Tag Archives: Linear B

Tools of the Mycenological Trade, 2017

When I started working on Linear B in graduate school (late 90s), there were a handful of books (beyond corpora of texts) that I always kept on my desk for consultation:

What a difference in 2017. I’m working on a paper about Mycenaean “taxation” (really more like extractive regimes) and although I do have my Aura Jorro handy, as well as Docs2, I am leaning on a new set of super useful texts:

  1. Maurizio del Freo’s and Massimo Perna’s Manuale di epigrafia micenea. The only downside to this volume is that it’s in Italian, which is not my strongest language. (Yes, I realize that this is my fault entirely). But it’s very recent (December 2016), authoritative, useful, and cheap: 41.56 euros for 784 pages! It’s got a glossary of Mycenaean words, and although it doesn’t have an index verborum, it does have an index locorum. It’s great to be able to consult Nosch on textiles, Zurbach on the economy, Perna on fiscality, and Garcia Ramon on Mycenaean Greek all in one handy (two-volume) book.
  2. John Killen’s collected papers in three volumes, formally entitled Economy and Administration in Mycenaean Greece, and edited by Maurizio del Freo (2015). Oh man, this thing is the greatest. To be honest, I never really understood the point of collected papers. I had photocopies of pretty much all of these papers, now they live as PDF scans on my hard drive. So what’s to be gained from having all of the papers together physically? Answer: the index. Killen is so productive, so important, and his work so varied, that sometimes it’s hard to remember where any particular discussion is. The great thing about having all of Killen’s papers to hand and indices (verborum and locorum) attached is that you can immediately zoom to the page that you need. It’s really amazing, especially if you’re working on economic or administrative matters in the Linear B texts.

P.S. What do you listen to when you’re working on Mycenaean taxation? If you’re me, it’s Bob Marley and the Wailers pretty much all the time. For some reason I’m especially into the live version of “Punky Reggae Party” on Babylon by Bus.

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.

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.

Our AIA talk on the digital imaging of Linear B

RTI with Jami Baxley

RTI with Jami Baxley

Kevin Pluta and I submitted an abstract to present a 20-minute paper at the upcoming annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Chicago (January 2-5, 2013) and we’ve just been notified that it’s been accepted. Here’s the abstract we submitted:

Digital imaging of the Linear B tablets from the “Palace of Nestor”

This paper presents a new project, whose goal is to create a print and digital edition of the administrative texts from the “Palace of Nestor” using advanced imaging techniques. Initiated in the summer of 2013, it is part of the official publication of the “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos excavated by the University of Cincinnati under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. We argue that digital editions such as ours have the potential to transform the study of the Aegean Bronze Age by allowing researchers to interact with artifacts at a level of detail and verisimilitude that approaches that of autopsy.

We employ two imaging techniques. The first of these is Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a method that involves taking multiple photographs of the same artifact under variable lighting conditions. These photographs are stitched together into an image file that stores the color of each pixel in addition to how it reacts to light, allowing the user to re-light the artifact in an interactive virtual environment. RTI therefore affords the opportunity to select the best lighting angle or angles for clearest presentation of the inscriptions. Our second imaging technique is structured light three-dimensional scanning, which has the ability to record accurate, low-interference surface data with minimal clean up. The technique is particularly useful as it collects color data that permit realistic renditions of the artifacts being recorded. In combination, these two techniques will provide the user with highly accurate renditions of the color, shape, topography, and texture of each and every administrative document from Pylos.

There are two closely-related advantages that we see to this digital imaging. First, we anticipate an improvement in the conservation and archiving of the physical artifacts, since the availability of high-resolution images in two and three dimensions will reduce the need for their study and handling. Second, a digital edition provides users with the ability to work interactively with the administrative documents in a digital environment. The resolution of the imaging is such that it even permits users to propose new readings and joins. This allocation of high-quality primary data to scholarly experts represents an exciting development. Far from being merely an enhancement of standard methods of illustration, these imaging techniques have the potential to transform the field by distributing control of the primary data to all qualified experts.

Also accepted was a submission for a poster, entitled “The use of structured light scanning for the study of the Linear B deposits from Pylos, Messenia, Greece,” and co-authored by the 2013 team: Ben Rennison, Jami Baxley, James Newhard, Kevin Pluta, and myself.

Political unity in the LBA?

The ever-useful academia.edu (which now keeps asking me if I am interested in Roman Archaeology) brought to my attention an article by Jorrit Kelder entitled “Ahhiyawa and the World of the Great Kings: A Re-evaluation of Mycenaean Political Structures” (Talanta XLIV [2012]). The author argues in this paper that the Mycenaean world was unified into a single state ruled by a single king (the wanax) at Mycenae, while the other Mycenaean palaces were subsidiary administrative centers, each ruled by a local king (the lawagetas).

aegean_smThe spur for this argument, which runs totally against the grain of all Mycenaean scholarship, is the fact that in Hittite diplomatic texts, the region called Ahhiyawa (now located by Hittite scholars in the Aegean) is ruled by a “great king.” It is indeed interesting that our usual understanding of the Mycenaean world, i.e. that it is a patchwork of independent peer polities, is so different from the picture we get from the Hittite texts, and Kelder is right to identify this as an important question that needs resolution. His solution, however, is to accept the historical reality of the Hittite texts and then see whether he can fit the Mycenaean evidence into this picture.

In some ways, of course, that’s what we all do. We work from the evidence we know best to solve problems that they impinge upon, or we temporarily ignore a complex reality so that we can focus our attention on a particular problem (what Giddens calls “methodological bracketing”). The difference is the way that we go about treating the material we don’t know well but which is important to our argument.

In this case, the problem is the way that Kelder treats the Mycenaean material. For instance, we read that

The point that various large-scale infrastructural works (most notably the drainage of the Kopais basin in Boeotia, and the evidence for a well-developed network of roads in, especially, the Argolid) are difficult to reconcile with the modest amounts of resources and manpower that, according to the Linear B texts, would have been available to the individual palaces is usually ignored…

This is all we are told (no citations are given). It is not an unimportant statement, for together with the cultural and administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, it allows that author to conclude in the following paragraph that “The argument for a politically fragmented political landscape during the Late Bronze Age thus seems to be based on assumptions, rather than facts.” It thus shoulders a great deal of argumentative weight.

Passing aside the administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, which seems to me to ignore the context in which writing took place in LBA Greece (on which, see Kevin Pluta’s dissertation), this argument doesn’t hold. The author assumes that what is written on Linear B texts is congruent with (“according to the Linear B texts”), or at least indicative of, the total resources commanded by individual palaces. This is to misunderstand the nature of the Linear B texts and the processes whereby we have received them. The amount of labor recorded on the Linear B texts is indeed not very large, but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the palace could not command large quantities of labor. As many scholars have pointed out, the Linear B texts heavily bias regular transactions, probably because those texts were less often recycled and reused. Thus we are much more likely to have evidence of annual or monthly transactions than ad hoc transactions. A good example of this is the fact that we have much more evidence for dependent groups of women and children at Pylos who are allocated monthly supplies of foodstuffs for their support than evidence for other short-term allocations of foodstuffs. Second, there is some good evidence that the palaces used multiple systems to recruit labor, including the use of intermediaries who were allocated large quantities of staples to recruit various laborers for palatial projects. So what we have in the Linear B texts are fragments of information about the labor that was certainly available to the palace, but in no way can we use this information to determine that the palaces didn’t have enough labor to, say, drain the Kopais or build a road 100 miles long, especially when neither has been adequately quantified.

Kelder makes the important point, and it is a correct one, I think, that it is a mistake to equate administrative borders with political borders (p. 4, bottom). On the other hand, he misrepresents what we know about the two main officials of the Mycenaean state, the wanax and the lawagetas. Although the contexts in which they are appear are similar, it is not true to say that (p. 5, top):

The numerous (and as far as I can see, unconvincing) attempts to make a clear distinction between the two officials, other than the size of their respective temenoi [sic; the plural of temenos is not temenoi, but temene] (at Pylos, the wanax’s is thrice the size of that of the lawagetas), clearly illustrate that there is no real consensus on the exact position and status of either of them.

Actually, there is a clear distinction between the two, which is demonstrated by a number of the secondary sources cited in this article. The adjective formed from wanax is wanakteros, which makes use of a Greek suffix (-teros) that indicates binary opposition (like Greek ἕτερος, “the other [of two]”), while the adjective formed from lawagetas is lawagesios, a regular adjectival ending. Thus it seems possible that the wanax is an important structural concept in Mycenaean Greek (at least among the administrators). There are other differences. The wanax appoints the damokoros, a regional official who administers one of the two main provinces of Pylos. He is thus directly involved in regional administration.

This much is consistent with Kelder’s argument that the wanax is the real king, whereas the lawagetas is a sub-king. But where is the evidence that the lawagetas is a “ruler-like figure”? This is crucial because the presence of two “ruler-like figures” is what Kelder finds so problematic about traditional interpretations of the Mycenaean political order. The answer is that there is no such evidence. The lawagetas appears in a number of important contexts, as does the wanax, but there is no evidence that he is a ruler-like figure. Why couldn’t he be something like the grand vizier, for example? This possibility is never entertained.

pylos-dejongAlso strange is Kelder’s reference to “two throne-rooms.” Here he elides the important difference between a throne-room and a megaron. The former is an interpretation of the function of a space; the latter is a designation of a particular architectural configuration. It is true that the rooms that we consider throne-rooms are megara, but it hardly follows that all megara are throne-rooms. In fact at Pylos, the lawagetas is not thought to hold court in the smaller megaron (room 23), but in Halls 64-65. It’s not certain what the other megara at Mycenaean palaces are for, but nowhere are the possibilities (except the one favored by the author) entertained.

Kelder’s put his finger on an important question, but although he concludes his article with the statement that “the growing body of circumstantial evidence for a unified Mycenaean state now seems overwhelming,” I am afraid that we are no closer to solving this thorny problem. That will require close, sustained engagement with the Hittite and the Mycenaean evidence.

Reblog: Advanced imaging of the Linear B tablets from Pylos

This summer I co-directed (with Kevin Pluta) a project in which we began advanced imaging (RTI and 3D scanning) of the Linear B tablets from the “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos (modern Ano Englianos). These tablets are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  I’ve written a couple of blog posts elsewhere about the project: one for the website of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), through which we applied for our permit, and another for the Archaeological Computing Research Group (ACRG) at the University of Southampton, a member of whom, Hembo Pagi, trained us in RTI. The posts say the same thing, more or less, to slightly different audiences. You can read the stories here (ASCSA) and here (ACRG).

3D scanning with Jim Newhard and Ben Rennison

3D scanning with Jim Newhard and Ben Rennison


RTI with Dimitri Nakassis


RTI with Jami Baxley


RTI with Kevin Pluta (left) and Hembo Pagi (right)

Bathing in the Bronze Age

One of the features I like best about Bill Caraher’s blog are his discussions of journal articles. This is, it seems to me, something that’s extraordinarily useful and easy to do in a blog, but doesn’t find easy expression in other media. Recently I read Joe Shaw’s “Bathing at the Mycenaean Palace of Tiryns” in the American Journal of Archaeology (2012). In the article, Shaw reconstructs the room with the “bathing slab” in the Mycenaean palace at Tiryns, shown here:

Shaw shows that the drilled sockets anchored a wooden bench with wooden panels underneath that slotted into wooden vertical supports. He reconstructs the bath complex (see below) and he then goes on to review evidence for bathing more broadly in the Aegean Bronze Age.


In some ways, this paper is pretty regular. By this I mean that it probably won’t show up in popular media (like, say, the BBC News), and it doesn’t represent an enormous methodological or theoretical breakthrough. But it’s remarkable nevertheless. First, it is a real model of how arguments should be made. Shaw weaves together past interpretations, architectural parallels from other sites on the Greek mainland and the island of Crete, and real common sense to make his argument in only 15 pages of text. Every sentence in his article is necessary, every sentence packs  punch. As a reader, I felt incredibly well taken care of, in the hands of someone who has thought hard and carefully. In fact, I’m sure that this is true. But this feeling is notable because this isn’t something I often encounter. More often, the text feels like an impediment to understanding rather than a guide. Second, it is a great example of an article that requires real mastery of Aegean architecture. It’s not the kind of article that just any Aegean prehistorian could have written. It requires a seasoned eye, one that’s been trained to look for details, and a mind that can rifle through a database of relevant parallels, and to bring them together to come up with a plausible and persuasive reconstruction.

This article has also forced me to reflect more broadly on bathing in the Greek Bronze Age. As Shaw points out, the more one thinks about bathing, the more important it does seem to be to Mycenaean elites. In this, Shaw shows, it is distinctive to the mainland: bathing is apparently not as important on the islands. There are large, well-appointed rooms for bathing at two (at least) mainland Mycenaean palaces: Pylos and Tiryns. Linear B tablets at Pylos record workers that concern themselves with bathing: there are 66 bath-workers (re-wo-to-ro-ko-wo, lewotrokhowoi, cf. Homeric λοετροχόος, on Aa 783, Ab 553; Ad 676 records their sons). The tablets also carefully record palatially-managed production of perfumed olive oil. Whether or not this oil was used in bathing ceremonies — as Shaw shows, it probably was — it is also concerned with care for the body. Shelmerdine (1985) has also suggested that perfumed oil was used to anoint textiles.

Much of the literature on bathing and the Aegean Bronze Age has focused on ritual aspects, such as ritual lustration. Shaw also draws attention to what we might call more practical concerns: care of guests and strangers who entered the palace, hot and dusty from the road, perhaps (Shaw, 555: “journey-worn guests”). But regardless of its ritual import, or its practical functions, it does seem possible that bathing and care for the body was a particular concern of the Mycenaean elite. It may have been strategy whereby some members of the elite distinguished themselves from others. (It’s impossible for me to write this without thinking of that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”) Those resident in the palaces would have been particularly well-placed to bathe themselves more regularly and to anoint themselves with fragrant oils produced in palatial workshops. They probably wore special textiles, perhaps those produced by palatial workshops, like the texts at Knossos described as “of hekwetas type” (e-qe-si-jo), and other objects, like jewelry. Thus, Shaw’s article encourages us to see bathing as part of a larger suite of activities by which mainland elites in the Bronze Age arranged their bodily appearance, perhaps as a mode of distinction from those who could not afford to do so. Bathing, however, appears to be a particular concern of Mycenaean elites on the mainland, which suggests that such modes of bodily display were not homogeneous across the Aegean or throughout its history.