Knossos, elite strategies, and the invention of Linear B

I just re-read an excellent article by John Bennet, “Now You See It; Now You Don’t! The Disappearance of the Linear A Script on Crete” in a collection of essays about the disappearance of writing systems. Bennet argues that Linear A didn’t disappear, but that it was “killed” in order to create a new script, Linear B, used to write a new language, Greek. He suggests that this was

part of a major cultural realignment among the Knossian ruling elite (including those who used writing), no doubt bilingual, who chose to differentiate themselves through a range of cultural materials and practices drawing on both local and mainland traditions. This realignment included the adaptation of a script that was already at least 300 years old (and
so perhaps distanced from spoken forms of its language) to a new written language.

Some background is probably in order here. Linear A was the script that dominated Crete for the first 200 or 300 years (depending on your views on the absolute chronology) of the Late Bronze Age. It disappears somewhat abruptly at the end of the LM IB ceramic phase, ca. 1450 BC. Linear B appears at Knossos in central Crete shortly thereafter, ca. 1400 BC, and clearly owes much to Linear A: some 75-85% of the syllabic Linear B signs have formal parallels in Linear A. But whereas Linear B was used to write an early form of Greek, Linear A is undeciphered. It nevertheless seems clear that Linear A wasn’t used to write an early form of Greek. Among other things, if that were true, we should have deciphered Linear A already.

The traditional interpretation of these facts is cultural-historical: invading Mycenaeans seized Knossos ca. 1450 BC and, establishing themselves as the rulers of Knossos and much of its hinterland, adapted the older administrative system and script to serve their own purposes, which included modifying the script so that it could be used to write their native language of Greek. Another piece of evidence used in service of this argument is mortuary, especially burials that emphasize military status in and around Knossos at the same time.

In the past 15 years or so, however, a new interpretation has emerged: the changes are essentially internal to Crete and especially to the Knossian elite, who constructed a new identity that borrowed some mainland elements. The shift from Linear A to Linear B has been explained in political terms as a strategy for Knossian elite to consolidate political control. As Driessen and Langohr write in Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces II,

Language was the means, not the end. Whoever took control of Knossos may well have deliberately changed the language as part of a political strategy, so that administrative reforms could be made that allowed tighter control.

I’m hesitant to conflate result with intent — in part because I’ve read too many practice theorists who emphasize the unintended consequences of human action — but let’s leave that to the side for the moment. The new, endogenous, model, has a number of strengths. It eschews the cultural-historical explanation in favor of one that explains internal politics on Crete and, importantly, identity politics. The tombs around Knossos, for instance, aren’t easily explained as the tombs of Mycenaean conquerors, but make use of a variety of local Cretan forms and materials.

One thing that has always bothered me about this new model are the names. Some 70% of the personal names in the earliest tablets from Knossos can be understood as Greek. Names, of course, are given for all kinds of reasons, and needn’t be a good indicator of ethnicity or identity (I immediately think of late 18th century Hawaiian chiefs naming their children “King George”). But personal names are almost never mentioned by advocates of the new model. Indeed, if the invention of Linear B was a cynical tool of a broader “power grab” by the Knossian ruling elite to make administration easier to control and centralize, why then did they give their children names like Lawosthios, probably a hypocoristic for Lawosthenes vel sim., which we could somewhat anachronistically translate as “the strength of the people” and Akhilleus, “he who brings pain to the people”? Clearly we must be dealing — no matter which model we use — with issues of identity. Here it’s fairly straightforward. These are martial names for an elite that uses martial themes (or actual martial achievements) as symbols of status. But what about a name like Opilimnios, a compound that should mean “On-the-lake”, or Simos/Simon, “Flat-nose”, or Psakhomenos, “Rubbed down”? These are, I think, somewhat more difficult to explain in the same terms.

I haven’t done a systematic study of the names, at least not yet, but those in the earliest Knossian tablets (from the “Room of the Chariot Tablets”) look to me like regular Greek names, the kind that you see in other Linear B tablets and in later alphabetic Greek. This doesn’t mean that we need to accept the cultural-historical model in which intrusive Greek-speakers from the mainland entered and took control of Knossos. I do think that it suggests, however, that the linguistic changes at Knossos weren’t just a cynical political ploy that only affected writing or administrative practices. The implication (in the Driessen and Langohr article) that the changes at LBA Knossos were (only) power elite strategies seems to me not only overly voluntarist (that is, society and identity as creations of calculating individuals) but also to underestimate the importance and the depth of the historical processes at work.


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