Clay Play Day #2

Last term I wrote about the ‘clay play day‘ we held in my department: as the last in a series of seminars about the undeciphered Cretan script Linear A, we all got a chance to try out making and inscribing our own Linear A clay tablets. Since there was quite a bit of clay left over afterwards, I decided to have my own clay play day at home to make some tablets with inscriptions in Linear B – the script I mostly work on, which is related to Linear A but used to write Greek. This was partly an excuse just to mess around with clay a bit more, but I also figured some replica tablets would come in handy for teaching purposes, outreach events, etc – it’s hard to show what sort of size the tablets actually are via photographs on a PowerPoint. So here are some pictures of 1) a tablet in progress, using a photocopy of the published photograph and drawing to get the size right; 2) holding the finished tablet, for scale purposes; and 3) all three tablets I ended up making.

The tablet in the first two pictures may be familiar to anyone who used to read my posts over on the postgraduate blog Res Gerendae – it’s the same tablet that provided my very first ever epigraphic cake. From the palace of Knossos on Crete, it’s a record of offerings of olive oil to various gods, sanctuaries, and religious personnel – so, among others, there are offerings to Diktaian Zeus, the Priestess of the Winds, and the sanctuary of Daedalus (in later mythology, creator of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, who invented wings so that he and his son Icarus could escape from Crete – of course, this being Greek mythology, it didn’t end well…).

The other two tablets are from Pylos, in the south-west of the Greek mainland: the short fat one starts off ‘Thus the wood-cutters (we’re not sure if these are actually people who cut down trees, or more like carpenters) are giving to the chariot workshop:…’ and goes on to list contributions of a couple of different parts of chariots (e.g. axles, listed on the middle line as a-ko-so-ne-qe 50 = aksones-kwe  ‘and axles: 50’). The long thin one is a list of different vessels, apparently a sort of storeroom inventory, and is probably the most famous Linear B tablet because of the role it played in the script’s decipherment. It wasn’t actually published until after Michael Ventris had already announced his decipherment of Linear B in 1952, and he and his collaborator John Chadwick had written an article putting forward their view that the language of the texts was an archaic form of Greek. (For more on Ventris, Chadwick, and the decipherment process, click here). Using the values that Ventris and Chadwick had assigned each of the symbols to read this tablet turned out to produce not only obvious Greek words, but ones that clearly matched the symbols representing the different kinds of vessels being recorded: the word tripode, ‘two tripods’, was followed by a picture of a three-legged pot and the number two; jars described as kwetrowes ‘four-handled’ (literally ‘four-eared’), triowes ‘three-handled’, and anowes ‘no-handled’ were followed by pictures of jars with four, three, or no small loops representing the handles (see if you can spot them in the picture above…hint: look for the groups of small vertical strokes representing numbers, which will always immediately follow a symbol representing a vessel). Essentially, this ‘tripod tablet’, as it came to be known, was independent proof that the decipherment was correct and the language of Linear B really was Greek. So you can see why this was a tablet I was particularly keen to make a copy of!


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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