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”

New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’

Pylos labyrinth tabletI’m very pleased to say that an article of mine has just appeared in the journal Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici (‘Mycenaean and Aegean-Anatolian Studies’). Although the article is called ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “Labyrinth”‘, it’s not about the mythical Labyrinth in which the Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, or even the possible links this myth could have to the real Bronze Age Cretan palace of Knossos (which I’ve written a bit about before when I made a Labyrinth cake, pictured on the right). Rather, it’s about the Mycenaean Greek word for ‘labyrinth’ and what this can potentially tell us about the value of particular signs of the Linear B script (hence the subtitle: ‘the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs’). Continue reading “New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’”

Clay Play Day #2

Last term I wrote about the ‘clay play day‘ we held in my department: as the last in a series of seminars about the undeciphered Cretan script Linear A, we all got a chance to try out making and inscribing our own Linear A clay tablets. Since there was quite a bit of clay left over afterwards, I decided to have my own clay play day at home to make some tablets with inscriptions in Linear B – the script I mostly work on, which is related to Linear A but used to write Greek. This was partly an excuse just to mess around with clay a bit more, but I also figured some replica tablets would come in handy for teaching purposes, outreach events, etc – it’s hard to show what sort of size the tablets actually are via photographs on a PowerPoint. So here are some pictures of 1) a tablet in progress, using a photocopy of the published photograph and drawing to get the size right; 2) holding the finished tablet, for scale purposes; and 3) all three tablets I ended up making.

Continue reading “Clay Play Day #2”

International Congress of Cretan Studies

ICCS poster at the new Heraklion Cultural and Conference Centre

I’ve just returned from a trip to Greece to attend the 12th International Congress of Cretan Studies. The ICCS takes place every 5 years in different locations around Crete – this time, it was in the capital, Heraklion, which I’ve visited a couple of times before. It’s a huge conference – several days of two or three simultaneous sessions going on at once, and that was just the Prehistoric/Classical stream I was attending (there are also streams on Byzantine/medieval and post-medieval Crete). This year’s theme was ‘mobility’, and within that was an extraordinary large range of papers relating to the movement of people (migration, travel, changing settlement patterns), goods (trade and exchange), or ideas (practices, ideologies, beliefs). Continue reading “International Congress of Cretan Studies”

Arthur Evans’ Gardens

The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) is best known for his excavation and reconstruction of the Bronze Age palace of Knossos, on Crete (which I’ve posted about before), but also spent a considerable amount of his life in Oxford, where he was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum (which now houses his archive as well as a considerable collection of finds from Knossos).

Jarn Mound Wild Garden

Evans built a large house, called ‘Youlbury‘, on Boars Hill (just to the south-west of Oxford), which, sadly,  no longer exists (much of the former grounds is now a Scout Camp). One place that can still be visited in the area, though, is the Jarn Mound Wild Garden, created as a public garden by Evans (along with the Oxford Preservation Trust), and I thought I’d share a few pictures of a recent visit there. Continue reading “Arthur Evans’ Gardens”


Welcome to my new blog! I’ve been blogging for the past few years over at Res Gerendae, the Cambridge Classics postgraduate blog, but since I’ll be turning into a post-postgrad fairly soon, this seems like a good time to start up my own blog. As the title implies, Greek stuff will feature fairly heavily, since my research is on Linear B, a script which was used for administrative documents in Mycenaean Greek palaces like Pylos and Knossos during the Late Bronze Age, c.1400-1200 B.C.E. (Self-deprecating but reasonably accurate elevator pitch version: I study squiggles on bits of clay that are mostly lists of sheep. More on that later!) But there will also be plenty of other Classics, archaeology, and linguistics, not to mention novels, museums, and in particular, cake. In fact, the first actual post may well feature a cake, so stay tuned…

PS: the cover photo above is one I took at the palace of Knossos, on Crete. Here, because no blog post is complete without a picture, is one of the same palace’s West Court with a statue of its excavator, Sir Arthur Evans:

Palace of Knossos (West Court)

Update: all my old Res Gerendae posts have now migrated over here – but I’d still encourage you to head over to RG and check out all the other posts by my fellow-bloggers!

Travels in Crete

As the Cambridge winter starts drawing in, the natural response (at least as far as I’m concerned) is to start daydreaming about warm sunny places in the Mediterranean. Fortunately, one of the advantages of Classics is that it provides the perfect excuse to go to said warm sunny places and sit on a beach eating ice-cream benefit from the informative and educational experience of visiting Classical sites and museums. New graduate students may like to know that you can apply for Faculty funding not just for research trips (conferences, library/museum visits, etc) but also for travel to ‘Classical lands’ (i.e., pretty much anywhere the Greeks and/or Romans got to) that’s not directly connected with your research, especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to visit said Classical lands before (information and application forms are on the Classics Graduate Moodle, accessible by current students only via Raven).

In the tradition of Res Gerendae travel tips for students visiting Classical (or not-so-Classical) places, I offer a few  recommendations from my recent trip to Heraklion, Crete, to study some Linear B tablets in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Continue reading “Travels in Crete”

BSA Knossos Postgraduate Pottery Course

Pots from the Heraklion Museum. Quiz: name the period!
Pots in the Heraklion Museum. Quiz: name the period!

Last year our Res Gerendae correspondent reported on the British School at Athens’ Epigraphy Course; this year it was the turn of the BSA’s Pottery Course, based at their site in Knossos, to receive a visit from RG. After an introductory day in which the Curator, Matthew Haysom, introduced us to ‘Trends in Pottery Studies’ and also, even more importantly, showed us how to get to the supermarket, we started the course proper: essentially, the eleven of us had just under two weeks to cover almost four thousand years’ worth of pottery, from the Late Neolithic to the Late Roman period. Continue reading “BSA Knossos Postgraduate Pottery Course”

Linguistics Baking Part VI: The Labyrinth

Pylos labyrinth tabletJust for a change, I thought this time I’d do a cake that isn’t strictly speaking linguistic, though it’s still epigraphic: the labyrinth tablet from Pylos.

This drawing is actually found on the back of a tablet listing female goats (PY Cn 1287). Apparently the scribe found this list pretty boring, or perhaps they were kept hanging around waiting for whoever was bringing the information about the goats in question. Either way, they doodled this labyrinth on the back. It’s actually a reasonably complicated design – I had to trace it out on the icing to be sure of getting it to work, and the 1965 Cambridge Mycenaean Colloquium even featured a paper on how it could have been constructed* – and yet is drawn pretty neatly, so perhaps this was this scribe’s regular doodle of choice…? This isn’t unique as a doodle, by the way; there’s the odd drawing of a person or animal, plus a couple of tablets with a sequence that might (possibly) be the Mycenaean equivalent of an abecedary, giving the order of the first few syllabic signs in the sequence the scribes learned them. Continue reading “Linguistics Baking Part VI: The Labyrinth”