Women in Mycenaean Greece

Reconstruction of a wall-painting from Thebes. Five women dressed in elaborate, brightly-coloured ruffled skirts, open-fronted tops, and headdresses, walk in a procession, holding offerings such as flowers. Photo: George E. Koronaios, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The wall-painting shown above, reconstructed from fragments found on the Mycenaean citadel of Thebes and dating from the Late Bronze Age (late second millennium BCE), shows a group of elaborately-dressed women taking part in a ritual procession: each holds an offering – a box, a bunch of flowers – in her hands, presumably to offer to the deity (goddess?) in whose honour this ritual celebration took place. But what do we actually know about the lives of women in Thebes and other parts of Mycenaean Greece – whether the elite who would have taken part in events like the one shown in this painting, or those lower down the social scale? For International Women’s Day today (March 8th), I’d like to look at some of the evidence we can use to try and reconstruct the activities of Mycenaean women.

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#WCCWiki in Athens

View of the Acropolis in Athens

Since moving to Athens, I’ve been continuing to be involved with the UK Women’s Classical Committee‘s #WCCWiki project, which aims to improve the representation of women in Classics, archaeology, and related fields on the world’s largest reference site, only 18% of whose biographical pages are of women. I decided to spend my first few editing sessions here focusing on Greek women working in archaeology in Greece – in both English Wikipedia and in English-language scholarship on the history of archaeology, I think there’s been a lot more written about women from the UK and USA who worked in Greece, usually via the British School at Athens or American School of Classics Studies at Athens, than there has about Greek women archaeologists. I just had a quick look at the two main online projects I know of on the history of women in archaeology: the ‘Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology‘ and ‘Trowelblazers‘ sites between them have just one biography of a Greek woman (Semni Karouzou, about whom more shortly). This is not to single out those sites for particular criticism, but just to illustrate the general situation, which is probably due to a combination of language issues – sources in Greek are less likely to be read by Anglophone scholars (or Wikipedia editors for that matter) – with the rather problematic relationship Anglophone Classics as a field has with modern, as opposed to ancient, Greece (of course, these two issues are closely related, as this article by Johanna Hanink makes clear). The main exception I’m aware of is the work of Dimitra Kokkinidou and Marianna Nikolaidou, whose fantastic chapter ‘Greek women in archaeology: an untold story’ in Excavating Women: A History of Women in European Archaeology has been a really useful source, and whose other publications on Greek women archaeologists and the history of Greek archaeology more generally are on my to-read list.

Anyway, I thought that working on some pages for historical and current Greek women archaeologists would both help make information about them more available in English and be good practice for me in reading modern Greek sources! I’d like to share here some information about a few of the women whose pages I’ve been working on or are on my list to edit:

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Virtually visiting the Archaeological Museum of Thebes

The Archaeological Museum of Thebes reopened a few years ago after a long period of closure for renovations. My only previous visit to Thebes was during that closure, so visiting to see the new galleries has been on my wishlist for a while now. Obviously that’s not possible at the moment, since museums are closed and travelling around Greece isn’t allowed, but happily I just found that the museum has a virtual tour and lots of other online resources – so I’ve been on a virtual visit to its Mycenaean gallery.

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Playing with (real) clay

“Clay play day” was a pretty regular feature of my time as a researcher in Cambridge – we’d get some modelling clay and try making and writing tablets in various ancient writing systems, or run activities for school students and families to do the same. As part of my new research project in Athens, I’m aiming to do a more systematic version of this, working in the Fitch Laboratory with researchers who are experienced in experimental work with ceramics, to understand more about how the Linear B tablets were made. The Fitch provided samples of a few clays of different levels of fineness/coarseness for me to try out, so the first stage was to prepare them to work with. Recipe: break up dry clay with a pestle and mortar, put in beaker, add water, stir. Wait for several days, realise you’ve put far too much water in, pour a lot of it out, wait several more days. After that, I finally had four different clays ready to play with.

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Formatting Bronze Age Tablets

Today’s new issue of ‘Archaeology’ magazine has a short piece based on my recent article on how Linear B scribes edited their documents, called “Formatting Bronze Age Tablets” – you can check it out here! For more on this topic, see also my previous post about the article, which is also available open-access here.

Screenshot of article entitled "Formatting Bronze Age Tablets", by Daniel Weiss, showing large picture of front and back of clay Linear B tablet

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships

Black and white portrait of Marie Curie
Scientist Marie Skłodowska-Curie

As I said in my previous post, I’m just starting a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, and I wanted to say more here about what these fellowships actually are and what the process for applying for them is like. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are part of the European Union’s Horizon research funding scheme; the specific type of fellowship I have, an MSC Individual European Fellowship, provides funding for 1-2 years for postdoctoral researchers who are moving to or within Europe (for information on other kinds of MSC fellowships, see here: e.g. there are fellowships to support spending time outside of Europe or returning from a career break).

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Comfort Classics: Anna P. Judson

I did an interview in Cora Beth Knowles’ “Comfort Classics” series about one of my favourite Linear B tablets – featuring labyrinths, doodling, and cake-baking! You can read it here:

Classical Studies Support

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Anna P. Judson

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

This Linear B clay tablet from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, with a drawing of a labyrinth on the back.

When did you first come across this tablet?

I must have first seen a picture of it sometime during my MPhil degree in 2011-12, when I started learning to read Linear B and spent a lot of time practicing on drawings and photographs of tablets. Later on I was able to see the real thing on a study visit to Greece – it’s on display in the National Archaeological…

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Goodbye Cambridge, γεια σου Αθήνα!

Goodbye Cambridge, hello Athens!

I’ve been a postdoctoral Research Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, for the last four years. As part of this fellowship, I’ve continued the work I began during my PhD, looking at ways to understand more about the remaining ‘undeciphered’ signs of Linear B – the sound-values of fourteen of this writing system’s eighty-seven syllabic signs are still uncertain, nearly 70 years after the script as a whole was deciphered. My monograph based on my thesis, The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B: Interpretation and Scribal Practices, which has just been published with CUP, not only tries to establish as much as is currently possible about the most likely types of sound-value each of these signs may have, but also uses them to explore wider issues about the Linear B writing system’s creation from its parent script Linear A and its use by the Mycenaean scribes to write administrative documents. Other publications arising from my PhD include an article called “The mystery of the Mycenaean labyrinth: the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs”, which looks at one particular sign whose exact sound-value is debated, due largely to its appearance in the word ‘labyrinth’ (da-pu2-ri-to), and the implications its interpretation has for the relationship between Linear B and Linear A, and a book chapter “Processes of script adaptation and creation in Linear B: the evidence of the “extra” signs“, which explores similar issues to do with the initial creation of Linear B but also investigates the script’s ongoing development as the writers who used it created new signs to fit in with the needs of the administrative records they were writing.

Elongated clay tablet with two lines of writing
Linear B tablet recording various kinds of livestock
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Scribes as editors: tracking changes in the Linear B documents

Erasing writing on a clay tablet – for instance, by dragging the flat end of a stylus over the damp clay – leaves traces of this part of the writing process: marks on the clay showing that something has been erased and, if we’re lucky, enough of the original signs that we can read what the writer originally wrote, before they erased and perhaps re-wrote the text. Traces like these in the administrative Linear B texts from Late Bronze Age Greece (c.1400-1200 BCE) are the subject of my latest article, ‘Scribes as editors: tracking changes in the Linear B documents’, which just came out in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Colour photo of lower half of page-shaped clay tablet: 13 lines of text, of which a block of four in the middle have been erased. These lines show horizontal markings across them from erasure; the shapes of many of the erased signs are still visible underneath these markings.
Linear B tablet with four lines of text erased. Underneath the horizontal marks from erasure process, traces of the original signs can still be seen. Photo: PY Jn 725.14-.27, courtesy of the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati; annotation by author.
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Black Olympians: re-presenting the Greek gods

Content note: racism, in particular anti-Black racism, and white supremacy (this note also applies to all linked articles); ableism

Slight departure from the usual Linear B-related content around here, but I want to share a fantastic collection of photographs depicting the Olympian gods – which I already shared on social media, but here I have more space to reflect a bit on these photos’ significance and also share some relevant resources. The photo series is entitled “20 gods and goddesses for 2020” (in Spanish: “20 Dioses y Diosas para 2020”) by photographer Ana Martinez and stylist Mario Ville Kattaca. Here are just two of my favourites (though choosing was incredibly difficult):

You can see the whole collection here.

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