Tripods, tables, and tablets – or, how to prepare for a Mycenaean feast

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

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Tripod in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (photo: author)

I have counted
the tripods
that were in
the storeroom

and which
you were probably
wanting
for the feast

Unfortunately
one has only one foot
and another
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).

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The ‘tripod tablet’ (PY Ta 641) in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (photo: author)

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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. Continue reading “CSI Knossos: palmprints on the Linear B tablets”

Clay play day and baking double bill: Cypro-Minoan

My fellow ancient writing system researchers in the CREWS Project have organised a Cypro-Minoan seminar/’reading’ group this term, to coincide with the visits of two visiting researchers who work on ancient Cyprus (Cassie Donnelly and Giorgos Bourogiannis, who have written about their research here and here). Cypro-Minoan is an undeciphered writing system used in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age, mainly on the island of Cyprus but also at the site of Ugarit on the coast of Syria. My recent(ish) post about undeciphered writing systems focused on those found on Crete, so didn’t include Cypro-Minoan, but a lot of the same issues arise with trying to understand it: the corpus is very small (200-odd inscriptions), widely dispersed both geographically and chronologically, and consists of a very wide range of different types of inscribed objects (from probably administrative clay tablets and balls to inscriptions on metal bowls, clay figurines, ivory pipes, and seals); and we don’t know what the language(s) it represents is/are. As is now traditional, for this week’s seminar I made a baked version of one of the inscriptions we’ve been looking at: six signs incised on a miniature copper ‘oxhide’ ingot from the site of Enkomi.

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Cypro-Minoan inscription on a miniature copper ingot, in brownie form (##175)

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WCCWiki comes to Cambridge

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Votive figurines from the Temple of Hera at Vibo Valentia, Calabria. Katherine McDonald via Wikipedia

Women are currently represented by less than 18% of the biography pages on Wikipedia, and in academia it’s even worse – just 12% of the subjects of pages about academics are women (data from here). I’ve written before about joining WCCWiki, a project run by the Women’s Classical Committee aiming to improve the representation of women classicists, archaeologists, and other scholars of the ancient world on Wikipedia, which people of all genders and backgrounds (not just women, and not just classicists!) are encouraged to join. I’m organising a training session and editathon for anyone interested in finding out more about this project and learning how to edit Wikipedia on May 8th, 1:30-4:30pm, in room 2.03 of the Cambridge Classics Faculty. (This room is on the second floor; step-free access is available via a lift, and a wheelchair-accessible toilet is available on the ground floor near the lift. Please note the doors to access the lift and toilet are not automatic; we can provide help with these if required).

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Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

For International Lego Classicists Day (yes, apparently that’s a thing now), a great post from my colleague Pippa Steele with a Lego model of the ‘Archives Complex’ at Pylos! Plus a great discussion of what these two rooms (where most of the Linear B tablets from this palace were found) were actually used for.

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.

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A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems

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The Phaistos Disc – see below

Every so often a news article will make the rounds of the internet – or, for that matter, a paper will be published in an academic journal – presenting a new ‘decipherment’ of an undeciphered ancient writing system. Obviously, such decipherments have taken place in the past – probably most famously that of Egyptian hieroglyphs – and it’s certainly possible that more will take place in the future; but when it comes to the undeciphered writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean, at least, there’s good reason to be extremely sceptical about any such claims of decipherment. This post is a quick guide to some key facts about the various related writing systems found in Bronze Age Crete and mainland Greece, starting with the one deciphered writing system, Linear B, and then surveying the undeciphered ones roughly in order of how much we know about them, looking very briefly at where and when they’re from, what kinds of documents exist, and how much (if anything) we know about the writing system or the language it represents. Continue reading “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems”

Ashurbanipal at the British Museum

“I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria” proclaims the subject of the British Museum’s current major exhibition, whom the stunningly-lit first object in the display shows in the middle of a lion hunt:

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Stone relief showing Ashurbanipal hunting lions

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