Exploring an Ancient and Undeciphered Language: Eteocypriot and the Amathus Bilingual Inscription
An English architect by profession and self-trained in the discipline and studies of linguistics and ancient history, Michael Ventris would be the first to identify the Mycenaean written Linear B inscriptions (1450 - 1200 BC) as a language belonging to a more archaic form of Greek. With the aid of John Chadwick, a full decipherment of the Late Bronze Age corpus would continue from 1951 to 1953, and in turn be published for the world to see (Chadwick, 84). Unfortunately, this milestone did not provide any more insight into the still undeciphered Linear A (2500 - 1450 BC).
It was almost fifteen years ago that I was in college studying for my Bachelors of Science in Electronic Engineering. Ever since I was a young child, I was always fascinated with human history, but it was when I was in college that this fascination turned to an obsession. At the time, I had made a vow to myself, that I would be the one to officially translate the Minoan Linear A script. While I have yet to achieve this goal, I have made significant strides in translating what could be a very similar language. Written with a modified form of the Cretan Linear A, I speak of the Cypriot Linear C and one of the two languages associated with it, Eteocypriot; the other being Greek. The purpose of this article is to bring a renewed interest into one of Europe’s ancient and undeciphered languages.
Ball with Cypro-Minoan 1 inscription. (Public Domain)
A Brief History Lesson
There was once a time when the ancient island of Cyprus had its own native language; a language which was not Greek. Modern scholars routinely refer to this pre-Greek language as Eteocypriot or “True Cyprian.” Derived from the Minoan Linear A, the language was written in the Cypriot syllabary or the Cypro-Minoan variant which would later evolve to Linear C. However, during the 10th century BC, the language was competing with the Arcadocypriot Greek dialect and eventually became extinct in approximately the 4th century BC. To this day, the Eteocypriot language remains undeciphered and the mystery surrounding it continues.
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Initially discovered in 1913 at the acropolis of Amathus, Cyprus, and written on a black marble slab, the Amathus Bilingual (ca. 600 BC) contains the most famous non-Greek inscription written with this Cypro-Minoan syllabary. It is a dedicatory inscription from the city of Amathus to the noble Ariston. As mentioned earlier, the script bore uncanny similarities to that of the Minoan Linear A which immediately earned its title of Cypro-Minoan. In the same fashion, as both Linear A and B, the newly discovered system of writing was identified as a syllabary, where each sign represents a consonant followed by a vowel. This Bilingual is thought to hold the key to deciphering the language of the Cypriots prior to Greek colonization. The Eteocypriots who objected to the rule of the Greeks, gathered to the south of the island at Amathus where they continued on with their Eteocypriot language and more indigenous Cypriot culture (Karageorghis, 114).
Bichrome amphora decorated on either side with a fish. Made at Amathus, 6th century BC. (Antiquities at the British Museum/CC BY 2.0)
The syllabary and their phonetic values were already well known to historians and archaeologists alike. If you recall from the previous section, this script was also used to write Greek, as it was originally identified and deciphered by George Smith in 1872, the Assyriologist well known for his translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian Flood story, with the Idalion Bilingual. Dating to the 4th century BC, the Idalion Bilingual records a dedication to a local deity and is written in both Greek and Phoenician. Using this evidence as a guide, it has proven to later linguists and historians that the values of the signs used in the Cypriot Greek texts are the same as the values used in the Eteocypriot texts. Consisting of four inscribed lines, the top two of the Amathus Bilingual were written in Linear C while the bottom two, Greek.
Inscription in in Eteocypriot (Cypriot syllabary), cica 500-300 BC, probably from Amathus. Donated to the Ashmolean Museum by Prof. J. L. Myres in 1895. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Eteocypriot (Gordon, 120):
 a-na · ma-to-ri · u-mi-e-s[a]-i · mu-ku-la-i · la-sa-na · a-ri-si-to-no-se a-ra-to-wa-na-ka-so-ko-o-se
 ke-ra-ke-re-tu-lo-se · ta-ka-na-[?-?]-so-ti · a-lo · ka-i-li-po-ti
 Η ПΟΛΙΣ Η АΜАΘΟΥΣΙΩΝ ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑ
 ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑΚΤΟΣ ΕΥΠΑΤΡΙΔΗΝ
Transliterated Greek (Gordon, 120): hē polis hē amathousion Aristōna Aristōnaktos eupatridēn
Translation (Gordon, 120): The city of the Amathusans (honored) the noble Ariston (son) of Aristonax.
Early attempts at deciphering the Eteocypriot language have assumed it to be Semitic in origin (Gordon, 119). At the time it made sense, as there was a strong Phoenician influence and settlements on the island. All attempts down this path have yielded little results. However, in recent years, many scholars have been looking to a more Indo-European origin. This is where my journey begins.
A Re-Examination of the Evidence
Working on the basis that this inscription preserved an unknown Indo-European language, it wasn’t until I saw an error in the original transliteration that my two years of work would truly blossom into something more fruitful. The original and only transliteration was published in 1966 by historian and linguist, Cyrus Herzl Gordon (1908 - 2001), and in turn, republished, unaltered, in later research.
The Amathus Bilingual. Source: Gordon, Cyrus H. ‘Forgotten Scripts’. 2nd ed. New York: Dorset, 1987. 145. [Print]
Based on the Greek texts written with this syllabary, we do know that the script was written from right to left with word separators identified by the dots. The error in the mistranslation comes from the third character from the right on the first line (first character to the left of the first dot from the right). Gordon misidentifies this character as holding the syllabic value of ‘ma’ when in fact, it should be identified with the character that holds the value of ‘we.’ This in turn, would transliterate the word in question from ma-to-ri to we-to-ri.
What is most interesting about this new identification is that we-to-ri resembles the Lycian wedr (sometimes written as wedri) and the Mycenean wa-tu (sometimes written as wastu); both of which are Indo-European. The Mycenean wa(s)tu correlates with the Homeric ἄστυ (Iliad II, 332+) and translates to ‘town’ or ‘city’ (Ventris, 590). This new transliteration coincides with the Greek version of the transcription ПΟΛΙΣ (polis) which also translates to ‘city.’ Here we have confirmation that the Eteocypriot language may belong to a subset of the Indo-European family of languages.
The Cypro-Minoan Syllabary. Source: Chadwick, John. ‘Linear B and Related Scripts’. Berkeley: University of California P, 1987. 54. [Print]
It became apparent that the word following we-to-ri, u-mi-e-s[a]-i was a rendering of the name of the city, Amathus and correlates to the Greek written АΜАΘΟΥΣΙΩΝ of line 3. So here we have a clear translation of “city [of] Amathus.”
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Shortly after this I looked into the proper names Ariston (ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑ) and Aristonax (ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑΚΤΟΣ). It did not take much for linguists to identify these two with the Eteocypriot a-ri-si-to-no-se and a-ra-to-wa-na-ka-so-ko-o-se. What interested me most about these two nouns is the case ending of -o-se of the latter. Was this an indication of a possessive suffix in the singular genitive? If so, it would correlate well with the Luwian -assa (plural genitive: -assanz) and the Hittite -as (plural genitive: -an). This would indicate that Ariston was somehow from or belonging to Aristonax. The Greek confirms this by indicating that Ariston was the son of Aristonax.
Operating on these findings, I immediately turned my attention to the languages spoken on Anatolia, specifically Luwian. It was the Iron Age Karatepe 1 inscription (ca. 8th century BC) that provided more insight into this unknown language.
What caught my eye was the Luwian hieroglyphic for sa-na-wí (Payne, 24). This translates to “good” in the accusative and “good(ness)” in the neuter. It bears similarity to the last two syllables of the Eteocypriot la-sa-na. Would this translate to “good” as in “good or noble blood?” This would correlate with the Greek ΕΥΠΑΤΡΙΔΗΝ (the noble). At the moment, I am unsure about the la- prefix.
Inscription in hieroglyphic Luwian script, Amuq Valley, Jisr el Hadid, Iron Age II, 8th century BC, basalt - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. (Public Domain)
Now, we are able to correlate the following words between both the Eteocypriot and Greek inscriptions:
 a-na · we-to-ri · u-mi-e-s[a]-i · mu-ku-la-i · la-sa-na · a-ri-si-to-no-se a-ra-to-wa-na-ka-so-ko-o-se  ke-ra-ke-re-tu-lo-se · ta-ka-na-[?-?]-so-ti · a-lo · ka-i-li-po-ti
 Η ПΟΛΙΣ Η АΜАΘΟΥΣΙΩΝ ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑ  ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑΚΤΟΣ ΕΥΠΑΤΡΙΔΗΝ
Seeing how this was a dedicatory inscription from the city to the noble, it may further indicate that the Eteocypriot a-na correlated with the Luwian a-ta (also found in the same Karatepe 1 inscription and pronounced anta) which translates to “in” or “from” (Payne, 36). This would in turn translate the first three words to “in/from [the] city [of] Amathus.” This may be confirmed by another previously undeciphered Eteocypriot inscription which reads:
 a-na · a-mo-ta · a-sa-ti-ri
I have translated this to “from [the] mother Astarte,” in which a-mo-ta may relate to the Mycenean Greek ma-te (Ventris, 560). This bears a similarity to the Luwian word for mother, á-na-ti (Hittite: anna-). It was not uncommon to find Near Eastern deities on the island. As the Phoenicians colonized, they built temples and idols in the names of their deities, some of which assimilated with the indigenous population (Karageorghis, 104).
Phoenician temple to the goddess Astarte. (Phillip Hayward/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The last word remaining in the first line is the Eteocypriot mu-ku-la-i. While I am unable to identify the word as a whole, I am under the impression that the last syllable is an enclitic. Compared to the third person Luwian verbs ending with -i, it may signify the word “to” as in “to offer.” In our case, the enclitic appears at the end of the host word, mu-ku-la and applies toward (or is tied to) the word that follows, la-sa-na. If appropriate, this would nearly complete the literal translation of the first line and read as follows: “From [the] city [of] Amathus [ … ] to [the] noble Ariston [of] Aristonax…”
I have made little progress with the second line but speculate that the first word, ke-ra-ke-re-tu-lo-se, may be a proper noun. I only say this because of the structure of the proper nouns I have come across in my research. We already saw Ariston (a-ri-si-to-no-se) but confirmation for this claim may also be found in yet another undeciphered inscription. It is a piece of graffiti found on a vessel and it reads as follows:
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The Eteocypriot ta- may relate to the Luwian pronoun of za- which translates to “this.” This in turn would translate the entire inscription to “...this [is] Vetarye.” Typical of graffiti in which an individual writes their own name. Notice the ending of the name ve-ta-re-se. Going back to the Amathus bilingual, this structure can be observed with the same word ke-ra-ke-re-tu-lo-se. What significance this syllable has is yet to be understood. Could it represent a gender? In Mycenaean Linear B inscriptions, the ideogram “MUL” signified the name or title to be that of a female while “VIR” was that of a male. Please note that due to our limited understanding of this language, these ideogram names are transliterated into Latin and in no way represent how the Mycenaeans would have vocalized it, if at all. Ideograms for gender were also utilized in Luwian texts, where we can observe examples of “man” typically transliterated to the Latin VIR. Again, we do not know how these ideograms were vocalized. The idea of the -se syllable at the end of a noun presenting a gender does bring to mind the masculine ending of -ος (-os) for Greek nouns. This feature is common in both ancient and modern Greek and can even be observed in the Greek translation of the Amathus bilingual for the name Aristonax, ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΑΚΤΟΣ (Aristōnaktos). This feature is not typical of Anatolian languages, however, it would not be too difficult to imagine the native population adopting certain traits from their Greek neighbors. Languages do evolve over time and are heavily influenced by the constantly changing world.
Mycenaean tablet (MY Oe 106) inscripted in linear B coming from the House of the Oil Merchant. The tablet registers an amount of wool which is to be dyed. Male figure is portrayed on the reverse. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, n. 7671. (CC BY SA 3.0)
As the evidence suggests, the language spoken by the Eteocypriots during the Iron Age, which may have also been the same language spoken by the Cypriot natives in the Bronze Age, was of an Indo-European subset, closely related to Luwian; an ancient language spoken predominantly on the mainland of Southern and Western Anatolia. It isn’t too difficult to imagine the ancient migration patterns of an Indo-European stock from the mainland, moving southward to the island of Cyprus. Also, at the height of the Hittite empire, Cyprus was under the dominion and influence of the Hittites. With this knowledge in place, we are more likely to achieve full decipherment of the limited Eteocypriot corpus.
Top Image: The 5th century BC Amathus sarcophagus found in Amathus integrates Greek, Cypriot, and Oriental features. (Public Domain) Background: Detail of the Idalion Decree, a Bronze plaque engraved on both faces with a Cyprian inscription. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Petros is a writer and researcher who is fluent in the language of Greek, and has been a self-taught student of Septuagintal Greek and Biblical Hebrew for quite some time; with additional knowledge in Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Akkadian grammar. His work focuses specifically on the Iron Age of both Mesopotamian and Levantine history and as of recent years, Late Bronze Age Greece, leading to a quest to unravel the mysteries of our history. Author website: www.PetrosKoutoupis.com.
Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. New York: Cambridge UP, 1958. [Print]
Gordon, Cyrus H. Forgotten Scripts. 2nd ed. New York: Dorset, 1987. [Print]
Karageorghis, Vassos. Cyprus. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982. [Print]
Melchert, H. Craig. Cuneiform Luvian Lexicon. Vol. 2. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1993. Print. Lexica Anatolica. [Print]
Payne, Annick, and H. Craig Melchert. Iron Age Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. [Print]
Ventris, Michael and John Chadwick. Documents in Mycenaean Greek. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 1973. [Print]
What a coincidence as I am just finishing "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" by Margalit Fox on Audible. She discusses Linear A and Cypro-Minoan too. I am so glad to have your article to learn more!