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.

I first got interested in this topic when looking at variation in spelling in the Linear B texts – in some cases where writers had more than one option for how they could spell a particular sequence, they had erased their first spelling and replaced it with the alternative. For instance, the word hasketere, meaning ‘healers’, is spelled a2-ke-te-re on one text from the site of Knossos, but under the sign a2 (ha) is an erased sign a. The spelling with a wouldn’t have been a mistake – this sign can be used to spell either just a or ha – so although using a2 makes it unambiguous that ha is meant, the writer wasn’t correcting a mistake in making this change. Rather, they were making what we might call an ‘editorial’ choice – changing an element of their text to make it clearer to a potential future reader.

I thought it would be interesting to look into instances of similar editing practices in other contexts in the Linear B tablets. Though I’m very far from the first person to investigate this, most of the previous discussion either focused on one particular type of edit (e.g. spelling) or on a specific tablet or set of tablets (e.g. the tablet I talked about in the second half of this previous post). Scholars carrying out more systematic studies of changes to the Linear B texts have tended so far to focus on corrections of errors – which there have been some very interesting studies of, but what I wanted to look at was the times when writers made deliberate choices to change something about their documents for reasons that weren’t just correcting a mistake they’d accidentally made.

I also felt this concentration on errors rather than on editing more widely was linked to the way people have often viewed the tablets as preliminary or rough documents: we know, from the fact that these texts are never dated except by months or with phrases like ‘this year’ and ‘last year’, that these were not documents designed to be kept for more than about a year. Opinions are divided as to whether there were longer-term documents on some other material, like papyrus or parchment, that (unlike clay) would not have survived: on this view, the clay tablets were not ‘final’ administrative documents, but just one stage in a process that would lead to important information being copied for long-term use, before the tablets were discarded. I don’t, personally, think there were such longer-term documents, but it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of studying editing whether there were or not: the issue I wanted to tackle was the idea that the clay tablets were quickly-written, error-filled, preliminary documents over which writers did not necessarily take a great deal of care.

Investigating editing practices showed clearly that yes, there are lots of places in the Linear B tablets where the scribes can be seen to have edited their texts, either as they wrote them or later on (one recent experimental study showed that you can edit tablets after the clay has dried by wrapping them in a damp cloth). As you’d expect for administrative documents, often these are updates to the content – for instance, when the quantities of goods received or being distributed changed. But many other edits relate to the texts’ layout or format – erasing a line of text and moving it to the following line so as to leave a blank space between different sets of entries, for example, which would make it easier for a reader to see the document’s structure at a glance. Formatting texts in ways that would help a future reader – whether that reader would be the text’s original writer, or another member of the palace administration – is one of the only ways we can see, indirectly, how scribes may have revisited their and others’ texts for ongoing use; the other is when scribes used existing documents as the basis for creating new ones, which again involved not just copying the texts but carefully editing it to summarise the relevant information, lay it out clearly, and even alter the sentence structure to the form preferred by the copyist. Some changes even seem to have no particular practical reason behind them, but to be purely aesthetic: neatening ruled lines that weren’t quite straight, for instance, as in the picture below, or slightly changing the form of individual signs in a way that doesn’t alter their meaning but presumably made them look ‘better’ to their writer.

Black and white line drawing of a long thin tablet with Linear B writing. The central horizontal ruled line has a fainter original ruling visible underneath it, which slants diagonally downwards at the right hand end.
The ruled horizontal line on this Linear B tablet (which records a flock of sheep) has been straightened: the original slanting line is still visible at the right-hand end. Drawing: KN Da 1353, by author, after COMIK.

Overall, then, looking at edits the scribes made to their own texts and to others helps us understand more not just about how individual texts were created, but also about the attitudes these writers had to their texts and to their functions within the administrative system: regardless of whether other types of documents were written for longer-term use, within the yearly cycle of writing, using, and discarding the clay tablets these were important documents which could be consulted, updated, and copied, and whose reader-friendly and/or aesthetically pleasing layout was (at least in some cases) just as important as their contents.

If you want to find out more, you can read my article here (with JSTOR subscription) or here (open access).


My article: Judson, A.P. 2020. “Scribes as editors: tracking changes in the Linear B documents.” American Journal of Archaeology 124 (4): 523-49.

On changes to spelling: Perpillou, J.-L. 1977. “Repentirs de scribes.” Revue de philologie, de littérature et d’histoire anciennes 51 (2): 237-48.

On errors in Linear B, see, e.g. Consani, C. 2003. Sillabe e sillabari. Fra competenza fonologica e pratica scrittoria (Edizioni dell’Orso): chapter 4

Experimental work on editing tablets: Pape, T., P. Halstead, J. Bennet, and Y. Stangidis. 2014. “”For it is written”: an experimental approach to the materiality and temporality of clay documents inscribed in Linear B”. In ΑΘΥΡΜΑΤΑ: Critical Essays on the Archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean in honour of E. Susan Sherratt, edited by Y. Galanakis, T. Wilkinson and J. Bennet: 177-86 (Archaeopress)

COMIK: Chadwick, J., L. Godart, J.T. Killen, J.-P. Olivier, A. Sacconi, and I.A. Sakellarakis. 1986-1998. Corpus of Mycenaean Inscriptions from Knossos. (Cambridge University Press/Edizioni dell’Ateneo/Istituti Editorali e Poligrafici Internazionali).

Author: Anna P. Judson

Researcher of Linear B, currently in Athens

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