Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions  Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases

Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics

Version 2.0
July 2012

Adrienne Mayor
John Colarusso
David Saunders

Abstract: More than 2,000 “nonsense” inscriptions (meaningless strings of Greek letters) appear on ancient Greek vases. We ask whether some nonsense inscriptions and non-Greek words associated with figures of Scythians and Amazons represent meaningful sounds (phonemes) in foreign languages spoken in “Scythia” (Black Sea-Caucasus region). We analyze the linguistic patterns of nonsense inscriptions and non-Greek words on thirteen vases featuring Scythians and Amazons by otherwise literate vase painters (550-450 BC). Our results reveal that for the first time in more than two millennia, some puzzling inscriptions next to Scythians and Amazons can be deciphered as appropriate names and words in ancient forms of Iranian, Abkhazian, Circassian, Ubykh, and Georgian. These examples appear to be the earliest attestations of Caucasian and other “barbarian” tongues. This new linguistic approach to so-called nonsense inscriptions sheds light on Greco-Scythian relations, literacy, bilingualism, iconography, and ethnicity; it also raises questions for further study.

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