Bringing Linear B to the masses

Detail from a Linear B tablet from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children (Ashmolean Museum)

My sub-sub-specialty is Linear B, the script of the Greek mainland and Crete during the second half of the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1400-1200 BC. It’s an important little area for a couple of reasons. It’s the earliest evidence we have for the Greek language and some of the best evidence we have about the states that used the script. Among other things, it informs us about the prehistory of Greek language, religion, administration, economy, and society. It therefore has some broad appeal. But the community of scholars who work on Linear B is small and specialized, and most Classicists and archaeologists aren’t taught much of anything about the script.

So, as you might imagine, it’s a bit of a problem when scholars without specialized training want to dip their toes into the textual evidence. This is of course not a problem that’s unique to Linear B — the same problems present themselves when any scholar moves outside of his or her comfort zone and into a discipline or sub-discipline with which s/he is less familiar. But it’s especially true of Linear B because the number of specialized practitioners is few. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that the “bible” of Linear B studies, Documents in Mycenaean Greek (commonly abbreviated Docs), was published in 1956 — only four years after the script was deciphered! — with a second edition in 1973 (Docs2). This second edition, however, isn’t really a second edition. It’s a reprint of the 1st edition with ca. 140 pages of additional commentary written by Chadwick alone (Ventris died in 1956) appended to the end of the text of the 1st edition.

For whatever reason, many scholars outside the sub-field continue to rely more or less exclusively on Docs2. A new third edition is in the works but it’s unclear when it will be published — it’s been “in the making” for at least six years. The main dictionary of Linear B is written in Spanish as part of the Diccionario Griego-Español and isn’t commonly used (unfortunately; it is a scholarly masterpiece) and the authoritative Companion to Linear Bnow running to three volumes, is also seldom used by non-specialists. Many of my non-specialist friends confess that they find the scholarly literature impenetrable, and that’s confirmed by the many mistakes contained in virtually every book that includes some discussion of Linear B written by a non-specialist.

For someone like me, this is a depressing situation. I don’t want to spend all my time complaining in book reviews about little mistakes, and I want to see the material I work on get the (positive) attention that it deserves. The field of Linear B studies, like so many academic sub-specializations, is largely turned in on itself and is focused on internal concerns. The first circular of the 14th Mycenological Colloquium (the main conference for specialists in Linear B and other Aegean scripts, held every 5 years or so in a different location) states that “priority will be given to papers that present new inscriptions or new editions” of texts: not exactly a central concern to the average Aegean prehistorian or Greek historian that constitutes the broader audience for our scholarly output.

What’s the solution? Honestly I’m not sure. This post has been more a venting of frustration than anything else. Maybe this isn’t a problem but something that is just endemic to modern scholarly and disciplinary boundaries. I can’t help but feel that scholars of the Aegean scripts haven’t done a good job of communicating what’s interesting and important about their research to a broader audience. Nobody’s written a book like John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World — a Linear B-focused account of the Late Bronze Age aimed at a general audience — since it was written in 1976. That, more than anything else, is limiting the appeal and interest of our sub-discipline.

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2 thoughts on “Bringing Linear B to the masses

  1. Bill Caraher

    Dimitri,

    One solution is a series of engaging blog posts that brings the significance of particular issues in the study of Linear B or particular Linear B texts to the public (i.e. non-specialist) attention! It’s interesting how recent attention on Alice Kober’s contribution to its decipherment has brought the script to the attention of folks far outside the field of Linear B-ology!

    Bill

    Reply
  2. Rebecca

    Might you be able to suggest (or even write your own?) beginner textbook? I love ancient languages, and there’s plenty about Egyptian hieroglyphics but not so much on Linear B. Perhaps if we get more people into Linear B we might get more of a chance of cracking Linear A!

    Reply

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