Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

          ErN 81, entry Dec 2008, rev. Oct 2010, update Aug 2015, items 2 & 3 , June 2018
update Nestor's Cup Sept. 2022   
Early literacy

There are 3 items on this page:#1 (directly below)-      #2. Kinds of Writing            #3. the Alphabet in Italy by R. Carpenter

    1. Of Monkey-Men and Nestor's Cup                                                    

Some time ago, M., a dear friend and art historian, wrote me:

"You probably know that the first instance of Greek language on an object was found in the Greek ruins in Ischia."

I didn't. Dear M. was giving me way too much credit, but first things first. The Greek name given to the island we now call Ischia was Pithecusa. That's pith, as in pithecoid and pithecanthropous—ape. Island of the monkeys. Why would the Greeks settle on an island full of monkeys, you ask? Good question. (And this will be on the midterm exam.)

The Greeks settled on Ischia because everyone knows they just love islands, and this one had a nice, nostalgic Olympus-looking mountain on it (which turned out to be a volcano!) (oops...not so...see Pithecusa). Mainly, however, they wanted an island as a convenient place to trade with the Etruscans, the mainland power in the Italy of 700 b.c. (the presumptive date of the settling of Pithecusa) without encroaching on the mainland, itself. The area was not unknown to the Greeks. Many centuries earlier, Mycenaean Greeks had visited the same bay. (See "Uncovering the Bronze Age on Procida".)

There were, however, no monkeys. The pith- comes in because Greek mythology spoke of a race of thieving and mischievous little forest creatures called Cercopes that Zeus turned into monkeys and banished to various volcanic areas, one of which was our island out here in the bay. (I'm hazy on that. Cercopes means "-with a tail" in Greek and there is, indeed, a genus of monkey called cercopithecus; thus, I don't know if these little Greek proto-Leprechauns had tails before or after Zeus turned them into monkeys. Robert Graves in The Greek Myths (1955), section 136.c-d has "...[some say that Zeus] punished their fraudulence by changing them into apes with long yellow hair, and sending them to the Italian islands named Pithecusae." ["Islands" —plural—because the small island of Procida, next to Ischia, was included.] So, apparently, the settlers did not name the island when they settled. It was already Pithechusa and they had set out from Greece—Euboea, the second largest of the Greek islands—where things must have been dull, indeed, to sail to that volcanic island in Italy where Zeus had sent all the ape-men.

Nestor's cup and early Greek writing.

The Archaeological Museum of Pithecusa, open since 1999, is housed in the 18th-century Villa Arbusto in Lacco Ameno on Ischia. The jewel of the collection is "Nestor's cup" (top photo). That expression can be (1) a reference to Homer's Iliad and the golden cup belonging to Nestor, the wise, old advice-giver and king of Pylos; (2) a cup discovered at Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann (the excavator of Troy) that he claimed was the Nestor's Cup of the Iliad; or (3) the cup on display at the museum on Ischia. The Pithecusa cup bears an inscription in an early Euboean form of the Greek alphabet. This forerunner of our modern alphabet was in existence in Greece by about 800 b.c., and there are enough samples from 700- 600 b.c. to show that writing was widespread enough in the Aegean by then to serve as a practical means of communication, for commerce and even early literature.

The cup in the museum was discovered in 1954 in a Greek tomb on Ischia and has been reliably dated to 750-700 b.c., making it at least one of (if not the) oldest sample of Greek writing found inscribed on an object. (The other candidate is the so-called "Diplyon inscription" a short text on an ancient Greek pottery vessel, found in 1871 at the ancient Dipylon Cemetery in Athens.) The cup on Ischia is more interesting since it actually makes the literary reference to Nestor's Cup. Translating the inscription on the cup, however, is many daunting steps up from "The pen of my duck is on the table" of your high school Italian class. This is Homeric Greek written in the oldest alphabet we have. Forms of letters have changed and the inscription, itself, is fragmented and has to be reconstructed. People who do this have lots of unfragmented letters after their names, and their discussions are replete with references to the Indo-European ablative and long vowel subjunctive and sentences such as "In Vedic Sanskrit, as in Homeric Greek (and contemporary Russian), the verb 'to drink' may take either an accusative or a partitive genitive of the liquid drunk, reflecting an inherited semantic opposition."* At least one plausible reading of the inscription, written in three lines, right-to-left, is:

"This is Nestor's cup, good to drink from. Whoever empties it will be seized by desire for Aphrodite, crowned with beauty."

It is generally agreed upon that the inscription was meant to be humorous —a piece of clay claiming to be the fabled golden cup, indeed! (Ho-ho. Slap my thigh and call me Ajax.) Other than that, the jury is out and probably never coming back. It may be a classical reference to the Iliad (given the ample wiggle room on the presumptive date of the writing of that classic); on the other hand, whoever inscribed the cup may have known about Nestor from other sources (after all, Homer had to get it from somewhere). It is also slightly racy —"seized by desire"— so maybe the inscription was the result of a "drinking game", slightly tipsy potters in ancient Greece each inscribing a line. The Pithecusa cup was not manufactured on Ischia; it was made in Greece and brought to Italy by settlers.

*(above) from "Observations on the 'Nestor's Cup' Inscription" by Calvert Watkins, in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 80 (1976), pp. 25-40.

added Sept. 2022 - The cup now in the museum on Ischia was brought there from Greece, probably by some sailors just having a good time. However, they would have been well familiar with the story of Nestor and the cup. The story was very popular and, indeed, the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens has a picture of it (image, right), meaning "it" must have looked like the gold goblet discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann (the man who found ancient Troy). The goblet is 14.5 cm high and 14.5 cm across; it weighs 295.8 grams. It has a stem, a cup–shaped body, and two handles. Each handle is decorated with a golden bird, which Schliemann observed was reminiscent of the cup of Nestor described in the Iliad. In Greek mythology Nestor of Gerenia was a legendary king of Pylos. He is a prominent secondary character in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, where he appears as an elderly warrior who frequently offers long-winded advice to the other characters. Nestor's Cup is described in Book 11 of the Iliad, where Machaon, son of Asclepius, is injured by Paris, and taken back to the Greek camp by Nestor; a healing drink is prepared for him in the cup. The cup is thus described:

There was also a cup of rare workmanship which the old man had brought with him from home, studded with bosses of gold; it had four handles, on each of which there were two golden doves feeding, and it had two feet to stand on. Any one else would hardly have been able to lift it from the table when it was full, but Nestor could do so quite easily.
—Translated by Samuel Butler, 1898

Along with its description in the Iliad, the cup of Nestor may have appeared elsewhere in the so-called Epic Cycle,
a pre-existing body of oral poetry which dealt with Homeric and non-Homerc explots having to do with the Troajan Was, including Nestor's exploits in his youth

^ top
2. (Nestor's Cup, cont.)

added June 3, 2018   - amended Aug 23, 2023

Kinds of Writing

The terms "early Greek writing", "Greek language on an object", "early forms of the Greek alphabet" and "earliest form of Greek writing" require clarification. Those phrases don't necessarily mean the same thing. An alphabet, for example, is a writing system where a symbol represents a single phoneme (a meaningful sound), such as the p in pin or tip. (The p is "meaningful" because if you change the p to another letter, you get a different word: tin, sin, fin, etc.) In that sense, the modern Greek alphabet shows up around 700 BC. It developed originally from the Phoenician alphabet (shown, right) the oldest verified alphabet and the most influential one in Europe, spread by this remarkable seafaring merchant culture throughout the Mediterranean. The Greek, Roman, and Cyrillic (Russian) all developed from Phoenician (others did not: Arabic and Hebrew, for example.)

The earliest inscriptions in the Phoenician alphabet appear around 1050 BC. But that date is not really so old if you think that the ancient Chinese and Sumerians were writing in some fashion as long ago as 3000 BC. That's why we differentiate between "early alphabet" and "early form of writing". All those alphabets come from earlier forms of writing that are conceptually different from an alphabet; that is, they are some kind of "picture" writing. Sumerian cuneiform wedge writing (shown, right) from around 3000 BC was an example. Those systems can be quite complicated, as were Egyptian hieroglyphics, and it does not follow that they must change and develop into alphabets. Chinese has not changed (although it has often simplified the characters). But they can change and historically have usually done so. The Phoenician alphabets descends from Egyptian hieroglyphics.
There was yet another form of writing, a syllabary, used by the Minoan civilization first on the island of Crete around 2000 BC and then in Greece, itself, after the Minoan culture was destroyed (according to one theory) by the eruption of Santorini island (called Thira in modern Greek, the Italian name Santorini --from St. Irene-- was tacked on by the Venetians) 200 km/120 mi SE of the Greek mainland around 1700 BC and everyone picked up and moved to the Greek islands and then the mainland further north and became Mycenean Greeks. There were really two writing systems. One was called Linear A and the other Linear B. The second one, Linear B (shown, right), has been partially deciphered. It is a syllabary; that is, a symbol represents one syllable, like writing the word hello with two symbols. Linear B consisted of 87 signs, each representing one syllable, and the Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B to record economic matters of interest to the elite rulers but of little interest to their subjects. There doesn't appear to have been poetry or epic literature, at least that we know of. That is a bit of a mystery. Ancient civilizations could indeed produce literature if they wanted, no matter what system they used. There is nothing inferior about the wedge-shaped Akkadian cuneiform writing used to write the Epic of Gilgamesh in 2500 BC. The Myceneans just didn't do it (again, that we know of). Linear B also contains ideograms, pictures with self-evident meaning. (A picture of a dog with an X over it for "no dogs allowed" is such a logogram in the modern world.) The other system, Linear A, has still not been deciphered, so we don't know what it is. An alphabet? - unlikely; syllabary? - maybe, but it's not even certain if it represents the same language as Linear B. Why would they have two? It's also possible that Linear A is related to the older hieroglyphic system used by the ancient Egyptians.

Mycenaean Greece (named for the most important city, Mycenae, about 100 km/ 60 miles SW of Athens), along with the entire Eastern Mediterranean went totally to pieces after 1100 BC. (Technically, that chain of disasters, wars and other niceties is called the Bronze Age Collapse. It lasted for three or four hundred years.) Then the Greeks came back, started forming city states and thinking about writing histories, mythology, astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics and jokes about Nestor's cup. For all that they used a true alphabet. That is the alphabet found on the artifact on Ischia (see item 1, top of this page).
The example of Linear B is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

David Crystal in  his exemplary "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language", (second edition, p.185. Cambridge University Press. 1997) says,
"Verbal graphic expression is so enormously varied that it defies any simple system of classification."
Is it then fair to ask whether one way of writing is "better" than another? -- "better" in the sense of expressing thoughts more efficiently? Fair or not, it's a common question. The answer is  "no". The Great Pyramid was built by Egyptians, who wrote hieroglyphics. Abstract Buddhist philosophy is written about by people who write Chinese, whose technological achievements include the Great Wall of China and modern rocketry. The modern industrial and post-industrial revolution is mostly discussed in alphabetic languages, European and non-European.

We lucked out with the Rosetta Stone, familiar to most. It was found in the Egyptian desert in July 1799 by a French officer during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is a stone slab inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC in the Ptolemaic dynasty. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts respectively, while the bottom is in Ancient Greek (which scholars could read and thus use to find out what the other two were saying.). The Rosetta Stone is the key to deciphering the Egyptian scripts. We could use a few more Rosetta Stones. Two candidates are
               (1) The Palermo Stone, and               (2) The Phaistos disk.

 The Palermo Stone

The Palermo Stone is an important Egyptian artifact with information on the first five dynasties of Egypt (c.3150 – c.2323 BCE) and even pre-dynastic Egypt (before Egypt was unified). Not much is known about the Palermo Stone’s origins — no one knows where it was originally found or when it was written. In 1859 Ferdinand Guidano bought the Palermo Stone. His family gave it to the Palermo Archaeological Museum in 1877, now the Antonino Salinas Regional Archeological Museum. It has one of the richest collections of Punic and Ancient Greek art in Italy, as well as many items related to the history of Sicily.

No one is certain of the age of the Palermo Stone, but most researchers believe it was written no later than the last entry, about the Fifth Dynasty, which ended around 2300 BCE. Despite this lack of information, it has been a vital source for the history of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is the only record of several royal family members.

  It is one of seven surviving fragments of a stele (an upright slab or pillar with inscriptions -
Eng. pron. rhymes with "steel") we call the Royal Annals of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. This stele shows a list of the kings of Egypt from the First Dynasty (c. 3150–2890 BCE) to the early part of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2392–2283 BCE) and noted significant events in the years of the reigns of the pharaohs. It was probably made during the Fifth Dynasty. The term "Palermo Stone" is sometimes used for seven surviving fragments of the Royal Annals, including those held in museums in Cairo and London. The Palermo Stone and other fragments of the Royal Annals preserve what is probably the oldest historical text that has survived from Ancient Egypt and forms a key source for Egyptian history. The Palermo Stone formed may originally have been about 60 cm high and 2.1 m wide. The fragments are a compact hard black stone, probably a form of basalt. The Palermo Stone is an irregular, shield-shaped fragment, 43.5 cm high, 25 cm wide and 6.5 cm thick. The inscription on the "front" of the Palermo Stone are on six horizontal bands or registers of hieroglyphic text running right to left. The original location of the stele is unknown. The importance of the Palermo Stone was not recognized until it was noticed by a visiting French archaeologist in 1895. The first full publication and translation was that done in 1902 by Heinrich Schäfer. The Palermo Stone and other fragments of the Royal Annals are a vital source for the history of the Old Kingdom and, for example, preserve names of members of the royal families during the first five dynasties, which are not otherwise recorded.

The Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc (also spelled Disk) is a disk of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, possibly dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age (second millennium BC). The disk is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and place of manufacture remain disputed. It is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion on Crete.

The disc was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, and features 242 tokens (little boxes), comprising 45 distinct signs, which were apparently made by pressing hieroglyphic "seals" into a disc of soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiralling from the rim toward the center of the disk. Many of these 45 signs represent objects easy to identify, such as plants.  Even I can the spot the same sign used 4 times. ( A man's head. If you're a man with a "Mohawk" hair-cut, it looks like you! Note: 
If the scribe imprinted that sign with a reusable "seal" and saved and reused the seal later, that amounts to the use of "moveable type", "invented" by Gutenberg a few thousand years later! ) The inscription is to be read from the outside in toward the center. Most linguists assume it's a syllabary, based on the proportion of 45 symbols in a text of 241 tokens typical for that type of script; some assume a syllabary with interspersed logographic symbols, a property of every known syllabary of the Ancient Near East (Linear B as well as cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing).  Most scholars say the Phaistos Disc disc was made on Crete. A few other similar items with similar markings, such as the Arkalochori Axe, have also been found on Crete.

^ top

Nestor's Cup 3.  
added June 12, 2018
This is an excerpt from "The Alphabet in Italy" by Rhys Carpenter from The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1945) pp. 452-464. This is from a much longer article, amply illustrated and fully footnoted. Rhys Carpenter (1889 – 1980) was a highly respected classical art historian and professor of Classical Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College. He was also a professor at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and instrumental in planning American excavations. He argued for dating the Greek alphabet to the eighth century B.C. (i.e. the 700s BC), now consistent with general scholarly opinion. His insight about the importance of pottery in the transmission of literacy to the Etruscans is a valuable one.

To judge from the contents of the Etruscan tombs, it was not until the seventh century B.C. that Etruria became an open market for Greek commerce. The latest student of the material, Edith Hall Dohan, in her extremely competent and valuable study of Italic Tomb-Groups in the University Museum, came to the conclusion that it was during the period 680-650 B.C. that "foreign influence penetrated deeply into Central Italy." This should be the period to which Herodotus was referring when he asserted that the Phocaeans of Asia Minor
...were the first among the Greeks to undertake long voyages; and it was they who disclosed Adria and Etruria and Spain and Tartessos, traveling not in merchant-tubs but in fifty-oared ships.
For nearly a century and a half thereafter, Greek-Etruscan trade flourished without recorded interruption or hostility. Then, in 535 B.C., after many of the Phocaeans had abandoned their Asia Minor home through fear of their new Median overlord and migrated to their twenty-year-old colony of Alalia in Corsica, the Greek infiltration close to the Elba mines and the passage between the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Sea, aggravated by hybris toward the natives, brought an Etruscan-Carthaginian alliance against them with a navy which the Alalians were able to defeat only at cost of their own men-of-war. The Etruscans conveyed their Greek captives from this engagement to their port-of Agylla below Caere and there stoned them to death; while the doubtfully victorious Phocaeans, correctly appraising the situation, withdrew from Corsicato southern Italy with their families and all the possessions which they could load on their few remaining ships, and founded Velia. Thus ended the Phocaean chapter in the Greek exploitation of the West.
Etruscan ill-will, once kindled against the Greeks, spread to Cumae outside the Gulf of Naples, now the northernmost outpost of Greek trade in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In 524 the Etruscans of Capua, taking with them Dauni and Aurunci tribesmen, made an unsuccessful assault on Cumae, which in turn proceeded to ally itself with the Latin League to defeat the Etruscans at Aricia and break their hold on Rome. Previously, Cumaean contacts had been more with the interior of Campania and extended across to eastern Italy on the Adriatic. It is not until these events of the last quarter of the sixth century that we are entitled to postulate any very direct or very intimate cultural relations between Greeks and Latins.
But Greek trade with Etruria survived these vicissitudes. Continued importation of Attic ware is attested by the contents of the Etruscan tombs; and the strong formative influence of Attic art on Etruscan wall-painting proves how close the contact must have been. The final cessation of relations came with the Persian War and its concomitant Punic-Etruscan alliance against the Greek towns of Sicily, culminating in the crucial naval battle off Cumae in 474 B.C. Thereafter, to its own cultural detriment, the failing Etruscan empire looked north and sought to compensate itself beyond the Apennines, while on the south it wholly abandoned Greece in favor of Carthage which by now completely controlled the Spanish and Atlantic trade. Commercial relations between Etruria and Greece had thus lasted almost precisely two centuries, from ca. 680 to 474 B.C. Early in that span of years the Etruscans had learned the Greek alphabetic signs. Attic influence had come too late to count in this regard. The Phocaeans had arrived early enough; but it was not they who taught the Etruscans their letters. At the start, it was Corinthian pottery which bulked largest in the Etruscan importation of Greek wares (...) Etruscan imitations of Protocorinthian and especially Corinthian are innumerable. Though Greek Protocorinthian almost never carried any written legend, imported Corinthian was copiously adorned with writing. And it is precisely at the turn from Protocorinthian to Corinthian, around the middle of the seventh century, that Etruscan familiarity with alphabetic writing is first attested by the tomb-finds.
[ed. note on the Phocaens:
Phocaea is modern-day Foça on the western coast of Turkey. In ancient times it was an Ionian Greek city. Greek historian Herodotus says the Phocaeans were the first Greeks to make long sea-voyages They founded the modern-day cities of Marseille, in France, Empúries, in Catalonia, and Velia, in Italy. - jm]

also see this entry on Pithecusa

to Ancient World portal
            to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023