RE Cretan “hieroglyphs”: Brewminate: a Bold Blend of News & Ideas: We're Never Far from Where we Were:
Form Follows Function: Writing and its Supports in the Aegean Bronze Age
by Dr. Sarah Finlayson, Archaeologist/Historian
Posted March 29 2017
Excerpta from the source with COMMENTS by Richard Vallance Janke inserted where necessary:
...a starting point from which to unpick the complex and changing relationships between writing and its material supports during the Aegean Bronze Age, [is] the basic hypothesis that the shape of objects which bear writing, the Bronze Age ‘office stationery’ so to speak, derives from the use to which they, object + writing, are put and the shape changes as this purpose changes.
The shapes of incised objects (exograms) derive from the uses to which they are put. In other words, if the exograms, which, contrary to popular belief, are not hieroglyphs, change not only their form (i.e. shape) but have specific shapes tailored to the functions they perform. For this reason, among others, I cannot accept the hypothesis that they are hieroglyphs. They appear rather to be ideograms and logograms specifically designed to represent the contents of “packages” or “official documents”, sometimes apparently written on papyrus, and therefore subsequently lost due to the climate of Crete which as not conducive to the preservation of papyrus. What the exograms were which were inscribed on the lost documents for which the clay forms served as content indicators we shall never know, but chances are that the papyrus contents were written in Linear A. The incised objects, and I quote, “noduli, flat-based sealings, cones, medallions, labels, three- and four-sided bars, and tablets” specifically served as incised “subject headings” for the contents on papyrus which they represented. Since most people in the palace administration in the Minoan era in which Linear A was the standard syllabary were illiterate, the so-called Cretan “hieroglyphs”, of which there only 45 by my count, exclusive of numerics, served as ideogrammatic guideline markers for the contents of the documents which were once attached to them. Illiterate people could “read” ideograms; they could not read Linear A. (all italics mine throughout this post)
The clay documents comprise crescents (all terms are defined below), noduli, flat-based sealings, cones, medallions, labels, three- and four-sided bars, and tablets (Olivier and Godart 1996: 10–11; Younger 1996–1997: 396). There are also substantial numbers of direct object sealings, which show seal impressions but no incised writing (Krzyszkowska 2005: 99).
The “substantial numbers of direct object sealings” are seal impressions without incised writing because the contents, probably written and not incised on papyrus, which they seal have been lost forever. Thus, the script in which the actual sealed documents has been lost. But what was that script? Was it more of the same? ... Cretan “hieroglyphs”? I very much doubt that, because not a single Cretan seal can be read as syllabic text in a syllabary. What script was the writing on papyrus of the sealed documents? That is the whole point, and the whole mystery. Could it have been an early version of Linear A, a.ka. as Festive Linear A? Quite possibly.
Easier to understand are the gable-shaped hanging nodules (Figure 3d). These sealings are carefully shaped around a knotted string, and carry a seal impression on one face (Krzyszkowska 2005: 280). The majority are uninscribed (only 22 out of the 164 sealings from Pylos carry an inscription), but on those examples with incised text, an ideogram is usually written over the seal impression, and additional sign-groups can appear on the other faces (Palaima 2003: 174; Krzyszkowska 2005: 280). Analysis of the cache of 60 nodules from Thebes, 56 of which have inscriptions, has enabled a convincing reconstruction of their use. The gable shape of the nodules results from the way the clay is held between the fingers while impressing the seal and writing the inscription (Piteros et al. 1990: 113). This shape, together with its suspension cord, give (sic) a small, solid, virtually indestructible and very portable document (Piteros et al. 1990: 183). In this instance, form does not strictly follow function, but rather the two aspects are intertwined in a more complex way. A key part of these documents’ function is their portability, and this governs their very small size, which in turn means only the most important information is recorded, namely the seal impression, the ideogram which identifies the goods, and, rarely, a small amount of additional data, such as anthroponyms, toponyms, transactional terms (Piteros et al. 1990: 177). The formula ‘personal name (here represented by the seal impression) + object + toponym / second personal name’ is equivalent to that recorded on the ‘palm-leaf ’ tablets. Numerals are rare, because that information is supplied by the object itself. It is suggested that each nodule accompanies a single item, mostly livestock in the Theban examples, from the hinterland into the palatial centre, with the nodule acting as a primary document, recording the most crucial information about its object, the sex of the animal, for example, and also certifying or authenticating, by the seal impression, who is responsible for it (probably in the sense of ‘owing’ the item to the palace; Piteros et al. 1990: 183–184).
It is important to note, however, that, except at Thebes, there are considerably fewer inscribed than uninscribed nodules. Sealings of this type would therefore seem to be primarily recording instruments within transactions that do not require the use of writing (Palaima 2003: 174), although this is not incompatible with their being primary documents as described above.
So few noduli survive that it is difficult to understand how they functioned (Krzyszkowska 2005: 284). I discuss this form below as they are significantly more common in LA administration. (Italics by Richard Vallance Janke)
Roundels (Figure 2c) are clay disks with one or more seal impressions around their rim, and usually with a LA inscription on one or both faces, but with no trace of having been hung from or pressed against another object (Hallager 1996: 82). The number of seal impressions on the rim probably specifies the quantity of the commodity recorded in the inscription (livestock, agricultural produce, cloth, vessels and so on), with each impression representing one unit (Hallager 1996: 100–101, 113). Analysis of impressions and inscriptions suggests that at least two people made a roundel, one wielding the seal and another, the stylus (Hallager 1996: 112). These two factors have led to the interpretation of these documents as receipts, created and held by the central administration to record goods disbursed; the seal user would be the recipient, certifying with his or her impression the quantity of goods received (Hallager 1996: 116). Significantly, the physical limitations of these documents necessarily restrict the size of transactions, with 15 units being the largest amount attested (Palaima 1990: 92).
COMMENT on the sentence “a roundel, one wielding the seal and another, the stylus (Hallager 1996: 112). These two factors have led to the interpretation of these documents as receipts, created and held by the central administration to record goods disbursed; the seal user would be the recipient, certifying with his or her impression the quantity of goods received...”
In other words, the actual contents of the documents (apparently written with a stylus on papyrus) to which these seals were affixed may have been administrative receipts or possibly even inventories, in which case the contents of the documents were probably not written in so-called Cretan hieroglyphs, limited as these are to 45. And by 45 I mean 45 ideograms and logograms + additional numerics and nothing more than that. Given that these 45 signs never form any legible sentence or phrase, it is highly unlikely they would have been used for the writing of the contents on papyrus for which they serve as seals.
Noduli (Figure 2e), disk- or dome-shaped lumps of clay with a seal impression but no perforation, imprints of objects, or other visible means of fastening (“sealings that do not seal” [Weingarten 1986: 4]) are a very long-lasting document form, found from the early First Palace through to the Late Bronze Age, but they are particularly common in Second Palace Period LA administration, with around 130 examples known (Krzyszkowska 2005: 161; Weingarten 1990a: 17). Only eight have LA inscriptions or countermarks over the seal impression (Hallager 1996: 127). As they are clearly not attached to anything, noduli are independent documents, and their primary purpose seems to be to carry a seal impression, that is to authenticate or certify something. By analogy with Old Babylonian practice, Weingarten (1986: 18) suggests they are originally dockets, receipts for work done, with the seal impression being made by the overseer to authorise ‘payment’; as the form becomes more widespread in the Second Palace Period, they become more like tokens, to be exchanged for goods or services, or as laissez-passer, with the seal impression identifying the carrier as legitimate (Weingarten 1990a: 19–20).
The previous sentence, beginning with “By analogy...” and ending with “as legitimate” gives us a clearer impression the function(s) of the seals as these relate to the contents they seal. Old Babylonian tablets were incised or written in Cuneiform, which is a readable script meant for the eyes of literate scribes only. Note that the inventorial contents of the Babylonian tablets were clearly written out in Cuneiform. Although this practice is at variance with that of the Cretan seals, it still all boils down to the same thing. The actual contents of the documents to which the Cretan seals were affixed were written out in a language, possibly unknown, possibly Linear A. So in either case, the Babylonian or the Cretan, contents appear to be intended for literate scribes.
Moving on to the ‘passive’ sealed documents, single-hole hanging nodules (Figure 2g) are roughly triangular clay sealings, formed around a knot at the end of a piece of string or cord (Hallager 1996: 160–161). They have a seal impression on one face, and a single incised LA sign, or very rarely another seal impression, on one of the other faces (Hallager 1996: 161). There are five sub- categories of single-hole nodule, differentiated by shape and position of seal impression or inscription (pendant, pyramid, cone, dome / gable and pear, see Figure 2g) with pendant being by far the most common (Hallager 1996: 162–163). About 13 signs or ligatures are found on these nodules, but it is very difficult to discern their meaning; the restricted range might suggest they are acting as arbitrary symbols, along the lines of ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, rather than as syllabograms (Krzyszkowska 2005: 160). These nodules hang from something, although there is no evidence for what (Krzyszkowska 2005: 160). Hallager has proposed a use similar to that observed in contemporary Egypt, where nodules were hung from rolls of papyrus as identification labels, with their cord threaded through holes in the lower part of the scroll to enable it to be unrolled and read without breaking the cord or sealed nodule (Hallager 1996: 198–199).
Once again, the practice of Cretan using seals seems to be very similar if not identical to that of contemporary Egyptian hieroglyphic writing on papyrus, with the critical difference being that Egyptian hieroglyphs are writing, while Cretan seal ideograms are not. But the contents of the Cretan documents on papyrus were probably also written in a script, probably a syllabary, and possibly even (Festive) Linear A. But since the Cretan papyri are lost to history, we shall never know. Was there a “Cretan” script for the written documents on papyrus. It is notable that the Egyptian papyrus, once unsealed, was meant to read, again by literate scribes. Was this the Cretan practice too? Quite likely.
The bars (Figure 1a) are usually rectangular, inscribed on all four sides, and sometimes pierced with a hole at one end (Hallager 1996: 33). That the bars could be suspended suggests they might be used as labels attached to objects for transport or storage, but the information on them seems to be much like that on the tablets, and, in fact, the unpierced examples are perhaps best understood as variants of the standard tablet format (Hallager 1996: 33). Olivier (1994–1995: 268–269) offers an intriguing alternative explanation, that the bars are not attached by cords to any object, but instead hang together on some sort of horizontal rod to enable them to be sorted and stored, or taken down when additional data are inscribed on them; he envisions the bars operating like the LB ‘palm-leaf ’ tablets, for compiling basic data.
Returning now to LA administration, it seems that a link exists between the architectural context of deposits and their composition and function (Schoep 2002b: 25). Although few documents have been found in primary contexts, it is nevertheless possible to identify three commonly occurring groupings (Schoep 1995: 57). “Full combination deposits” always contain single-hole hanging nodules, alongside tablets and other sealings; as the single-hole nodules are postulated to hang from the highest-level records, on perishable materials, these deposits may be ‘archives’ (Schoep 1995: 61).
These (sealed) documents may have been ‘archives’, and if they are, they were probably written out (on papyrus) but not in so-called Cretan hieroglyphs.
This seems to be supported by their location, in central buildings (including Malia Palace, Zakros House A, and the ‘villa’ at Ayia Triada), usually on an upper floor in residential quarters, clearly separated from storage or work areas, and by their association with valuable objects (Schoep 1995: 61, table 3, 62). ‘Single type deposits’ consist of direct object sealings, tablets or noduli, and most seem to be in the location in which they functioned; the direct object sealings are found in magazines suitable for bulk storage, as at Monastiraki, while tablet or noduli deposits can also occur in smaller-scale storage rooms, for example, Houses I, Chania or FG, Gournia (Schoep 1995: 62–63). “Limited combination deposits” fall somewhere in between; deposits from the ‘villa’ at Ayia Triada and Zakros Palace contain tablets and sealed documents, in workshop or storage areas, while other deposits contain only sealings, ...
In reviewing the evidence for LA use in the Second Palace Period, one gets an impression of a widespread use of writing on several media, and for several purposes, with either the writing support being manipulated to add meaning to the text (as with the clay administrative documents) or the other way around (as might be the case with some of the non-administrative objects).
Finlayson notes that the the writing may have been manipulated to add meaning to the texts, in this case written on clay documents. She is making a clear distinction between the ideograms and logograms used on the seals themselves and the writing of the texts which they seal.
Although examples of writing are relatively widespread in the landscape, this need not necessarily equate to widespread literacy, not least because it seems likely that writing is principally an elite activity, and furthermore, that restricted contexts of use possibly mean that ordinary, non-writing, people might well interact with only a single kind, or a small range, of documents, creating a sort of sub-category of literacy, where understanding part of a text’s meaning derives largely from the form of its support and context of use. (all italics by the Commentator, Richard Vallance Janke).
The passage above rams home that fact that literacy was not widespread. Quite the contrary. Only the scribes were literate. On the other hand, the form of the so-called Cretan hieroglyphs were accessible to non-literates, which was everyone except the scribes. That way, non-literate administrators, merchants, distributors of commodities and end users of these could identify what the purpose of what each and every seal represented, without having to be able to read the contents of documents per se.
Clearly, for some of the sealed document forms, the loss of whatever they were associated with means our understanding of their use cannot, without speculation, extend much beyond inferring that they hung from or were affixed to something. Generally, the taphonomy of writing in the Aegean is problematic, as we depend on it being applied to materials that are preserved archaeologically; in the case of clay documents that were not deliberately fired, this means accidental preservation in a wider burnt context (Bennet 2008: 6). There is then an inevitable risk that, in an effort to make up for the gaps in the evidence, particularly with CH and LA where we cannot read the texts, we rely too heavily on aspects like differences in form, which might be a reflection of our own ‘etic’ analyses rather than of different ancient practices (Bennet 2005: 269). “Classer, c’est interpréter” (Godart and Olivier 1979: xxiv) is a crucial principle for understanding a large and complex database at the macro scale, but runs the risk of misrepresenting, at the micro scale, differences in form that result from regional peculiarities of use, or are a function of the way different individuals form and seal or inscribe each shape, as seems likely, for example, for some of the variation amongst LA single-hole hanging nodules (Krzyszkowska 2005: 159–160).
While these points must be borne in mind, it is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that the observable changes in document forms point to alterations in the methods of data gathering, processing and storing (Palaima 1984: 305). I would pick out two as particularly significant. The first is the bundle of changes in sealing practices between the First and Second Palace periods (i.e. between CH / limited LA use, and widespread LA use): direct object sealing is abandoned, suggesting, on the one hand, that the security of storerooms and their contents is managed differently, in a less physical way (Weingarten 1990b: 107–108), and, on the other, that direct control of commodities, by means of attaching sealings to them, is replaced by more indirect methods of controlling commodity information with hanging nodules and tablets (Knappett 2001: 86, n. 26). Furthermore, writing, with one exception, no longer appears on seals themselves, but from this point on is incised or painted rather than formed by stamping (Bennet 2008: 9–10).
What drives these changes is difficult to evaluate, not least because we assume that changes in sealing systems are necessarily tied to changes in writing systems (and possibly language; Bennet 2005: 270).
Key phrase “we assume”. Changes in sealing systems, from simple pictographic seals to seals incised in Cretan “hieroglyphs” and eventually to Linear A & B incised directly on the seals do not at all necessarily reflect any changes in the writing systems in which the actual documents (usually on papyrus) were written. That is a false assumption. Note here that Bennet specifically states that the writing systems sealed by the seals were probably independent of the figures or exograms found on the seals, these often being so-called Cretan hieroglyphs. The written language(s) of the document contents have have changed over time, but not necessarily in tune with the seals themselves. Point well taken.
Palaima’s suggestion that LA replaces CH because the latter script is inadequate to record increasingly complex economic activities (1990: 94) is a case in point, and this sort of utilitarian motivation underestimates the potential for writing to be used for ideological reasons. The transition from CH to LA, and from LA to LB, can arguably be seen as part of a deliberate construction of new identities, through the manipulation of knowledge resources or material culture, by elite groups (ALL italics by the Commentator), seeking to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, or exclude others from participating in political or economic life (Bennet 2008: 20; Schoep 2007: 59). Knappett’s observation that, in seeking to look through artefacts to see “the people behind them”, and their motivations or choices, there is a tendency for the objects themselves to be reduced to mere ciphers or emblems of human activity (Knappett 2008b: 122), is also pertinent here. He suggests that more attention be paid to the agency of artefacts, to the possibility that things can “take on a life of their own, entangling humans and pushing them along new, previously unrecognised paths” (Knappett 2008b: 122); while ascribing agency to objects is problematic (Morphy 2009: 6), Knappett is nevertheless right to stress the complexity of the relationship between artefacts and their users.
Much more to follow in the upcoming posts on the uses of pictographs and so-called Cretan “hieroglyphic” seals.
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