Cretan hieroglyphs

Cretan hieroglyphs
Undeciphered (presumed ideographic, possibly with a syllabic component)
Languages 'Minoan' (unknown)
Time period


2100–1700 BC
Status Extinct
Parent systems
  • Cretan hieroglyphs
Sister systems
Linear A
A green jasper seal with Cretan hieroglyphs. 1800 BC

Cretan hieroglyphs are undeciphered hieroglyphs found on artefacts of early Bronze Age Crete, during the Minoan era. It predates Linear A by about a century, but the two writing systems continued to be used in parallel for most of their history.[1]


In 1989, Jean-Pierre Olivier described the state of the Cretan hieroglyphs corpus as follows,

In short, our Corpus is composed of two distinct parts:
  1. Seals and sealings (ca. 150 documents)
  2. Other documents (mainly archival inscriptions) inscribed on clay (ca. 120 documents).

The seals and sealings represent about 307 distinct sign-groups, consisting all together of ± 832 signs. The other inscriptions represent about 274 distinct sign-groups, consisting all together of ± 723 signs.[2]

More documents have been published since then, such as, for example, from the Petras deposit.

The known corpus has been edited in 1996 as CHIC (Olivier/Godard 1996), mainly excavated at four locations:

The corpus consists of:

The relation of the last three items with the script of the main corpus is uncertain.

Some Cretan Hieroglyphic (as well as Linear A) inscriptions were also found on the island of Samothrace in the northeastern Aegean.[4]

It has been suggested that there was an evolution of the hieroglyphs into the linear scripts. Also, some relations to Anatolian hieroglyphs have been suggested.

The overlaps between the Cretan script and other scripts, such as the hieroglyphic scripts of Cyprus and the Hittite lands of Anatolia, may suggest ... that they all evolved from a common ancestor, a now-lost script perhaps originating in Syria.[5]


Cretan hieroglyphs (1900-1600 BC) on a clay bar from Malia or Knossos, Crete. As exhibited at Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, Greece. Dots represent numerals

Symbol inventories have been compiled by Evans (1909), Meijer (1982), Olivier/Godart (1996). The known corpus has been edited in 1996 as CHIC (Olivier/Godard 1996), listing a total of 314 items (documents).

The glyph inventory as presented by CHIC includes 96 syllabograms (representing sounds), ten of which double as logograms (representing words or morphemes).

There are also 23 logograms representing four levels of numerals (units, tens, hundreds, thousands), numerical fractions, and two types of punctuation.

Many symbols have apparent Linear A counterparts, so that it is tempting to insert Linear B sound values.


Main article: Minoan chronology

The sequence and the geographical spread of Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B, the three overlapping, but distinct writing systems on Bronze Age Crete and the Greek mainland can be summarized as follows:[6]

Writing system Geographical area Time span[lower-alpha 1]
Cretan Hieroglyphic Crete (eastward from the Knossos-Phaistos axis) c. 2100–1700 BC[5][7]
Linear A Crete (except extreme southwest), Aegean islands (Kea, Kythera, Melos, Thera), and Greek mainland (Laconia) c. 1800–1450 BC[8][9][10][11]
Linear B Crete (Knossos), and mainland (Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns) c. 1450–1200 BC


Fonts Aegean and Cretan support Cretan hieroglyphs.


    1. Beginning date refers to first attestations, the assumed origins of all scripts lie further back in the past.


    1. Yule 1981, 170-1
    2. Jean-Pierre Olivier, The Relationship between Inscriptions on Hieroglyphic Seals and those Written on Archival Documents (PDF file). in Palaima, Thomas G, ed., Aegean seals, sealings and administration. Université de Liège, Histoire de l'art et archéologie de la Grèce antique, 1990
    3. Metaxia Tsipopoulou & Erik Hallager, The Hieroglyphic Archive at Petras, Siteia (with contributions by Cesare D’Annibale & Dimitra Mylona). Download PDF file 60 MB Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens, volume 9. The Danish Institute at Athens. Athens, 2010 ISBN 978-87-7934-293-4
    4. Margalit Finkelberg, Bronze Age Writing: Contacts between East and West. In E. H. Cline and D. Harris-Cline (eds.). The Aegean and the Orient in the Second Millennium. Proceedings of the 50th Anniversary Symposium, Cincinnati, 18–20 April 1997. Liège 1998. Aegeum 18 (1998) 265-272.
    5. 1 2 Rodney Castleden, Minoans. Routledge, 2002 ISBN 1134880642 p.100
    6. Olivier, J.-P. (1986). "Cretan Writing in the Second Millennium B.C.". World Archaeology. 17 (3): 377–389 (377f.). doi:10.1080/00438243.1986.9979977.
    7. Andrew Robinson (27 August 2009). Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford. pp. 55–. ISBN 978-0-19-157916-5.
    8. "The Danube Script and Other Ancient Writing Systems:A Typology of Distinctive Features". Harald Haarmann. 2008.
    9. Literacy and History: The Greeks. R.I.C. Publications. 2007. pp. 2–. ISBN 978-1-74126-506-4.
    10. Khosrow Jahandarie (1999). Spoken and Written Discourse: A Multi-disciplinary Perspective. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 200–. ISBN 978-1-56750-427-9.
    11. Paul Wheatley. The Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City, Volume 2: The Chinese City in Comparative Perspective. Transaction Publishers. pp. 381–. ISBN 978-0-202-36769-9.


    Further reading

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