The Mycenaean Scribes and the Linear B Scripts

25 May

It was after making surprising studies related to ancient Greece that Heinrich Schliemann attempted an archaeological 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 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 of mythology. This writing system system was most likely confined to a minority of the population who were professional scribes. I correlated the information from clay tablet lists in the Linear B with archaeological information wherby many facts about the Mycenaean culture are revealed.

One reason that Linear B was able to be deciphered is that the language of the Mycenaeans was an early form og Greek, while the languages of the Minoans does not seem to have been Greek. When the Mycenaean culture collapsed around 1200 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 appearence in both the Undeciphered Minoan Linear A scripts and in 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 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 scripts. 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 the stories more realistic. Thus the myths contain information about ancient Greece in the Mycenaean period, predating the myths themselves by some 400 to 700 years (1200 to 1300 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 lliad, Book 2, line 494 there is a catalog of ships, which lists the various communities which provided them. Mycenae is one of these, the other places Homer mentions correspond closely to the findings of Mycenaean ruins.

Until its conquest by the Mycenaeans the Minoan culture was dominant and many aspects of the Minoan culture were most likely adopted by the Mycenaeans. This includes many place names, personal names, as well as agricultural records of livestock and crops, also military matters, crafts, textiles and even religion. The Greek language, which was in a formative period when the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans, was spread throughout the Greek area. While the Minoans did not seem interested in military lifestyles, the Mycenaeans were most interested in weapons and hunting. The Minoans focused on the sea while the Mycenaeans possessed a small horse, called a poro = foal,, which they rode on land. The Minoans developed a high culture which centered on their palaces, while the Mycenaeans seem to have borrowed most of their culture from Crete. Like the Minoans the Mycenaeans 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 hand 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 accordingly 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. KA) may be made with the vertical stroke crossing the horizontal stroke or vice versa, or the strokes may even be curved.

Example of 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 and the doubling of lines. Using this approach, Bennett (1958 ) 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 rue, 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 were literate officials who can write a tablet as and when required, but who 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 too take the stylus in their own hands.

While the total number of documents at each site yields a very small average production per scribe,in fact some scribes are prolific where others do very little. It is most 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 just a few weeks. No doubt moments of boredom would set in for these scribes working in the offices, just as in modern day offices. At such moments, a Mycenaean clerk would turn his tablet over and perhaps draw a sketch or pattern just something different to break the boredom. In fact we have one among several examples of this kind on a clay tablet representing what we would call doodling.

A scribe’s doodle of the Labyrinth on a 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 one and the same official dealing with wool, cloth and women workers: he was obviously concerned with the organisation 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 in fact the information came at the same time, it would have been necessary to use small individual tablets for each piece of information which could then be filed in a particular order, similar to a card index. Once the file was complete, the information could, if required, be re-copied onto large tablets such as the one you see below called The Woman’s Tablet.

Copy of tablet showing women’s names. Tablet now in the Ashmolean Museum

I found this a very interesting tablet to translate which I have almost finished translating. It contains information, as you can see, of women’s names, some of whom were slaves working at Knossos.

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 quite by accident, writing the wrong sign, or spelling the same name two different ways, thus 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 the infinitive wo -ze = ( to work). If the parallel work 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.

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 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. Sometimes it looks as if the back was inscribed with a text unrelated to the front; it is hard to see any correlation between the miscellaneous catalogue of jars, bowls and other vessels on the front of 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.

M translation of the above Linear B tablet 1540 Ok 01 Each horizontal line counts for 10; so the total is 50. However because the tablet is truncated on the right side it is possible there were more than 50

Lastly the incomplete condition of the archive that has come down to us presents us with many problems; but over time 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 have worked on. It is on occasion relatively easy to us one tablet to supplement the gaps in another or others.

Please Note: While studying the Linear B scripts I have translated many of the tablets which I found fascinating and those from the Military Affairs I found the most interesting.

As my readers are aware I have now completed my course of the Linear B script writings, but that is not to say there is always more to learn.


Posted by on May 25, 2021 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Mycenaean Scribes and the Linear B Scripts

  1. dorannrule

    May 31, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    You are to be congratulated Rita for all the work you have done on transcripting ancient writing. Your findings make me wonder if someone thousands of years from now tried to understand my writing what their conclusions might be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ritaroberts

    May 31, 2021 at 5:32 pm

    I’ve wondered the same thing many times myself Dora.. Thanks for your nice comment.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: