Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lost texts: Linear A

When I studied Ancient Greek some 30 odd years ago, my favourite subject was Historical Syntax. In this class we looked at the development of the Greek language, it’s Indo-European roots and how Greek words were transformed into other related words in Lithuanian, German, French, Italian and so forth. 

We also looked at Linear B which was deciphered in 1952. All the credit has gone to Michael Ventris, but in June 2013 the news emerged that American classicist Alice Kober did the painstaking work  behind the decipherment, without which Ventris would not have had the information for the decoding. Unfortunately Alice Kober died in 1950.

Linear B is now a readable text, but Linear A remains an enigma. Scholars have been trying to figure out these texts and there are some advances being made.

This poem is an imaginary text based on material that can be found in the public domain.

Lost texts: Linear A
Final translation
she carries the gilded pot
delicate and three-legged
from Mesara wheat sun-gilded
is cooked with threads of saffron
the shepherd girls bring in the wethers
from the hills
twenty-seven sheep
figs fresh and dried are piled high
golden wine spills from conical cups
the women feast under a full moon

vessel : bronze : three legs : diminutive ending : of gold : carries [fem] 
direction : place name? : movement towards : grain : of gold
[verb] : spice / herb /plant [crocus?] : of gold
shepherds [fem] : sheep : 27 : high  
figs : green : figs : black : high
conical cups : liquid : of gold : high
people [fem] : food : moon

small bronze tripod gilded she carries
from place name Mesara [near Phaestos] to this place
golden grain [wheat]
[transformation verb?] : spices of golden thread [saffron]
shepherds [fem] [sheep neuter – wethers] : 27 : high [from]
green figs [fresh figs] black figs [dried figs] : high
conical cups : golden liquid [wine] : high
people [fem] : food [feast] : round moon

The interesting thing about this short text is the interweaving images and metaphors. The colour gold is a trope that goes through all of the text. Height is also important: in one instance it means from the heights, in the others it suggests a cornucopia. A feast or festival is taking place and a woman is carrying a small vessel that can stand on its three legs. Young women bring in the sheep who have been neutered at some point. Oddly the number 27 is specified. It is unclear what significance this number has; it’s also unclear whether or not the sheep are to be killed [ritually] or eaten as part of the feast or whether these people eat mainly grain, herbs and fruits. If the sheep were to be ritually slaughtered one would expect some sense of the sacrificial to be evident in the poem. Further, one would also expect such a ritual to take place at the dark of the moon or at the first sight of a sickle moon as sympathetic magic with the sheep horns. The wine is plentiful for the feast and the conical cups reflect the moon’s shape.

Interestingly, all the actors in this short text are female, from the unidentified ‘she’ at the beginning of the poem to the shepherdesses to the plural feminine form of people at the feast. The sheep would once have been male but have been castrated and therefore the neuter gender is used for them – they are wethers not rams. While this is a short fragment, the fragment itself is complete. No doubt there is more detail about the unnamed ‘she’ in the poem, possibly a woman with ritual power. The age of the shepherdesses is indicated by a word which suggests that they have not yet reached puberty.

It is possible that the text refers to a puberty rite in which only women participate as has been noticed by Spyridon Marinatos (1976) while Nanno Marinatos (1984) suggests that saffron was used in rites of passage for young women because of its effectiveness against menstrual cramps. The full moon is also suggestive of a puberty rite.

The two signs from Linear A included in this text are not identical to the Tables of Standardized Linear A Signs because there are a large number of hapax legomena (single instance of a word in a text or language) in many of the extant Linear A tablets, most of which are broken (unfortunately it was not possible to include them on this blog site - a small technological challenge I hope to overcome).

The vocabulary for this text has been taken from

Linear A image comes from: (yellow)

For more information see the following texts.

Day Jo. 2011. ‘Counting threads. Saffron in Aegean Bronze Age writing and society.Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30(4): 369-391.

Day, Jo. 2005. ‘Adventures in Fields of Flowers: Research on contemporary saffron cultivation and its application to the Bronze Age Aegean.’ In SOMA 2003: Symposium of Mediterranean Archaeology. Edited by Camilla Briault, Jack Green, Anthi Kaldelis, and Anna Stellatou. Oxford: Archeopress BAR S1391.

Marinatos, Nanno. 1984. Art and Religion in Thera. Athens: Mathioulakis.

Marinatos, Spyridon. 1976. Excavations at Thera VII. Athens.


  1. Why 27? How about this: there are only two number in the poem, 3 and 27. 3x3x3= 27. The tripod tripled is 27.

    Love the poem. All of it.

  2. Thank you. Yes. We had the same thoughts!!!

  3. I came upon your work through correspondence on Facebook with Catherine Sheave on the sounds of a Proto Indo European speaker. I shared it to my community of asemic artists and others, and then shared your blog with google friends. I hope this is alright with you...respectfully...

    1. Mary Disney just seeing your comment and yes it's fine to pass it on. The book will be out very soon.

      Best wishes,