Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- 5th-I4th cent. B.C.

edited by: Giulia Torri (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Descrizione (FR)

The Lycian alphabetic writing system consists of 23 signs for consonant sounds and 6 marks for vowels. Two of these are nasal (ã and are commonly transliterated A and E). The inscriptions are represented from left to right.

The majority of the examples goes back to the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

The Lycian alphabet shares a close resemblance to the Greek from which it may derive (according to some scholars through a direct influence of the alphabet of Rhodes). Many signs have been clearly adopted from the Greek writing system and were later adapted to the different language. There are also signs of the Greek writing system that have been freely adapted to render sounds typical of the Lycian language. Among these, the most significant symbols are the ones transliterated as ẽ, ñ, m̃, ã.

Words are separated from each other by the insertion of two vertical marks, an element that does not seem to be used in the older inscriptions.

It is still difficult to draw a chronology of the inscriptions and consequently observe an evolution within this writing system. The homogeneity of the signs does not indicate change that can be traced back to a specific geographical area or a temporal development. The only exceptions are the nasal vowels, which have many variants. An attempt to trace a chronological development of this writing system was made by the French scholar E. Laroche, who in 1979 published a detailed study of Lycian inscriptions, including that of Letoon.

Laroche composed a list of inscriptions that can be dated on the basis of their historical content. He sought to identify script variants within these texts that may indicate an evolution, applying the system of paleographic analysis used in the study of Anatolian cuneiform texts of the second millennium.

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Online resources


Use of the script

Many of the inscriptions known today were discovered and recorded by travelers in the nineteenth century. Although this material was not collected in a systematic way, it is the first evidence of the spread of the Lycian civilization and at the same time a record of its rediscovery. The main publication of Lycian inscriptions goes back to Ernst Kalinka and Rudolf Heberdey, Tituli Lyciae language lycia conscripti, 1901. Of course, other inscriptions have been discovered and studied in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The highest number of multilingual inscriptions of the Ancient Near East comes from Lycia. Specifically, there are several inscriptions in Lycian and Greek, mainly used in the dedicatory inscriptions of tombstones. They date back to the fifth and fourth centuries BC. There are about 150 engraved on the rock of the tomb where there are mostly instructions for burials. Some of these inscriptions are perfectly bilingual. In other cases, the second language, Greek, seems to be a loose interpretation of the Lycian text. The Greek text immediately follows the Lycian text without a break so that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the inscription in Lycian ends and the one in Greek begins, also because the two scripts are very similar. These inscriptions were produced by a Lycian cultural elite and the Lycian part must, of course, be considered the most important element of the monument.

The "Bilingual of Xanthos" is important for the deciphering of Lycian. An inscribed pillar erected in the agora of Xanthos, it is 4 m high and conserves inscriptions on all sides. It is placed over a burial chamber; on the top of the pillar there was, perhaps, the statue of the Lycian dynast to whom the inscription is dedicated. The Lycian text consists of 138 rows followed by a Greek epigram and an entry in Lycian B (not yet deciphered) of 105 rows. Studies on the arrangement of the text on the pillar indicate that the three texts were inscribed in succession and reflected a single compositional unit.

The first publication of the text goes back to Ch. Fellows, 1843 ("On an Inscribed Monument of Xanthus," Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature II, ser. I, 1843, 254ff).

Another fundamental text for understanding the Lycian language is the trilingual inscription of Letoon, a sacred place near Xanthos. This inscription concerns the establishment of the worship of two gods, the "king of Kaunos" and Arkesimas. It is written in three languages, Lycian, Greek, and Aramaic. The inscription dates back to the fourth century BC and is a dedication written by the Satrap Pixodaros who lived in the time of Arses, King of Persia, the successor of Artaxerxes III.

There are numerous graffiti on ceramic materials, rock and metal objects. Although limited, some of these are particularly important for the dating of the writing system and its geographical distribution. The majority of these graffiti were discovered in the twentieth century and published by Neumann. In particular, there are two graffiti, N300a and N300b, dating respectively from the sixth and the seventh century BC, constituting the oldest testimonies of this writing. There are, however, doubts connected with their origin from the island of Rhodes.

Origin of the script

The Lycian writing system was clearly derived from the Greek. Several scholars have proposed a derivation from the red group of alphabets for the form of one of the velar consonants in Lycian: the sign k or χ is equivalent to the sign that in these alphabets is used for chi and not for psi as in blue alphabets. It is believed that nearby Rhodes favored the passage of the Greek alphabets to Anatolian population groups, the Lycians among them, who adopted and adapted it to their needs.

The Lycian alphabet has a number of signs whose forms and values are similar to the corresponding Greek signs. In addition to this, Lycian developed a series of signs to express sounds peculiar to the language. These include the nasal vowels (ã and ), the voiced consonants ( and ñ) and some consonant sounds of still uncertain value. For this need, there are many signs taken from Greek to which a new value was assigned. There are also signs that appear to be creations of the Lycian population. According to the scholar O. Carruba, these “new” signs were not original creations but adopted by other contemporary writing systems, such as Lydian and Carian, from which Lycian takes signs of non-alphabetical derivation.

Compared with the other writings systems of the first millennium Anatolia such as Lydian, Phrygian and Carian, Lycian seems the most recent. It shows most of all a very limited number of different variations. In this case we can assume a single scribal school spread throughout the country, as opposed to a case such as the Carian alphabet that seems to diverge greatly from city to city.