BMCR 2014.04.53

Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and its Context. Cambridge classical studies

, Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and its Context. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xviii, 191. ISBN 9781107026711 $95.00.


Recent years have seen important developments in the study of Cypriot syllabographic writing. Silvia Ferrara’s two-volume work on Cypro-Minoan (CM) writing, Jean-Pierre Olivier’s “holistic” edition of Cypro-Minoan inscriptions (hereafter HoChyMin)1 and the eagerly awaited corpus of 1 st millennium BC Cypriot syllabic inscriptions prepared by Markus Egetmeyer, Artemis Karnava and Massimo Perna (see below) form an appropriate background for the conception of the title under review here. This is the first single-volume publication dedicated exclusively to the study of both Bronze and Iron Age non-alphabetic Cypriot scripts and presents quite aptly the current state of affairs in this field.

After the necessary illustration and abbreviation lists, acknowledgements and a Concordance of HoChyMin inscriptions cited (pp.ix-xviii), the core of the volume is formed by the Introduction (pp.1-6), written by the editor, followed by seven chapters that study Cypriot syllabic inscriptions from a variety of grammatological, linguistic, philological and historical perspectives. As the editor herself acknowledges, this collection of viewpoints illustrates well the differences in the terminology employed: the term ‘Cypro-Minoan’ has been justifiably criticized (most strongly by Sherratt in this volume), alternatives are also problematic: to call Cypro-Minoan scripts simply “Cypriot syllabaries of the second millennium” (Olivier, p.7) is inconsistent with the possible identification of the tenth-century BC Opheltas obelos as still essentially CM1 (a recurrent issue throughout the volume). There are problems too in the case of the ‘Cypriot Syllabic’ script. Egetmeyer’s “Cypro-Greek” cannot cover the so-called ‘Eteocypriot’ inscriptions (pp.4-5 and also p.47, footnote 141). The possible survival of CM1 until c.950 BC ‒ if the Opheltas inscription is accepted as such‒ would render Olivier’s “Cypriot syllabaries of the first millennium” (p.16) equally inaccurate. Given such problems, we may need to consider resorting to commonly agreed, conventional labels, while we are offered the option of Duhoux’s long ‒but accurate‒ “non Cypro-Minoan Cypriot syllabaries”, abbreviated “nCMCs” (p.47, n.141) for the 1 st millennium systems.

The seven chapters that follow (originally presented as papers at a conference at Cambridge in December 2008) are arranged in a rough chronological order, with precedence given to Olivier’s outline of the development of the entire Cypriot syllabography.

Olivier (pp.7-26) provides a clear and concise account of the various subcategories of Cypriot syllabographic systems used during the second and first millennia BC. Drawing on the immense work represented by HoChyMin, this chapter is accompanied by excellent and indispensable illustrations and tables and is written in a lucid and authoritative style. Besides a couple of more controversial points,2 the brilliance of Olivier’s comprehensive synthesis is evident throughout.

Duhoux (pp.27-47) provides a reasonably detailed exposition of the main data regarding the definition, features and relationship between the four proposed subcategories of Bronze Age Cypriot writing (including the ‘archaic’-looking CM0), mostly drawing on (even if critically reviewing) HoChyMin. Of heuristic value is his painstaking analysis of sign-groups in an attempt to identify ‘nuclei’ and ‘additions’ in them, on a par with his efforts with Linear A.3 Duhoux readily acknowledges the limitations of this method, especially as to the question of the relations between the languages represented by each of the Cypro-Minoan categories, although he tentatively proposes what seems most plausible from the outset: that the co-existence of CM1 and CM2 in such highly urbanized sites as Enkomi most likely points to their use to represent different languages (p.38).

Ferrara (pp.49-76) gives a valuable overview of the Cypro-Minoan scripts with interesting observations and points of convergence and divergence with the previous accounts. She specifically aims at demonstrating the value of what might be considered an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on epigraphic documents both as texts and as material artifacts with their own contextual associations. The concepts of “micro-context” and “micro-structure” (the latter referring to detailed comparisons of the different signaries with special attention to the interaction between the support material and the form of the sign) serve to demonstrate the importance of analysis at the micro-scale. Throughout her contribution, she exposes the considerable difficulties in the internal classification of Cypro-Minoan, justifiably termed “a variegated affair” (p.61). However, from her sound critical points (that do suggest the need to thoroughly revise Masson’s ideas), it does not immediately follow that any division did not altogether exist. Although she acknowledges the possibility of multilingualism in quite cosmopolitan Late Bronze Age Cyprus, Ferrara raises the possibility that CM1 and CM2 “may well be one and the same script” (p.75), while at the same time admitting that this “simply does not explain the differences across the subgroups” (p.68). Her criticism of CM3 as a separate category (pp.57-58) is likely to invoke much less reaction.

Sherratt (pp.77-105) focuses on the genesis of the Cypro-Minoan writing and, in particular, on a critical reassessment of its Aegean ancestry. She too discusses Cypro-Minoan “in context”, namely the chronological and sociopolitical context of the adoption of writing in Late Bronze Age Cyprus, as well as the intellectual context in which past and current interpretations were shaped. Sherratt’s refreshing and deliberately iconoclastic discussion places the idea of a genetic link between Linear A and Cypro-Minoan within the frame of Evans’ conceptions and preconceptions about the cultural dynamics in the second millennium BC Eastern Mediterranean and argues that the ‘Minoan’ ancestry of the first writing on Cyprus owes its academic dominance to Sir Arthur’s “dominating personality (and celebrity)” (p.83). Sherratt goes on to stress the complex picture created by the different writing systems in use in the Middle and Late Bronze Age East Mediterranean, and especially the too many “unknowns” that we do have regarding the linguistic and political geography of Cyprus, Anatolia and the Levant. She does not pretend to have an easy way out of the many puzzles of this fragmentary and complicated material; she offers us a highly desirable impediment to the uncritical perpetuation of traditional assumptions and a useful reminder of how much we still do not know. Yet, we can be sure that the general frame is by and large correct: although the phonograms sharing identical or close form and phonetic values in Linear B and 1 st millennium Cypriot syllabaries are admittedly “not […] very many” (p.101, n.35), their very existence cannot be adequately explained without assuming some sort of genetic link between the Aegean and the Cypriot systems during the Late Bronze Age.

Egetmeyer (pp.107-131) studies the elusive script ‘reform’ that the passage from Cypro-Minoan to the 1 st millennium BC Cypriot syllabic scripts could represent. He justifies calling the latter “Cypro-Greek” (whose abbreviation “CG” can be confused with Cypro-Geometric) from the fact that “the main bulk of [the 1 st millennium BC] material is written in this language, and one can suppose that this language was the target of the adaptation” (p.108). The problem with this assumption is not the fact that the Cypriot syllabic script was also used to write the non-Greek Eteocypriot language(s): if Olivier’s reclassification of the Opheltas inscription as still Cypro-Minoan is accepted, then the fact that Cypro-Minoan could be used to write Greek undermines the linguistic motivation behind the ‘reform’. Egetmeyer discusses eleventh to ninth century BC Cypriot syllabic inscriptions and their affiliations to Cypro-Minoan and the later ‘Classical’ or ‘Paphian’ signaries, stressing the important point that “[t]he Opheltas inscription does not contain Paphian innovations” (p.120) and is distanced from Cypro-Minoan only by its Greek reading. Egetmeyer offers many insightful comments on the implications of the preservation of j- series signs and the total loss of the q- series and uses the seeming non-representation of labiovelars in our extant 1 st millennium material as an argument supporting the late date of the ‘reform’.

Iacovou (pp.133-152) looks at the political function of 1 st millennium BC Cypriot syllabography. She presents important observations about the patterns of script use by rulers of different linguistic identities throughout the 1 st millennium BC indicating the strong affinity between the syllabary and the Cypriot Greek dialect: bilingual/digraphic inscriptions were never issued by Greek-speaking rulers, while the Cypriot syllabaries were never used to render the koine. It is interesting that, despite the koine enforcement by the Ptolemies that brought Phoenician and Eteocypriot to an abrupt end, syllabic Cypriot Greek continued (although it is uncertain whether the Nea Paphos sealings demonstrate Cypriot syllabic literacy as late as the 1 st century BC, cf. Olivier’s comment on p.23).

Perna (pp.153-160) offers us a glimpse into the benefits of the research that has gone into the preparation of the forthcoming corpus of 1 st millennium BC Cypriot syllabic inscriptions (to be published as Inscriptiones Graecae XV in three parts).4 He presents two cases where the preparation of the new corpus has led to revisions of two inscriptions from the Cesnola collection in Turin: one limestone tablet inscription, formerly classified as ‘dubious’ in ICS, p.390, is reinterpreted as actually alphabetic, while a chalcedony seal which Cesnola himself read as alphabetic is in fact in the Paphian syllabary.

The structure and layout of the volume is excellent, leaving room for only one significant complaint: although Olivier’s and Egetmeyer’s contributions are well-illustrated, figures and tables are used very sparingly elsewhere. Ferrara’s and Sherratt’s contributions, in particular, lack any illustration although they would have profited immensely from it.

Bibliography is common (pp.161-180; “General” at p.161 is confusing, since there is no other category). Although author-date-page references (except for abbreviated works, p.xv) are used in all chapters, there is some variation in the way these appear, with Olivier, Duhoux, Iacovou and Perna placing them in footnotes, and Ferrara, Sherratt and Egetmeyer inserting them within the text. Indices of inscriptions (pp.181-183) are also very important, but prospective readers should be aware that not all authors refer to inscriptions in their HoChyMin or ICS numbers (only Olivier, Duhoux and Egetmeyer make use of HoChyMin numbers). Further editorial pressure might have been desirable on this point. The inclusion of an index of discussed Aegean and Cypriot syllabic signs (pp.184-185) deserves high praise.

Overall, this valuable collection of essays should be consulted by anyone with an interest in Bronze and Iron Age Cypriot writing. Graduate students and experts will equally profit from the variety of opinions and perspectives included herein, while certain segments (particularly Olivier’s clear account) can be suitably suggested for the advanced undergraduate level as well.


1. S. Ferrara. Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions Volumes I-II. Oxford 2012; J.-P. Olivier. Édition Holistique des Textes Chypro-Minoens. Pisa-Roma 2007. We should add Nicolle Hirschfeld’s excellent chapter on “Cypro-Minoan” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (ca. 3000-1000 BC), edited by E.H. Cline, Oxford 2010, pp.373-384; A. Morpurgo-Davies and J.-P. Olivier “Syllabic scripts and languages in the second and first millennia BC” in Parallel Lives: Ancient Island Societies in Crete and Cyprus, edited by G. Cadogan, M. Iacovou, K. Kopaka and J. Whitley, London 2012, pp.105-118.

2. We cannot be certain that our extant signaries of CM1 and CM2 (1300 and 1500 attested signs respectively) are complete (p.11); the example of sign AB 48 ‒identified on Linear A only as late as 2005 despite the nearly 8000 attested signs‒ on a stone so-called libation table from Kato Syme by Olivier himself (reported on pp.8-9, fig.1.1) can be didactic. While Olivier’s assurance is most probably valid for the ‘core’ Cypro-Minoan syllabaries, the skepticism expressed by T. Palaima (“Cypro-Minoan scripts: Problems of historical context” in Problems in Decipherment, edited by Y. Duhoux, T. Palaima and J. Bennet, Louvain 1989, pp.121-187, esp. pp.124-125 and 157-158) is still preferable and certain signs of peripheral use may still remain to be discovered. Of course, any definition of CM3 should not use a geographical criterion (pp.11 and 15), but be firmly based on the existence of a sufficiently different signary (p.11; cf. Duhoux’s points on p.38).

3. Y. Duhoux “Une analyse linguistique du linéaire A” in Études Minoennes I: Le linéaire A edited by Y. Duhoux, Louvain 1978, pp.65-129; id.. “Le linéaire A: Problèmes de déchiffrement” in Problems in Decipherment ( supra n.2), pp.59-119.

4. Announced also in M. Egetmeyer, A. Karnava and M. Perna. “Rapport 2006-2010 sur les écritures chypriotes syllabiques” in Études Mycéniennes 2010. Actes du XIIIe Colloque International sur les Textes Égéens, edited by P. Carlier et al., Pisa-Roma 2012, pp.23-40 (at p.27).