New Linear B tablets from Pylos

Entrance of the palace of Pylos, with ‘Archives Complex’ to left

I’m pleased to announce the publication of an article I co-wrote with John Bennet of the British School at Athens and Jack L. Davis and Sharon R. Stocker of the University of Cincinnati, publishing two fragments of Linear B tablets discovered during the Cincinnati excavations at Pylos in 2017. The article, published in the journal Kadmos, is available here (with subscription), or you can request a copy of the pre-print via the Cambridge University repository. The two tablets are very fragmentary, but they have some interesting features – including a new example of one of the undeciphered signs I wrote my PhD on, which was pretty exciting for me (though, to manage expectations, it unfortunately doesn’t help make any progress in deciphering it). There’s also a mysterious third object with markings that don’t appear to be Linear B, or indeed any other writing system we can identify, but we’ve included it in case anyone else can come up with any suggestions!

Reference: Anna P. Judson, John Bennet, Jack L. Davis, and Sharon R. Stocker, ‘Two new Linear B tablets and an enigmatic find from Bronze Age Pylos (Palace of Nestor)’, Kadmos 58 (2019), pp.111-123.

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).

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

Continue reading “Tripods, tables, and tablets – or, how to prepare for a Mycenaean feast”

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”

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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Karpathia the Procrastinating Priestess, and other stories

I recently joked that a priestess called Karpathia, who’s recorded in a Linear B tablet from Pylos as failing to work properly, should be the patron of Twitter, and a lot more people seemed to like the idea of a procrastinating Mycenaean priestess than expected – so I thought I’d write a bit more here about Karpathia and her fellow priestesses, and what we know about them from the Linear B records.

Continue reading “Karpathia the Procrastinating Priestess, and other stories”

Visiting the Palace of Nestor at Pylos

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Road sign outside the palace

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a research project about the scribes who wrote the Linear B tablets from one particular Mycenaean site, the ‘Palace of Nestor’ at Pylos in Messenia, south-western Greece (so-called because in the Iliad Nestor was the king of Pylos). I’m interested in how these scribes actually went about writing tablets, or learning to write tablets — lately I’ve been looking mostly at the way they spell particular words or sequences, and why even an individual scribe’s spelling can vary, as well as at issues to do with how and why scribes erase parts of their documents and make changes. Pylos is a particularly good site to start studying this because almost all of its Linear B tablets are contemporaneous — made of unfired clay, they were all baked and so preserved by the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BCE — so it’s possible to study the 25 scribes who have been identified by handwriting analysis as an inter-related community of writers who must have been trained and worked together. But although I’ve been studying the tablets from this site for some time, I’d never been able to actually visit it before now – so it was incredibly exciting to finally get the chance to see it in person. Continue reading “Visiting the Palace of Nestor at Pylos”

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”

Hello!

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!

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”