The Mycenaean Scribes & the Linear B Scripts.

05 Sep

It was after making surprising studies related to ancient Greece Heinrich Schliemann attempted a dig at Mycenae in August 1876. The nature of the discoveries at Mycenae were so dramatic that Mycenaean became the name for the whole culture that spread across Greece. Although Schliemann  discovered no writing his student Arthur Evans did. On Crete he found tablets with two types of cryptic scripts which he named Linear A and Linear B. Later Linear B. tablets were found on the mainland associated with the Mycenaean culture. In 1952 Michael Ventris identified a decipherment of Linear B as an old form of Greek and new information became available about the nature of the Mycenaean culture.

The texts turned out to be accounting lists rather than poetry or mythology. This writing system was most likely confined to a minority of the population who were professional scribes. By correlating the information  from clay tablet lists in Linear B with archaeological information whereby many facts about the Mycenaean culture are revealed,

One reason that Linear B was able to be deciphered is that the language of the  Mycenaean ‘s was an early form of Greek, while the language of the Minoans does not seem to have been Greek.  When the Mycenaean culture collapsed around 1000 BCE the ability to write  Linear B was lost. Later a new form of writing  based on the Phoenician alphabet  was then developed which included the  feature of vowels which had already previously made its appearance in both the undeciphered Minoan Linear A script and Mycenaean Linear B. This new alphabet  probably was developed by Greek merchants who needed to record transactions.. But its usefulness quickly spread. Many early Greeks may have learned to write so that they could read and cast curses, and send written prayers to divinities.

By 800 BCE the myths had been recorded in the various emerging dialects of the new script.The myths were based on the Mycenaean past  but they had been preserved by itinerant story tellers who memorized the stories of their predecessors. It was common for them to use contemporary examples to make their stories more realistic. Thus the myths contain information about ancient Greece in the Mycenaean period, predating the myths themselves b y some 400 to 700 years (1200 to 1500 BCE) . Examples can be found in the works of Homer. Using Homer it is easy to identify the Mycenaeans  with the Achaeans  whom he refers to. In Homer’s IIiad Book 2, line 494 and following there is a catalog of ships, which lists the various communities which provided them. Mycenae is one of these , and the other places Homer mentions correspond closely to the findings of Mycenaean ruins.

Until its conquest by the Mycenaean’s  the Minoan culture was dominant  and many aspects of the Minoan culture were probably adopted  by the Mycenaean’s  This includes many place names (toponyms), personal names ( eponyms) agricultural records of livestock and crops,military matters crafts, textiles and even religion. The Greek language which was in a formative period  when the Mycenaean’s conquered the Minoans was spread throughout the Greek area. While the Minoans did not seem interested in military lifestyles the Mycenaean’s were most interested in weapons and hunting. The Minoans focused on the sea while the Mycenaean’s possessed a small horse, called a poro = a foal which they rode on land. The Minoans developed a high culture which centred on their palaces, while the Mycenaean’s seem to have borrowed most of their culture from Crete. Like the Minoans the Mycenaean’s also developed palace culture.

THE Mycenaean Scribes and Linear B

Source : John Chadwick 1976

The study of Linear B handwriting has been extremely helpful to the task of distributing the tablets into their correct files. Just as modern handwriting differs so too Mycenaean scribes had characteristic hands; the way in which they make some of the common elements of signs allows us to clarify them. For instance, an inverted V forms the basis of several signs, and scribes can be grouped according to whether the sides of the V are straight or convex.  Careful examination of the ridges formed by the way various scribes pressed the stylus in the clay reveals that we can tell the order in which intersecting strokes are written. The cross element, which recurs in a number of signs (e.g. KA6. ) may be made with the vertical stroke crossing the horizontal stroke or vice versa, or the strokes may even be curved.

Signs of different scribes.

Various forms of signs used by different scribes

Equally significant at this level are the way adjacent strokes are spaced, joined or left un-joined, the position and shape of minor elements., the doubling of lines. Using this approach, Bennett  (l958) and Olivier (1967) were able to identify securely the personal handwriting of a large number of the more prolific scribes at Knossos and Pylos.

As a rule,  all of the tablets were written by the same scribe in a single file though exceptions occur; and there are cases where two scribes have written on the same tablet, as if the appropriate clerks have each been ordered to add their own quota of information,  ( Cf.Pylos tablet PY Ed 411). The number of different hands at each site is quite large, probably as many as 70 at Knossos, at least 40 at Pylos. This means that the scribes are literate officials who can write a tablet as and when required ,but also have other duties to attend to. Some senior officials seem rarely to have written a tablet themselves, no doubt leaving their subordinates to do most of the work, but occasionally they take the stylus in their own hands.

While the total number of documents at each site reveals a very small average production per scribe, in fact some scribes are prolific where others do very little, it is likely that most of them had other duties than writing, since one scribe could easily have written all the  surviving documents from either Pylos or Knossos in a few weeks. No doubt moments of boredom would set in for these scribes, just as in modern offices of today. At such moments, a Mycenaean clerk would turn his tablet over and perhaps draw a sketch or pattern. We are lucky to have one among several examples of this kind of, shall we say doodling. Others of course must have ended up in the scrap basket.


A scribes doodle of the Labyrinth on Clay tablet.

If each official was in charge of a particular department, then bringing together all the tablets he wrote may allow us to see what his particular responsibility was. At Pylos for instance, there was an official who seems to have written nothing but the tablets dealing with chariot wheels  (Sa ) and a label (Wa  1148)  The label may not have otherwise been associated with this group, but the handwriting itself shows that it belongs here. At Knossos we again find the same official dealing with wool, cloth and women workers; he was obviously concerned with the organization of the textile industry.

Once written, a tablet dries rapidly and further entries cannot be made. It follows that a large tablet with many entries could not have been used unless all the information on it was available at the same time; if the information came in one at a time, it would have been necessary to use small individual tablets for each piece of information which could then be filed in any order, similar to card index.Once the file was complete, the information could, if required, be re-copied onto large tablets such as the one below called The Women’s Tablet

Copy of tablet showing womans names.

                                     Tablet now in The Ashmoleon Museum

This is a very interesting tablet which I have almost finished translating. It contains information, as you can see, of woman’s names, some of whom were slaves working at Knossos. I shall publish it on my blog when I have completed its translation.

There are however problems caused by scribal errors. Mycenaean writers were no more reliable than we are, and were quite capable of leaving out a sign by accident, writing the wrong sign, or spelling the same name two different ways,making translations difficult to decipher, as I  myself have  discovered.  However these errors could hardly have caused much trouble  to the people who were intended to read these documents in Mycenaean times.

Sometimes a repeated formula is slightly varied; so how can we be sure if this was without significance  or was intended to convey a different meaning ? Linguists were puzzled for a long time by a form(  wo- zo- e ) until another tablet was found bearing the same formula, which showed that the mysterious word was an error and should have been   wo- z – e  ( To work). If the parallel text had not turned up , we might still be racking our brains to explain the erroneous form; so at least some of the words that still defeat us may be due to errors for which corrections may yet be discovered.

It often happened that the scribe. discovered his error (s) and managed to correct it /them while the clay was still wet. Sometimes we can make out what underlies a deletion, or observe that a sign or two were added as an afterthought, after the surrounding words were complete. When a scribe runs out of space, as was often the case because the tablets were so small, he may squeeze a word above the line,  continue over the right edge, and even go around to the back , as on tablet (PY  Va 1324 ). As a rule the back is not inscribed, but can be used if the space on the front proves inadequate . But sometimes it looks as if the back was inscribed with a text un-related to the front; It is hard to see any correlation between the  miscellaneous catalogue of jars, bowls and other vessels  on the front of the  tablet  MYU 611 and the note of olives, figs and wines on the back – they could not be merely the containers.

There are occasionally  entries on the lower edge of a tablet or sometimes to the side, and it cannot be emphasized strongly enough  that what mattered most to the users of these documents was the numerals. The numbers and quantities are the important   details which cannot be confided to  memory; the remainder of the text is simply a brief note of what the numerals refer to, or headings to enable the reader to identify the person or place associated with the quantity recorded. Below is an example of my translation of a quantity of swords recorded on one tablet from Knossos

Rita Roberts Trans KN 1540 0k O1 (xc) 2

Each horizontal line counts for 10;  so the total is 50. However because the tablet is truncated on the right side it could be there were more than 50.

Lastly the incomplete condition of the archive that has come down to us presents us with many problems; but we have found means in some cases to overcome this deficiency, such as the discovery of   ” supersyllabograms ”  by Richard Vallance,  my Linear B teacher,where we have two or more sets of tablets containing the same information….many of which are found on the tablets relating to military affairs which I am working on at the moment. It  is on occasion relatively easy to use one tablet to supplement the gaps in another or others.

NOTE:   I have many Linear B tablets of the Military affairs to translate which during the next few months I will publish here on my blog.




Posted by on September 5, 2015 in Uncategorized


16 responses to “The Mycenaean Scribes & the Linear B Scripts.

  1. Linnea Tanner

    September 5, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Apollo's Raven and commented:
    Reblog of Fascinating Article by Archaeologist Rita Roberts
    The Mycenaean Scribes & the Linear B Scripts.
    Posted on Ritaroberts’s Blog 04 Sept 2015


  2. Linnea Tanner

    September 5, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Thank you, Rita, for sharing sharing your background on The Mycenaean Scribes which once interpreted will bring new insight into ancient civilizations.

    Regards regards,


  3. ritaroberts

    September 6, 2015 at 7:53 am

    oh thank you for your kind remarks Linnea , and of course, the re-blog. I am so pleased you enjoyed it.


  4. cav12

    September 9, 2015 at 6:09 am

    Fascinating, Rita. It must be a wonderful feeling when deciphering the Linear B scripts. 😀


  5. ritaroberts

    September 10, 2015 at 9:14 am

    Yes Cav12 I get a wonderful buzz when I finally decipher any of the Liner B tablets. The ones I am working on now which are to do with Military affairs are difficult but Oh ! so interesting.


  6. Richard Vallance Janke

    September 10, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Splendid work, Rita! You are really earning your greatly enhanced facilities at dealing with Mycenaean Linear B, now that you are at the University level. I am of course going to reblog this excellent study now. I AM impressed. If I have any comments or suggestions, I shall let you know, just in case you plan on posting it on, which I strongly suggest you do. Please let me look through it first, as I am sure I can add a very positive evaluation of your work, which you can add to your paper. Kudos. Richard


    • ritaroberts

      September 18, 2015 at 8:35 am

      Thank you Richard. I will most likely add it to my Academia.


  7. vallance22

    September 10, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Reblogged this on Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae and commented:
    Splendid work, Rita! You are really earning your greatly enhanced facilities at dealing with Mycenaean Linear B, now that you are at the University level. I am of course going to reblog this excellent study now. I AM impressed. If I have any comments or suggestions, I shall let you know, just in case you plan on posting it on, which I strongly suggest you do. Please let me look through it first, as I am sure I can add a very positive evaluation of your work, which you can add to your paper. Kudos. Richard


  8. Aquileana

    September 23, 2015 at 8:27 am

    A most interesting post… I truly admire your knowlegde of the myceans scriptures. Love and best wishes. Aquileana 😀


    • ritaroberts

      December 2, 2015 at 7:02 pm

      Thank you so much for your nice comments Aquileana.

      Liked by 1 person

      • vallance22

        December 3, 2015 at 9:39 pm

        I have to say, Rita, that it truly astounds and depresses me that SO MANY folks comment on your posts

        re. Minoan and Mycenaean studies on YOUR blog, AND as well on my blog whenever I post one of YOUR

        translations, but that on the other hand, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears I pour into my

        own posts, for instance, the truly fascinating one on the translation of saffron in an amphora, or the

        one on the use of rivets in Mycenaean swords, complete with beautiful illustrations, my posts ALL fall on deaf ears, except for you and the fellow with the icon that looks like Plato. I really feel as if I am working almost in a vacuum.

        I wonder if you could put a POST on your blog, linking to some of my more wonderful posts, such

        as these ones:

        This announcement about my translation of The Catalogue of Ships is HUGELY imporant! Simply

        ignore on my blog. BUT already downloaded 42 times (!) in just two days on

        I just do not get it!


        asking folks to stop at my blog and PLEASE take the TROUBLE to read my posts I work so very hard on.

        It really is very discouraging to me. I sometimes wonder why I even bother. EVEN when I

        put my post on Google + they are largely ignored.

        On the other hand… and this really confuses me… I am a huge success on

        Maybe I should just do pure research, and screw my own blog, which fewer and fewer people

        are visiting anyway.




      • ritaroberts

        December 8, 2015 at 7:16 pm

        Hi Richard, I am constantly asking my fellow bloggers to put their comments and likes on your blog when they link from my blog to yours. From what I can gather is that people on Academia of course, are all Academics and used to historical posts such as yours. Whereas the ordinary person or blogger shall we say, is not familiar with such high brow stuff so it doesn’t interest them enough. So it seems that Your Students, Koryvantes, and Academia are the most important groups of people which are following you and value your work, and you know that I cannot finish my course without your guidance. Rita.


      • vallance22

        December 8, 2015 at 8:28 pm

        Hi, Rita. Of course I will continue with my guidance. Not to worry. I am just at a bit of a roadblock these days. I shall be back on top of things soon. You are absolutely right when you say that a lot of my postings are high brow, which is to say, VERY academic. So I should not be worried about this any more. is my real platform!


  9. ritaroberts

    December 9, 2015 at 7:46 am

    I agree Richard ! Academia is brilliant and I shall be glad when I am more experienced in how to add my translations and bibliographies there.


    • vallance22

      December 9, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      Yes, it sure is. And I am glad I found it. At least people pay attention to me there.

      Bye for now




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