The Development of Writing: A Not-so-Linear Path



Image: 2″ x 3″ tablet discovered during the 2011 excavation season in Iklaina, Greece (Messenia region), led by Dr. Michael Cosmopolous of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. (Photo:, taken by Christian Mundigler.)

From the Paleolithic cave paintings in France (Pech-Merle; Lascaux), the famous hieroglyphs of Egypt, up until modern-day languages and writing systems, the profundity of  the development and evolution of the written language (and the fact of writing itself) is often overlooked. Until, that is, something amazing is found, such as this Mycenaean clay tablet, perhaps 3,500 years old. The significance of this discovery cannot be over-stated: it is the oldest inscription to ever have been found (thus far) in European and Greek soil. It is a clay plate written in a script known as Linear B.

According to To Vima (TO BHMA), a Greek daily newspaper, it has the potential to change much of the data and knowledge regarding the use of Linear B and the spread of writing. It is a syllabic script that was used for Mycenaean Greek (16th to 12th centuries BCE). It is generally thought that the application of this script was for administrative purposes and there are more than five thousand documents (mostly clay tablets) that contain this script (1).

According to the 2011 report, the focus was on the Cyclopean Terrace and Building X. South of the Terrace painted sherds were uncovered, along with animal bones (mostly of pigs and sheep/goats). To the north of the Terrace were two deposits, the upper one containing pottery. I don’t know where exactly the tablet was found (alas), which I speculate would shed light on what the tablet was recording, but my guess is that it could have accounted for the livestock, being that the finds appear to have consisted mostly of various types of pottery in addition to the remains of animal bones.

When we look at ancient scripts such as Linear B, we are looking at the early foundations of writing. What is interesting (to me), is that if this script was indeed only used in administrative contexts, not reflecting the spoken language, it shows that at this time (correct me if wrong!) there were two parallel languages: the written language and the spoken language. Fascinatingly, the two gradually merged and perhaps that is why scripts such as Linear B fell out of use.

(1) Anne-Marie Christin (ed.), A History of Writing (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), 200.
For a summary of information on Mycenaeans, click here

Rites and Swallows


In honour of the arrival of summer, I’m dedicating this post to a little bird I now pass by whenever I walk through Nathan Philips Square in Toronto: the swallow. We know these birds for their cuteness and their uncanny ability to show up out of nowhere when eating something that could have crumbs. More relevantly (for this post), these birds did not go unnoticed by the ancient Minoans in Greece either.

Pictured above is the “Spring Fresco” in Room 2 (the “Room of the Lilies”) of Building Delta at Akrotiri, Thera (modern-day Santorini, Greece). Thera is one of the very few almost intact Aegean Bronze Age wall paintings found in situ (1). In her article, “A Flight of Swallows,” Karen Foster calls for a reinterpretation of the swallows painted on these walls, a reinterpretation that will shed new light on the room “as a cultic space in which iconography and architecture combined to create a dramatic setting for epiphanic ritual.”(2). She claims that instead of interpreting the image as peaceful and almost fun-loving, the imagery is almost bacchic, arguing the birds exhibit “classic signs of…high-intensity display, of which is possession of airborne feathers for use in nests”(3).

Foster’s is a poignant article because she demonstrates that we risk losing sight of the fact that these motifs might actually represent a very different element of Minoan religion that we do not comprehend. The swallow is an indigenous Theran motif from the Middle Cycladic period appears to have influenced the wall paintings of Late Cycladic I paintings, such as the “Spring Fresco” from Delta 2 (4).

The advent of modernity led to the creation of two fundamentally different ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand and of non-humans on the other (1). Rapid, far-reaching innovations in technology have created a wide divide between living beings (humans, animals) and non-living beings (material objects). Consequently, we no longer see animism in a rock or in the personality of a teddy bear. Representations of swallows are prominent throughout Akrotiri in frescoes found in rooms Delta 2, Xeste 3:4, Beta 6, Arvaniti 1 and West House 5. Pottery with swallow representations are found at the West House, Xeste 3 upper story, Arvaniti 2, Delta 9:1, Arvaniti 1 or 3, Bronou 2 upper room, Arvaniti 2:2, House of Ladies 1, repository 3 and West House 6 (5). Is this because swallows were simply easy and/or beautiful to paint or do they represent or play a part in a ritual that is part of Minoan religion as a whole?

1. Mary B. Hollinshead, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 93, no. 3 (Jul., 1989): 339. Online version is here. 2. Karen Polinger Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 409. 3. Ibid. 4. Heather Mae Russell, “Sacred or Profane: Swallow-Painted Nippled Ewers from Akrotiri” in SOMA 2004: Symposium on the Mediterranean Archaeology: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Researchers, School of Classics, Trinity College Dublin. 20 – 22 February 2004, ed. Jo Day et al. (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006), 149, quoting from M. Mathari. 5. Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” 424-5.

Link to image here

Digging Deep…

Verifying the Historicity of the Bible

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In recent years, some doubt has emerged as to whether or not the Temple of Solomon existed at all. After the destruction of the Temple the ancient Israelites were left with little else but a memory of the Temple. Today, we are left with the insurmountable task of attempting to discover it, but without wreaking havoc upon the Temple Mount. There are several ways of going about to argue for its existence: some methods include archaeological discoveries around the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem, as well as comparing biblical descriptions of the Temple to contemporary Iron Age temples that have been excavated. Even though archaeologists such as Eliat Mazar have claimed to have discovered a section of a city wall dating around the tenth century BCE in Jerusalem (February 2010), which could plausibly have been built by King Solomon. There is a strong case for this to be true (large stone masonry, as well as the pottery found at the site dating from around the tenth century BCE). However, in the fervour that followed, time was not taken to analyze the finds before going to press. These finds may or may not prove to be significant.

Fortunately, we are not bound to the confines of determining its existence based on the chance of discovering tenth century structures around the Ophel area (Jerusalem’s Old City). We can expand our searches beyond Jerusalem by comparing the biblical descriptions of the Temple with contemporary Iron Age temples at ‘Ain Dara’, Tell Ta’yinat and Arad. In sum, these Iron Age are Syro-Phoenician and the Phoenicians were the master masons during this time. All three structures are tripartite langraum (“long-room”) temples. According to 1 Kings: 6-7 and Ezekiel 40-42 the Temple was of a similar structure. Similar building materials were also used; the hekal (vestibule) was paneled with cedar wood and the floor of cypress (1 Kgs 6:15). In Biblical times, cedar trees from Lebanon were extremely valued and would have been imported to Jerusalem from Lebanon (1 Kgs 6). Interestingly, the May 21 online version of Biblical Archaeological Society notes that the wooden beams excavated from Herod’s Jerusalem Temple (c. 70 CE) could have been re-used (“secondary use” in archaeological terms) from the Temple of Solomon. Perhaps, then, this type of discovery can be used to validate not only Eliat Mazar’s claim to have uncovered some remnants of the Temple, but it also validates the argument to incorporate textual analysis of the Biblical texts with contemporary Syro-Phoenician temples.

Images: Temple Mount, ‘Ain Dara’.
For more information about Tell Ta’yinat, visit Tayinat Archaeological Project.

This post is based on research I conducted for my thesis, Writing and Remembering: Descriptions of the Temple of Solomon at the University of Toronto.