Last month I was teaching some classes on interpreting the texts of the administrative Linear B tablets from Late Bronze Age (‘Mycenaean’) Greece, and one of the texts we looked at read as follows:
‘Kerowos the shepherd (poimēn) at A-si-ja-ti-ja watching over the quadrupeds (kwetropopphi) of Thalamatās: 1 man’ (Pylos Ae 134)
In some ways, this is nice and straightforward by Linear B standards: we can linguistically interpret pretty much every word (and even where we can’t, their meaning is clear from context and other examples of the same – a-si-ja-ti-ja is evidently a place-name) and produce a translation of the whole sentence (there are some linguistic quibbles over exactly how the syntax works, but it doesn’t really affect the overall meaning). In other ways, it’s entirely characteristic of Linear B in that it’s so laconic that translating it produces as many questions as it answers. In particular, the question my students asked was ‘So what kind of animals are these quadrupeds?’- ‘quadrupeds’ being a literal translation of kwetro-popphi ‘four-footed [things]’ (in later Greek, tetrapous). I realized when they asked this that I simply didn’t know, and in fact had never really thought about it – so I decided to look into it.
First of all, you might think that a shepherd should, logically, be watching over sheep. Unfortunately, in the next-oldest Greek we have after the Linear B tablets – the language of the Homeric poems – a poimēn ‘herdsman’ can be in charge of either sheep or cattle; it’s only later on that it seems to specify sheep. The other examples of this word in Linear B are not totally conclusive. There’s only one instance where it’s specifically associated with particular animals, and in that case the animals are in fact sheep:
‘poimēn at pu-na-so: 70 male sheep, 51 female sheep, 21 older male sheep’ (Knossos Dd 1376)
But we have a lot of sheep tablets like this from the site of Knossos (on Crete), and usually they have a person’s name where the word poimēn appears in this one. Is this a place-holder because their actual name wasn’t known? Was this person actually called ‘Herdsman/Shepherd’ (cf. the latter as an English surname) because of his profession? Or is this just a name (as the English surname now is), which coincidentally here is the name of someone who does in fact happen to be in charge of some sheep? It’s not totally clear, and so given the Homeric evidence, I think ‘herdsman’ is a safer translation of Kerowos’ job description.
Since poimēn hasn’t proved very conclusive, what about other instances of ‘quadrupeds’? The word kwetropopphi turns up on three other tablets from Pylos, all of which are more fragmentary than the one above, but each of which seems (probably) to be a record of someone watching over animals belonging to the same person, Thalamatās. Two of these people are described as aigipatās or aigipastās ‘goatherd’ (and aig- specifically means ‘goat’, so that’s definite in this case!). I think that makes it possible that poimēn does specifically refer to a shepherd in this case, and that these records are listing a shepherd and two goatherds who are all looking after ‘livestock’ – no need to specify that any further, because it’s obvious that the shepherd looks after sheep and the goatherds look after goats. On the other hand, if Kerowos is more generically a ‘herdsman’, then maybe the ‘quadrupeds’ are a deliberately vague reference to ‘livestock’ – perhaps he (and the others?) are actually looking after mixed groups of sheep/goats/oxen. Or perhaps, ultimately, the writers of these records doesn’t really care what kind of animals the ‘quadrupeds’ are, and again this is the generic term for any kind of ‘livestock’. (The one thing I can’t see any good reason for is translating this term specifically as ‘cattle’, as several anthologies of Linear B tablets confidently do.)
Plenty of other Linear B tablets do, of course, record animals more specifically – like the tablet pictured at the top of this post listing 202 male sheep, 750 female sheep, 125 male goats, 240 female goats, 21 male pigs, 60 female pigs, 2 bulls, and 10 cows at a place called si-ra-ro; or a tablet recording food for a feast at Pylos which includes, among other things:
‘2000 litres of barley…150 litres of flour, 380 litres of olives…12 litres of honey, 120 litres of figs, 1 ox, 26 male sheep, 6 female sheep, 2 male goats, 2 female goats, 1 fattened pig, 6 female pigs, wine’ (Pylos Un 2.3-6; all measurements very approximate)
Ultimately, it’s a question of the administrative priorities of the tablets’ writers. It was, clearly, important to know exactly how many of each kind of animal were located at si-ra-ro, and (for reasons that are rather clearer) to know how much food was available for the feast. The important point for the purpose of the ‘quadruped’ records seems to be the people involved and the responsibility one has for the other’s animals, rather than the animals themselves; other details (what the animals are, what the precise arrangement is by which these people are looking after them, why the palace cares about this arrangement in the first place…) are either irrelevant or obvious to the writer of the record and anyone they thought likely to read it. The writers of the Linear B tablets were capable of including enormous amounts of detail when they thought it necessary – see a previous post I’ve written on the series of tablets from Pylos listing items of furniture in incredible amounts of individual detail – but equally they weren’t going to waste time and space writing down anything they didn’t need to. Which is, of course, what makes the Linear B tablets a simultaneously frustrating and fascinating source of evidence about Mycenaean Greek society!