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Cretan Hieroglyphs
Quick Facts
LocationEurope > Crete
Time1900 BCE to 1600 BCE

Bronze Age Crete was home to the powerful seafaring civilization known to the modern world as the Minoans. As the first literate culture of Europe, the Minoans employed not one but two related writing systems. The more commonly known system is Linear A due to the rectilinear shape of its symbols. The second system, more ancient but less well-known and even less understood, is called Cretan Hieroglyphs. It is so called because of the relatively naturalistic style of the characters, as compared to the more "abstract" forms in Linear A. Many signs resemble natural objects like body parts, plants, animals, implements, weapons, ships, as well as more abstract symbols.

Most early writing systems have their origins in iconographic systems and likewise Cretan Hieroglyphs most likely evolved out of non-linguistic symbols on sealstones from the late 3rd and early 2nd millenium BCE. Cretan Hieroglyphs was the first writing of the Minoans and predecessor to Linear A, which in turn gave rise to Linear B and Cypriot. Its relationship to the script of the Phaistos Disc is unknown, however there are many theories proposing some kind of relationship mainly based on the similarity of some of the signs.

Even after Linear A appeared as a fully fledged writing system, Cretan Hieroglyphs continued to be used along side Linear A for hundred of years in the same geographical area. However, the usage of the two scripts were considerably different. While Linear A was mostly inscribed on clay tablets, the majority of Cretan Hieroglyph texts appeared almost exclusively on small portable objects like sealstones. The majority of Linear A clay tablets were accounting records in the form of lists of numbers and objects, whereas seal-stones were used to impress their texts on other surfaces, likely labeling the owners' names on goods. In other words, for the most part they perform complementary functions, Cretan Hieroglyphs functioning in a ornamental and perhaps public setting whereas Linear A employed in mundane, day-to-day administration of state institutions.

However, there are cases where Cretan Hieroglyphic inscriptions are not pictographic and ornamental. A few texts contain more stylized and linear signs that bear resemblance to Linear A, as illustrated in the following example:

This text is in fact inscribed on a clay bar and the presence of numbers (the dots) means that it likely contains accounting information. Therefore this inscription might be a transitional form between Cretan Hieroglyphs and Linear A.

Cretan Hieroglyphs remains undeciphered as no interpretation is widely accepted. One impediment to decipherment is that the seal texts are short and the sign sequences relatively formulaic, which means little the same problem preventing the decipherment of Indus Script. It is possible to compare its signs to Linear A and Linear B signs and produce a syllabic grid, but since the underlying language is unknown, few words aside from accounting terms and place names can be distinguished. Cretan Hieroglyphs' language was certainly not Greek, the language of Linear B. Also, because Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphs have very different roles and functions, their sign sequences do not overlap significantly which makes it difficult to tell even if they represent the same language. In other words, the Cretan Hieroglyphs will not be decipherable until major discoveries such as longer texts or even bilingual inscriptions are made.

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