around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (3) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 14)

Hi again, everybody!  Thanks again for your comments!

More about Greek scripts: Linear B is one of a number of syllabic scripts found in Crete during the twentieth century by archaeologists such as Arthur Evans.  In 1952 it was persuasively (and, to some, surprisingly) deciphered as very early Greek by the talented and well-informed amateur Michael Ventris and the linguist John Chadwick – although not only non-mainstream writers but also some mainstream scholars (notably Sinclair Hood, W.B. Lockwood and George Thompson) have rejected or at least questioned this decipherment.

Linear A, though visually similar to Linear B, cannot be read as Greek and has resisted authoritative decipherment; Cyrus Gordon’s Semitic interpretation has not been generally accepted.  (Note also other material by Gordon in which he argues that examination of Cretan texts corroborates his theory that Greek and Hebrew cultures stemmed from a common Semitic heritage.  See earlier for more on Gordon.)  The classicist Simon Davis reads Linear A – along with the ‘Minoan Pictographic’, Eteocretan, Cypro-Minoan and Eteocypriot scripts – as Hittite.  Other ‘decipherments’ of Linear A are offered by outright amateurs.  (I discuss the special case of the Phaistos Disk below.)

In a very different vein, Ross Hamilton argues that the specific letter-forms of the Greek alphabet were based on the patterns in the Great Serpent Mound (Ohio) and display spiritually significant links with this artefact.  Hamilton is aware that the alphabet had a Semitic source (very probably Phoenician) but garbles the details.  His philology is of the usual amateurish kind; for instance, he equates Greek ophion (‘serpent’) with the word Ohio. He also ignores well-established etymologies, and his own ‘evidence’ mostly involves impressionistic reactions.

The famous Phaistos Disk is a flat disk of baked clay, sixteen centimetres in diameter, which was presented to the learned world in 1908 by French and Italian archaeologists excavating the Minoan palace complex at Phaistos in South-Central Crete (built about 1700 BCE).  It is inscribed on each side with a text apparently running from right to left and spiralling in from the rim to the centre (though some read it with the opposite ductus).  There are some 240 character-tokens in all, representing 45 distinct types, some pictorial and some apparently abstract; they are divided into 61 groups by broken radial lines.  Very remarkably given the early date, the signs were impressed into the clay when it was soft by means of a set of cut punches.  Neither the Disk itself nor the characters resemble any other items yet discovered in the Aegean (including Linear A), and both the intended use of the artefact and the interpretation of the text remain mysterious. The body of material dealing with the Disk is too large to cover in detail here; but I’ll summarize.

Most professional scholars who have recently analyzed the text(s) on the Disk, especially those most relevantly qualified, consider that it is written in a syllabary (because of the actual and predicted total numbers of sign-types; see earlier on such tests).  However, there is also a mainstream consensus that the Disk probably cannot be deciphered because the text(s) is/are too brief.  (Extended bodies of text in the same script, or better still a bi- or multi-lingual text of some length such as the Rosetta Stone which was crucial in the decipherment of Egyptian, might resolve this problem.)

In contrast, some scholars have argued that the Disk is in fact a modern forgery.  Jerome Eisenberg supports this view with analysis of the possible motives of those involved in forging it and with close comparison of the forms and sequences of the symbols and those found in other ancient scripts.  Eisenberg clearly has a case, but his views have received trenchant criticism.  The Greek authorities have so far refused to allow thermo-luminescence analysis of the Disk, which would probably settle the matter (though this method is itself not unproblematic, as is illustrated by the case of Glozel).

Many (often less qualified) authors have advanced and continue to advance ‘decipherments’ of the Disk, sometimes in non-linguistic terms (calendars etc.) but more usually finding novel syllabic or non-syllabic writing systems – and often languages or locales favoured by themselves for extraneous reasons.  None of these proposals presents a justified overall reading; and naturally they all contradict each other.  The languages identified in these proposals include Greek of various types (some invented, some typical of the wrong period), various Semitic languages, Basque, Luwian or other Anatolian languages, Hittite, early Slavic and even Polynesian.

The Canadian Jean-Louis Pagé’s bilingual book links his ‘decipherments’ of the Disk and other mysterious texts with his own version of the ‘Orion’ theory of the Giza Pyramids, etc.  He upholds the historical reality of Plato’s Atlantis, locating it in the Arctic and attributing its destruction to a sudden polar shift in 9792 BCE; he also posits extraterrestrial intervention in the origins of human civilization; and he regards most of the Disk symbols as logographic/ideographic and pictographic (but it is not even clear which known or reconstructed language he thinks is represented, and he does not propose any phonological forms).

There has never been serious doubt about the pronunciation of the Etruscan language used by a powerful civilization in central Italy in pre-classical and early Classical times and written in a modified Greek alphabet (presumably originally learned from the Greek colonists of Italy).  However, the texts (mostly very short) resisted interpretation until recent times, and major issues remain.  But these issues mainly involve mainstream work and are thus largely outside my remit here (unlike some non-mainstream claims regarding the Etruscan language itself, which appears to be non-Indo-European; I may deal with these later).

The Picts were an Iron Age society which existed in Northern Scotland from around 300 to around 850 CE.  Stylized rock engravings on the ‘Pictish Stones’ have previously been interpreted as rock art, possibly heraldic in nature.  However, Rob Lee & colleagues conclude that the engravings in fact represent aspects of the Pictish language.  Arnaud Fornet argues that Lee’s group has misinterpreted the engravings in ascribing a linear order to the ‘texts’ and that the material genuinely is in fact artistic rather than linguistic (compare the Australian Panaramitee rock-art).  Other writers regard the Pictish rock-carvings as semiotic rather than linguistic, but with a range of interpretations.

The Picts also had a fully-fledged written language, employing the Ogam script used to write known (mainly Gaelic/Q-Celtic) languages.  The texts can thus be pronounced (as in the case of Etruscan), but they are not extensively understood and the language is unidentified.  The two main views are a) that it is P-Celtic (similar to early Welsh; P-Celtic was used further south in Scotland), and b) that it is a non-Celtic (and quite possibly non-Indo-European) language probably representing a very early settlement population; a minority view c) is that it is an unusual variety of Q-Celtic or intermediate between P- and Q-Celtic.  Further work both on this general issue and on the relationship between the new and the old findings is awaited.

More next time!




One Response to around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (3) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 14)

  1. Pacal says:

    Thanks for the info on the Phaistos disk. I’m aware that there those who consider it likely the disk is a modern forgery. I’m not quite convinced but the arguements are pretty good. Particularily interesting s that the glyphs in the Phaistos disk are “printed” not inscriped into the disk. I have to admit this raises suspicions abot the disk. Although tht in itself is not decisive. Although if the disk is real than the use of “dies” presumably made of clay to impress the images of the glyphs into the disk is a fascinating example of early human inventivness.

    As for the Picts. The arguement that the Picts spoke a non-Indoeuropean language isn’t exactly helped by evidence indicating that the modern day people of the regions then dominated by the Picts are not genetically dissimilar from other Celtic speaking people. Furthermore the traditional accounts of early Scottish history in which the “Scottish” kings of Dal-riada, founded by Irish settlers in the late 4th early 5th century C.E. on the east coast of Scotland who eventually overthrew by intermarriage and conquest the Pictish kings of Alban to become kings of Scotand is likely to be erroneous. The chronicles are confused, late and not terribly reliable. The stories of one of the “Scotish” kings whiping out the Pictish nobility and in one gruesome account the Picts in general seems to be utter nonsense. It is likely that for cultural reasons “Irish” learning and lore along with “Irish” settlement within the Pictish Kingdom(s) resulted in the gradual ascendency of “Scotish Gaelic”. Eventually for reasons of prestige later Pictish kings sought to identify themselves with the “Irish” kingdom of Dal-riada, leading to stories of a Dal-riadean conquest and subplanting of the Pictish kingdom(s). It appears likely that the Pictish main kingdom of Alban was made “Scottish” from within and then went on to unify “Sctoland”.

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