedicates a portion of her discussion to make up 40.8% (pp. 27, 30). Further, it is impossible to know whether, and in what numbers, inscriptions on perishable materials were made (cf. p. 148).  The appearance of painted signs on Aegean vases in funerary deposits at Enkomi, as well as an ostrakon, demonstrate that the script could in fact be painted at times (p. 173).

While on one hand the lacuna in our knowledge created by the absence of perishable texts from the corpus could stem from a practice of not writing on such materials, on the other hand it could easily lead to a significant misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the use and distribution of Cypro–Minoan writing.   To cite a relevant example, if the inscriptions found in the Nile floodplain – which is unsuitable for the preservation of papyri – were the only evidence we possessed for Egyptian writing, it would be only natural to assume that Egyptian hieroglyphic script was used almost exclusively on rock and other permanent materials (and that hieratic and demotic, two scripts intended for ink-on-papyrus use, were almost nonexistent in ancient Egyptian scribal culture).  While many extant Cypro–Minoan inscriptions may have been administrative in nature, the number that has survived are only a small fraction of the total number of records that would likely have been required in the administration of such an economically active island as Cyprus.  Ferrara compares the island’s economic and administrative records to the Linear B tablets of Mycenaean Greece, noting that, had Linear B tablets at Pylos not been baked in the fire that consume that palatial center, they likely would not have been preserved.  The author suggests that the Cypriot economy may have been administered similarly, with its records inscribed on perishable materials or otherwise not intended for long–term preservation (p. 148).


Part Two, “Inscription and Signary” (pp. 149–264), pairs an in–depth review of the epigraphic presentation of the extant inscriptions (pp. 149–213) with a critique of the paleography, or shift in sign–shapes over time, of the Cypro–Minoan script (p. 214–264).  Ferrara’s discussion of epigraphy addresses head–on the fragmentation that seems to be inherent in the studies of this script, to which she says, “somewhat paradoxically, the material looks graphically fragmented because it is assumed to be fragmented” (p. 270).   The result of the author’s attempt to address that fragmentation is a wholesale revision of the traditional tripartite classification of Cypro–Minoan, which had been thought to accurately depict “three different subsets of inter–related, but not identical, scripts” (p. 271), referred to as CM 1, 2, and 3.  Though she acknowledges that “there was never such a thing as a single [Cypriot writing] tradition, constant and uniform throughout” (p. 213), Ferrara states that her study “came to conclude that in all likelihood [the] dissolution [of the tripartite division] represents a compelling consequence deriving from a contextual study of the script and its inscriptions,” on “paleographical…, epigraphic, statistical, geographical, and typological grounds” (p. 271).

The paleographic discussion is similarly well–laid–out, if less challenging of scholarly convention.  As the author herself notes, “the paleography of the Cypro–Minoan script admittedly deserves a monograph of its own, because the script is inordinately rich in graphic variations, segmental minutiae, and diversions from what we would be keen to recognize as ‘normalized’ signs.”  However, this study addresses several relevant paleographic questions, such as the previously insufficiently explored question of the “diachronic variability of sign-shapes,” or whether alteration in the script’s signs is a natural and inevitable process or whether “graphic conservatism [is] imposed from above” (p. 270).  While she is unable to answer that question, Ferrara successfully lays the groundwork for its further consideration, as well as for the consideration of several other questions surrounding the script, its use, uniformity, and development, and the influence of other languages and writing systems (both Aegean and Near Eastern) upon its adoption and use, as well as what phonological carry–over there may have been from the Cypro–Minoan of the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age encoding of the Greek language in Cypriot script (pp. 272–273).


FERRARA’S STUDY BUILDS on the current momentum shift in Cypro–Minoan studies, which has moved efforts away from pure decipherment and toward the construction of “the first fundamental grounds upon which to base…future study” (p. 1).  In doing so, the author appears to restrict her discussion to those inscriptions whose Cypro–Minoan provenience is secure, which has necessarily resulted in the omission of some potentially related inscription.  For example, no mention is made of the ostrakon and inscribed jar handles from Early Iron Age Ashkelon, which may demonstrate either the use or the appropriation of the Cypro–Minoan script by the city’s Philistine inhabitants.** However, this is not necessarily a negative; by omitting those instances which are not certain to reflect this specific script (and the still unknown language it represents),*** the author ensures that the scope of her study remains tightly focused, and that the foundation she is attempting to build for future study of the Cypro–Minoan script is solidly grounded in that which we do know for certain at the present.

While some recent academic texts have been released with what seems to be little regard on the part of the publisher for quality or durability, the quality of this volume’s printing is commensurate with its content – a plus in a volume whose price tag will likely limit the majority of its circulation to libraries, but whose utility will cause multiple students and scholars to make use of their libraries’ copies of the book.  While Cypro–Minoan Inscriptions is a resource of unquestionable value on its own, this work was designed to be used in tandem with a forthcoming second volume containing a comprehensive photographic presentation of the entire known corpus (Cypro–Minoan Inscriptions, Volume 2: Corpus, Oxford University Press).  Upon the second volume’s release, currently scheduled for November 2012, Ferrara’s comprehensive and groundbreaking study of the script will likely prove to have even greater value for students and scholars alike whose research involves either the island of Cyprus or the greater Eastern Mediterranean world as a whole in the Late Bronze Age.


Cypro–Minoan Inscriptions, Volume I: Analysis by Silvia Ferrara (ISBN 0199607575; 336 pages; $125) is published by Oxford University Press.

* T. G. Palaima, “Cypro–Minoan Scripts: Problems of Historical Context,” in Y. Duhoux, T. G. Palaima, and J. Bennett (eds.), Problems in Decipherment (Louvain–la–Neuve: Peeters, 1989), 162.
** F. M. Cross and L. E. Stager, “Cypro–Minoan Inscriptions found in Philistine Ashkelon,” Israel Exploration Journal 56:2, 129–159.
*** N. Hirschfeld, “Cypro–Minoan,” in E. H. Cline (ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 379, for example, considers the evidence of the Ashkelon inscriptions in particular to be unconvincing at present.


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