I recently jumped on the Twitter bandwagon of writing poems in the style of William Carlos Williams, since it was pretty clear to me that the internet could only be improved by having more poems based on Linear B tablets:
This is just to say
I have counted
that were in
you were probably
for the feast
one has only one foot
is burned off at the legs
I thought now I’d talk a bit more about the actual Linear B tablets which inspired the poem, starting with the famous ‘tripod tablet’ from the palace of Pylos. This tablet famously proved that Linear B had been correctly deciphered as representing an early form of Greek, since the symbols representing different kinds of vessels matched their Greek descriptions: the three-legged vessels were preceded by the Greek word tripodes ‘tripods’, and jars depicted with four, three, and no handles were described as kwetrōwes ‘four-eared’, triōwes ‘three-eared’, and anōwes ‘with no ears’. (You can read more about this, and about the process by which Linear B was deciphered, here).
Of the tripods listed on the first line of this tablet, the first pair are perfectly functional, but the second and third entries list tripos hemei podei oiwōwēs ‘a tripod with one foot and one handle’ and tripos krēsiowergēs apu kekaumenos skeleha ‘a tripod of Cretan type, burned off at the legs’ – hence the references to these damaged tripods in the poem. But since the entire text of this tablet consists of entries like these describing vessels, damaged or otherwise, without any other information or context being given, how do we know why this list was being made in the first place?
This is where features like tablet format and scribal hand become important, because the tripod tablet is not unique – it’s one of 13 tablets with a very similar shape and layout and all written by the same person, who is one of the most senior/prolific writers at Pylos (as we don’t know their name – or that of any Mycenaean scribes – we call them ‘Hand 2’; but more on that below). Most of these tablets also consist of lists of either vessels or items of furniture – the latter often have particularly detailed descriptions, like ‘a footstool inlaid with an ivory person and a horse and an octopus and a palm-tree’ (PY Ta 722.1) or ‘a circular(?) stone table with ivory feet and supports decorated with spirals, with nine feet’ (PY Ta 642.3). (Yes, there has been a lot of discussion on how a table could have nine feet – see, for instance, this article by Assaf Yasur-Landau). It’s clear from the elaborate decoration and the use of precious materials including ivory and gold that these are luxury items, as the (presumably bronze) vessels will also be.
As well as listing more of these vessels, one tablet in this series (PY Ta 711) also has a heading:
hō(s)-wide Phugegwrīns hote wanaks thēke Augēwān dāmokoron
‘This is what Phugegwrīns saw when the king appointed Augēwās as dāmokoros‘
Since these tablets clearly belong together as a group, this heading seems to apply to all of them: they are, in a way, functioning as a single ‘document’ recording an inventory of luxury furniture and vessels on the occasion of the king’s appointment of a high-ranking official (we don’t know exactly how to interpret dāmokoros, but it probably refers to the ‘governor’ of one of the two provinces in the territory of Pylos). Presumably, then, these items are ones that would in principle be brought out for the celebration of this appointment – hence the recording of broken ones that won’t be usable after all. Whether it’s important for the purposes of the ceremony to have a record of the exact details of decoration on each of the items, or whether this writer was just being especially meticulous, we don’t know, although it’s clear they felt it necessary to be able to distinguish individual tables and footstools from each other, not just to know the total of each.
So, we’ve got a ceremony of some kind featuring fancy furniture and vessels – but what might this ceremony actually have been like? This is where we ‘zoom out’ again from this particular series of texts to think about their wider context. We have other tablets from Pylos listing large quantities of food and drink that are clearly being provided for some kind of feasting, which it’s fair to assume this ceremony would also have involved (hence the use of various kinds of containers). One tablet, for instance, lists contributions by various different officials (including a man called e-ke-ra2-wo, perhaps something like Enkherrāwōn, who may be the king of Pylos) of an ox, two sheep, grain, cheese, wine, honey, and flour (PY Un 718). This particular feasting tablet was found very close to the Ta-series of tablets within the ‘Archives Complex’ where most of the Pylos tablets were stored, and it’s been suggested that these tablets might actually refer to the same event, which may have taken place only very shortly before the palace’s destruction (see, e.g., this article by Tom Palaima). Based on the total number of different items of furniture in the Ta-series – 11 tables and 22 seats (chairs plus stools) – it looks as though this equipment would allow for 22 members of the palatial elite to sit and eat in pairs, which is exactly what we see in this fresco from Pylos showing a pair of people sitting at a table with drinking cups.
As well as the Linear B tablets, finds from the Archives Complex include a group of burned cattle bones, likely to have been produced by a single sacrifice/feasting event, and 20-22 miniature kylikes (drinking cups) – a number that’s intriguingly close to the 22 diners catered for by the furniture in the Ta-series. Shari Stocker and Jack Davis suggest in this article (JSTOR access required) that these items may have been brought to the Archives Complex as a demonstration that the ritual had been carried out correctly – otherwise it’s hard to see why a deposit of burned bones and a group of miniature cups should have been kept in the same room as the tablets. Presumably the administrators were unable to write the records which should have come next to confirm the completion of this ceremony before the palace was destroyed.
Many more people will have taken part in this feast than just the 22 people suggested by the Ta-series tablets and the miniature kylikes, though: the amount of bone found in the Archives Complex shows that far more cattle were slaughtered than could possibly be eaten by this small group of people, and other storerooms in the palace have also produced thousands of cups, neatly arranged in storerooms and clearly intended for large-scale drinking/feasting events.
Lisa Bendall has shown that the finds of drinking vessels of various quality – metal vessels, fineware pottery, and lower-quality pottery – is correlated with location in and around the palace: the highest-status metal vessels, which we could imagine our 22 diners using as they sit at their elaborately decorated tables, are mostly found around the megaron (the central throne room); fineware pottery is kept in storerooms adjacent to a courtyard within the palace where a much larger group of people could have been accommodated; and the lowest quality cups are stored in a room accessed from the area immediately outside the front of the palace. The writer of the Ta-series was most concerned with equipment for the highest-status individuals – amongst them, presumably, the king and the newly-appointed official – but this feast will not have been a small and exclusive event overall; rather, a wide range of levels of society may have taken part, with their status carefully delineated by their location in or near the palace and by the cups and other feasting equipment they used. A ceremony like this could thus simultaneously celebrate the generosity of the king and other officials in contributing food and drinks for large numbers of people, while also reaffirming the hierarchy of social status inherent in Mycenaean society.
Finally, I mentioned above that we don’t know the names of any Mycenaean scribes – unlike in some other cultures, they don’t sign their documents and we have no documents that certainly refer to scribal work. It’s possible, though, that the header of Ta 711 does feature a reference to the tablet’s writer, since that might be Phugegwrīns himself – if the official who carried out the audit of the storerooms was simultaneously writing down the results (as suggested on p.31 of this article by John Bennet [academia.edu login required]). We can’t be certain if this is the case, because ‘Hand 2’ could be the writer taking notes while Phugegwrīns dictated (“here’s another tripod, this one’s had its legs burned off…”) – but either way, it’s surprising how vivid a picture of one or two officials, probably with a million things to do before the important ceremony tomorrow, taking the time to carefully describe and record the contents of their high-end furniture storerooms even down to the pictorial decoration, can be conjured up by just a few words on a tablet.