Ontological vs. Epistemological differences

[Drawing from a Bronze Age Minoan cup, ca. 153...

[Drawing from a Bronze Age Minoan cup, ca. 1530-1750 B.C.E.] (Photo credit: UIC Digital Collections)

Sun Feb 22 14:04:36 2009
There is a strong tendency when comparing the proto-historical cultures of the Minoans and Mycenaeans to look at ontological (what we know) similarities and differences. I think there are also some interesting things to be said about the epistemological (how we know) similarities and differences between the two cultures.

Language & Documents
One thing that the Minoans and Mycenaeans have in common is that almost all the surviving documents are lists and inventories. There are no known surviving narratives–no poetry, history, personal or official letters to help us fill in the details or provide context.

Few surviving documents make it difficult even to decipher Minoan Linear A with any degree of confidence. It is probably an Indo-European language, possibly related to Indo-Iranian languages or an Anatolian language similar to Luwian. But there is still the possibility that it could be a Semitic language, like Phoenician, or even derive from a previously unknown language group.

Linear B on the other hand has been reasonably well deciphered, recognized as an early form of Greek, and provides us with enough documents to give us some sense of their social, religious and political organization.

Artifacts include tripods, statuary, horns of consecration and various libation jars, cups and tables but all we have to make sense of them are the images from seals, pottery and wall painting and any similarity with later Greek religion. The use of an eight word Libation formula and the occurrence of inscriptions on items of ritual significance suggest hints of Minoan religion but even complete decipherment will reveal little beyond the names and titles of various deities. The predominance of female figurines suggest female deities or priestesses but the details remain unclear and uncertain.

Curiously we don’t fare much better with the Mycenaeans. Our ability to translate their inscriptions provides us with the identification of several deities: chthonic earth gods and early prototypes for some of the later Greek pantheon. But we have yet to find any major religious architecture like temples or shrines although the Mycenaean megaron (“great hall”) may have had some religious significance.

Warfare vs. Commerce
For the Minoans we have much evidence that suggests trade and commercial activity and a dearth of evidence that suggests warfare and military activity. With the Mycenaeans on the other hand we have ample evidence of warfare and military activity and much less evidence for trade and commercial activity. This has often led us to assume the Minoans were a peaceful trading society while the Mycenaeans were a martial and warring culture. However a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

Warfare is a highly organized activity with very specific culturally established rules. A culture whose rules and methods for conflict resolution differ from ours might be hard to recognize through the archaeological record. It is easy to project the idea of a seaborne naval empire, a concept familiar to us; harder for us to understand and interpret limited, personal or ritualized warfare. The ancient Maya had unfortified cities that for years led us to believe the were a peaceful non-violent people. Only when we had deciphered their writing did we find their inscriptions document a culture of widespread violence and regular warfare. We run the same risks of misinterpretation with the Minoans.

In general we know much more about the Mycenaeans than the Minoans. There is more evidence, more context to that evidence and more similarity between the ancient Mycenaeans and more recent and better understood Greek culture. This allows us to draw parallels and make inferences with a greater degree of confidence. Our ability to make confident assertions about the Minoans is severely limited and perhaps makes this culture all the more fascinating and certainly more mysterious.


~ by severalfourmany on February 22, 2009.

2 Responses to “Ontological vs. Epistemological differences”

  1. Excellent post. Your commentary about the largely undeciphered Linear A script is important. Martin suggests that Linear A was probably originally influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphs, and probably an adaptation of an Indo-European language. That represents a unification of extremely diverse communication methods, both in form and geographic influence. The author further declared that much of what is understood about Linear A is that it was good for keeping lists of inventory and accounting.

    Interesting is that archaeologists originally thought Linear B represented an adaptation of Linear A. Therefore, the two scripts have similar characteristics (the author notes that both scripts use symbols to represent individual syllables), yet they represent two different languages. It was not until the 1950s when an English architect determined that Linear B was in fact Greek, rather than the Minoan language represented by Linear A. (Martin, 24-8)

  2. Thanks. I have heard theories that the Linear A script developed as far north as the Danube or as far south as the Nile. People have speculated that the so-called Eteocretan language is related to Indo-Iranian, Anatolian/Luwian, Semitic/Phoenician or some previously unknown language.

    Many archaeologists have attempted to reconstruct Linear A by equating the phonetic values of the Linear B syllabograms with the same or similar ones in Linear A. Linear B consists of 89 syllabograms (a consonant/vowel combination) and over 100 ideograms (representing a word or concept). Of the 89 syllabograms about half bear a close resemblance to one of the 213 Linear A characters. It is assumed that Linear A was borrowed or developed to write a language different from Greek and the later adopted the Mycenaeans. But peculiar things happen when you use a writing system from one language to describe a different language. In Greek, like English, there is a difference between B and P, G and K, L and R, multiple consecutive consonants (e.g., alpha), and a terminal S (e.g., logos) none of which seem to have been available in the borrowed script resulting in some creative spellings of Greek words. However this idea does not very well account for the vast differences (about ¾ of all characters) between the two systems.

    A French linguist has tried an alternative approach. Starting with the hypothesis that Linear A is an Indo-Iranian language Hubert La Marle has tried to reconstruct Linear A based on the relative frequency of syllables in the Indo-Iranian language with Linear A syllabograms. (Hubert La Marle, Linéaire A, la première écriture syllabique de Crète, 1999)

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