CSI Knossos: palmprints on the Linear B tablets

There’s something particularly special about seeing the physical traces left behind on ancient objects by the people who made or used them, whether that’s footprints on a tile from ancient Italy, teeth marks of a teenage student who apparently bit into a cuneiform tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, or even a mark left by an animal rather than a person:

Once, while working in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, I turned over a Linear B tablet from Pylos to find four deep marks left by the fingers of someone handling the tablet (presumably its maker and/or writer) soon after it was made, while the clay was still wet. For all that my research is all about trying to use the evidence the tablets provide to reconstruct the activities of their writers, I still felt pretty overwhelmed by the fact that I was putting my own (gloved!) hand into fingermarks made by a person who lived more than 3,000 years ago. But ancient hand- and fingerprints can do much more than make us feel a connection to the person who left those marks. There’s a wide range of archaeological research now being done on fingerprints, especially on ceramics, where they can give important information about the identities (particularly the gender) of the people making them — and they also play a part in the study of the Linear B tablets.

These tablets, written in the Linear B writing system and an early form of the Greek language in the Mycenaean palaces of Bronze Age Crete and Greece c.1400-1200 BCE as part of these palaces’ administrative systems, were made of wet clay, flattened with the palm of the hand against a flat object to provide a level surface for writing: the backs of the tablets therefore often show prints left by the hands of their makers.

P1110260
Two replica Linear B tablets…
P1110267
…and the backs, showing palmprints

The pictures above show two model tablets recording flocks of sheep at various places on Crete; on the backs, you can see from the similar patterns of prints that the same person made both of these tablets, pressing their palm down twice on each one to flatten it. In this case, the maker of the tablet and the writer of the inscription was the same person (me, in the middle of writing this post!), but we don’t know for certain whether that was always the case for the Linear B tablets – might (some) scribes have had assistants or apprentices who did the messier work of tablet-making for them?

Two studies carried out in the 1980s and 90s by a Swedish forensic print analyst, Karl-Erik Sjöquist, with the Bronze Age archaeological Paul Åström, aimed to answer this question by looking for examples of prints from the same person appearing on more than one tablet and comparing this to the attributions of the texts to different scribal hands, publishing their results in the alliterative books ‘Pylos: Palmprints and Palmleaves’ and ‘Knossos: Keepers and Kneaders’.

Sjoquist Astrom_1
Pylos: Palmprints & Palmleaves (1985); Knossos: Keepers & Kneaders (1991)

Although many of the prints on the tablets were too badly preserved to be identifiable (either because of the state of the tablet or because previous prints were obliterated in the flattening process, as has happened in the middles of the model tablets above), Sjöquist was able to identify several examples of the same maker’s prints appearing on different tablets. In some cases, this seemed to correspond with the scribal attributions — three tablets from Pylos all ascribed to Hand 15, for instance, all showed prints from the same maker, and it seems reasonable to assume these probably are all prints of Hand 15 themself, who (at least in these cases) made their own tablets.

PY palmprints copy
Tablet with palmprints on the front (from Knossos: Keepers & Kneaders, fig.15A; rotated to show writing the correct way up)

In other cases, though, things were a bit less straightforward. Another group of tablets from Pylos included tablets made by three different people and written by three different scribes — but just about every possible combination of tablet-maker and scribe could be found, so (for instance) the tablet-maker Sjöquist named ‘Energetikos’ (because of the vigorous way they seemed to flatten their tablets) had made tablets written on by Hands 21, 41, and 43, while Hand 43 had written not only on tablets made by Energetikos but also by two other people. Was this three scribes sharing three assistants, or three scribes making their own tablets but sometimes borrowing each other’s, or some other combination…? We’re still not entirely sure. Some more unexpected results from Knossos were that some children, the youngest perhaps about 10 years old, were involved in making tablets, as were some adults with particularly rough lines on their palmprints, suggesting they had previously carried out hard manual labour. Plausibly, the children could have been in the early stages of training to be scribes themselves, starting off on making tablets before/alongside learning to write the documents; could the adults with the rougher hands be ‘retired’ workers no longer able to carry out manual labour? Sjöquist and Åström suggest rowers who either had earned the reward of easier work, or proved to be no good at rowing and were reassigned; but all of this is obviously very speculative!

Although there’s still a lot of debate over the results of these palmprint studies and exactly what they mean for the Linear B tablets, they’re still an extremely important component of the research into the ways in which these texts were produced and how they formed a part of the Mycenaean palaces’ administrative systems, and I was excited to see news of a new project by Aegean prehistorian Julie Hruby aiming to re-analyse these prints alongside other Bronze Age and classical objects bearing finger- or palmprints – given recent developments in identifying gender from fingerprints on ceramics, it would be particularly great to see if there’s any evidence of women making tablets. Hopefully that will be a topic for another blog post in the future!

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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