Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.04

Silvia Ferrara, Cypro-Minoan inscriptions. Volume 1: Analysis.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. 336.  ISBN 9780199607570.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by M. J. C. Scarborough, University of Cambridge (


Cypro-Minoan is perhaps one of the least known and least understood of the various scripts derived from the Aegean tradition of writing, among which Linear A and Linear B are the best-known representatives. Part of the reason for this is that the Cypro-Minoan writing system(s) present a very diverse corpus of material spread over a very small number of objects, and no complete published corpus exists. The book under review by Silvia Ferrara is the first of two projected volumes on Cypro-Minoan: this first volume conducts a new contextual, epigraphic, and palaeographical analysis of the inscriptions, while the second will present for the first time a complete corpus, scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013.1

The author indicates her principal approach in the introduction to her study, as ‘focus[ing] on ways of understanding an undeciphered script’ (p. 1), specifically through a contextual, holistic analysis of the documents, without attempting a decipherment or linguistic identification. Such an approach was called for earlier by Palaima in a paper by which this book has been greatly influenced.2 The goals of Ferrara’s study are twofold: The first part of the book situates Cypro-Minoan in its historical and especially archaeological contexts of Bronze Age Cyprus, and the second part addresses specific problems in the epigraphy and palaeography of Cypro-Minoan. The author ultimately attempts to synthesize a standardized sign repertoire across the attested varieties of the script. Another overarching argument advanced by the study is that Cypro-Minoan, traditionally divided into three varieties, may actually constitute a single, coherent writing system.

The first chapter serves as a general introduction to Cypro-Minoan studies by providing a brief overview of previous scholarship and situating Cypro-Minoan writing in the broader context of Bronze Age Cypriot society. Here the corpus under investigation is defined as a collection of 243 inscriptions (fully enumerated in Appendix 1), following the conventional classification schemes of three different Cypro-Minoan scripts: CM1, CM2, and CM3, as devised by Masson and followed in Olivier’s edition of the inscriptions Édition holistique des textes Chypro-Minoens (Pisa and Rome, 2007; henceforth HoChyMin).3 This chapter further discusses the sociopolitical aspects of writing and argues that Cypro-Minoan writing was created specifically as an expression of Cypriot cultural identity in contrast to readily available (and in principle equally readily adaptable) writing traditions from the Near East (pp. 40-42).

The second chapter progresses from the general and moves on to specifically situate Cypro-Minoan in its synchronic and diachronic distributions as attested in the archaeological record from its beginnings in LC I up to the end of the LC IIC period. The early development of the corpus is first considered through the archaic documents (CM0 of HoChyMin) Enkomi Tablet ##001, and the ‘weight’ ##095, which is reinterpreted (pp. 53-56) as a label. The dynamics of the borrowing process are here considered within a historical-archaeological perspective; as Cypro- Minoan elites may have known Akkadian, or at least were familiar with cuneiform writing through the employment of itinerant scribes from the Near East, the argument that was advanced in the first chapter, that Cypro-Minoan’s adaptation from the Aegean writing traditions (specifically, from Linear A) occurred as an expression of Cypriot cultural identity, (pp. 62-63) is reinforced. The remainder of the chapter traces the development of the early CM1 corpus in the archaeological record across the island.

Chapter three continues the contextual study of Cypro-Minoan into the LC IIIA period, the time period that has produced the majority of the Cypro-Minoan inscribed artefacts. A significant portion of the chapter (pp. 90-124) is dedicated to the contextualization and interpretation of the inscribed clay boules which comprise a significant part of the Cypro-Minoan corpus (HoChyMin ##002–##091, 90 out of the total 243 objects). The remainder of the chapter discusses the diffusion of CM1 in the rest of Cyprus during the LC IIIA period (pp. 124- 132), and the context of the CM3 documents attested at Ugarit (pp. 132-145). Ferrara concludes, on the basis of her contextual-historical analysis of the first three chapters, that the interpretation of Cypro-Minoan documents as having performed either a purely votive or administrative function is problematic, as the documents are contextually distributed in both spheres, and that the script could be interpreted as having functioned in both roles.

The fourth chapter is the first of two chapters in the second section dealing with the epigraphy and palaeography of Cypro-Minoan. One of main aims of this part of the study is to attempt to reconcile the diversity of Cypro-Minoan inscribed materials and to challenge Masson’s conventional tripartite classification of the documents into the subgroupings CM1, CM2, and CM3. The first steps in this direction are made through critically reassessing the relationship of the variation in the palaeography, as determined by the properties of the inscribed object, and the epigraphic techniques required to produce them. This approach is welcome, as the diversity of the materials on which the corpus is inscribed (clay, metal, stone, and ivory), makes individual signs in the signary more prone to classificatory fragmentation because of the varying means required to inscribe them, whether it be by incision, impression by stylus, or, in a single case, painting (##094). As the clay boules form a large and distinct sub- class of Cypro-Minoan documents (##002–##091), a classification of scribal hands is attempted on a small group of these found in close archaeological context to one another (pp. 181 ff.). Likewise, the Cypro-Minoan tablets form their own distinct class consisting of four fragments from Enkomi (##207A+B–##209) comprising the entirety of CM2, and four CM3 fragments from Ugarit (##212-215). Ferrara gives these their own specific pinacological study, taking note of dimensions, shape, formatting techniques, and importance of the epigraphic variables for the ductus attested on these documents. Ferrara also argues that the join between the two fragments ##207A and ##207B is invalid on epigraphic grounds. Epigraphic variation in the documents, such as reading direction and word-division, are examined insofar as it may be ascertained within an undeciphered script.

The fifth chapter starts with the goal of tracing the development of the Cypro-Minoan signary and attempting to set up a tentative standardized sign repertoire for the script across the varieties of the script. In attempting to thus demonstrate unity across them the ‘tentative suggestion’ is made that such cohesion ‘could point to the possibility that Cypro-Minoan may constitute only one script’ (pp. 219-220). While it is worth noting that it is possible to go too far in over-synthesizing the evidence in its undeciphered state, since a full decipherment of Cypro-Minoan at this time seems unlikely given the current paucity of evidence and the wide diversity of the corpus, an attempt at such a synthesis is entirely sensible.4 Ferrara argues, based on a sound discussion of syllabaries that is well informed by cross-linguistic typology, that the syllabary was likely of the ‘open’ type (i.e. only writing ‘open’ V, CV, or CCV syllables), a conclusion which would otherwise have to be simply assumed on the basis that Linear B (and presumably Linear A, from which Cypro-Minoan arguably derives) and the later Cypriot Greek syllabaries from the Classical period are also open syllabaries. The process of adaptation, and the sociolinguistic and sociocultural dynamics of the adaptation of writing systems, are also well discussed in typological comparisons considering examples from the transmission of the alphabet, localized comparisons with Urartean, Hurrian, and Hittite syllabic cuneiform, and in comparison to other, better known Aegean syllabic scripts. After considering theoretical concerns, Ferrara analyzes the palaeographic variation across the Cypro-Minoan corpus, and through this produces a tentative, standardized sign repertoire of 74 signs, organized synoptically across CM1, CM2, and CM3. The final section of the chapter is devoted to an explicit critique on Masson’s linguistic analyses of CM2 and CM3 as representing, respectively, Hurrian and Semitic languages. This critique is a necessary step in substantiating Ferrara’s interpretation of Cypro-Minoan as a single, unified script.

The sixth and final chapter offers a retrospective of the results of the study and prospects for further Cypro-Minoan research, and is followed by numerous appendices, including a complete list of the inscriptions in the corpus, archaeological contexts of inscribed artefacts, and complete analytical repertoires of the CM1, CM2, and CM3 signaries.

An overall assessment of the work requires bearing in mind the caveat that the prospects for deciphering Cypro- Minoan are still rather slim given the small sample size of the corpus, but the possibility of new discoveries may change those prospects in the future. While new discoveries or a future decipherment could, naturally, call into question some of the epigraphic and palaeographic analyses, the work makes an excellent effort towards a synthesis of the difficult and variegated evidence that the current state of the corpus provides. Additionally, the historical and archaeological contextualization of Cypro-Minoan is an innovative approach in comparison to earlier, decipherment- oriented studies. Whether or not Cypro-Minoan actually constitutes a single script as the author contends, the work does an admirable job of attempting to make well-reasoned deductions and analyses on the basis of the available evidence, and readily illustrates and avoids the pitfalls of taking linguistic identification as the end goal of working on an undeciphered script. Students and scholars of Aegean scripts and prehistory, as well as historians and archaeologists specializing in Bronze Age Cyprus, will find that the work serves to fill an important gap in the existing literature with its archaeological-contextual study of the documents, as well as offering a fresh approach to the epigraphy and palaeography of the Cypro-Minoan script itself.


1.   The author states in her introduction (p. 4): “The present volume on the analysis of the script, while conceived as self-standing and autonomous, is intended to be read and consulted in conjunction with the Corpus, because each volume offers interpretations and descriptions heavily reliant on the data of the other, and the Corpus offers a photographic apparatus designed to showcase all known inscriptions comprehensively.” As the corpus was unpublished at the time of this review, I have relied upon J. P. Olivier’s mostly complete corpus (which contains 217 of the total 243 inscriptions used by this study), Édition holistique des textes Chypro-Minoens (Pisa; Rome, 2007), in the course of writing this review. A full list of the inscriptions used by Ferrara in the present study are catalogued in her first appendix.
2.   Cf. T. G. Palaima, “Cypro-Minoan Scripts: Problems of Historical Context” in Y. Duhoux, T. G. Palaima, and J. Bennet (eds.) Problems in Decipherment (Louvain-la-Neuve, 1989).
3.   The classification into these three categories follows Masson’s argument that the three scripts of Cypro-Minoan write three different languages. See discussion to chapter five of the book below, and for a summary of Masson’s views, which identifies the languages of CM2 and CM3 as Hurrian and a Semitic language respectively, cf. Masson “Cypro-Minoan Scripts” in A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity, ed. A. F. Christidis (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 235-238.
4.   It is possible that mistakes may be inevitable in the process of synthesizing variation. For example, the case of the Linear B sign *90 = dwo at a pre-decipherment stage was rationalized as a sequence of two repeated signs *42-*42 = wo-wo, and it was only after the decipherment that the pun embedded in the script was recognized.

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