Introduction to Archaeological Studies II

Instructor: Constanze Witt


University of Texas at Austin

Classics Department

reading 1 (Introduction) -- reading 2 (Discovery) -- reading 3 (Decipherment) -- reading 4 (Historical Documents)

Also pdf files: reading 2 (Discovery) -- reading 3 (Decipherment) -- reading 4 (Historical Documents)

Linear B: An Introduction

Linear B is the name of script (i.e., the way it was written) of the Mycenaeans; due to Michael Ventris' decipherment of the script in the 1950s, we now know that the language (i.e., the words, syntax, grammar, etc.)  is an early form of Greek.  Linear B, instead of being an alphabet like the one we use today, was a syllabic script, meaning that each character represents the value of a syllable, like "po" or "ra." 

Some good further readings: 

John Chadwick, Linear B and Related Scripts. University of California Press, 1987. See html files: reading 2 (Discovery) -- reading 3 (Decipherment) -- reading 4 (Historical Documents) or pdf files: reading 2 (Chadwick ch. 1)
reading 3 (Chadwick ch. 2) 
reading 4 (Chadwick ch. 4)

John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B. Cambridge University Press, 1958. 

Or, check out the web site of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP) located here at UT, which specializes in the study of Linear B and other related scripts. 

Linear B was written onto soft clay tablets, incised with a wood or bone implement (called a stylus).  Most of the documents were temporary economic records - typical documents record taxes paid to the central palace, or debts owed.  Other typical documents are allocations of bronze and oil to specified individuals, and inventories of the palace storerooms.  Some documents reveal a more complex administration than we might have previously imagined. 

In one tablet found in the archives complex at Pylos (see map), what appears to be a "legal" dispute is recorded.  The text runs roughly as follows: 

 The priestess Eritha holds, and claims to hold, tax-free land for the god, but the community says that she has a taxable holding, consisting of so much land: 308.7 liters of wheat seed.

The scribes of Linear B, instead of recording land in terms of area (as we often do, in acres), record the amount of seed which could cover the surface of the land holding.  In a way, this is more useful for the palace, because it more accurately describes the productivity of the land.  This is especially important in Greece, where good farmland is relatively scarce. 

While there are certainly problems translating the text exactly, the general picture is relatively secure.  Eritha is elsewhere called a priestess of a (female) divinity called "Potnia," which means "the powerful one."  Here we have an example of what we might call a dispute between "church and state."  The basis of Eritha's claim of tax exemption seems to be that the land is "for the god."  Contrary to what we might expect if we didn't have the tablets, it seems that some religious instutions had control over economic resources and production. 

Questions worth asking about this tablet and Linear B in general:

Who is Eritha?  Is she a full-time priestess, or are there other aspects to her identity?  Does her status as a woman potentially change our interpretation?  What else might alter the way we read the tablet? 

Why is this dispute interesting to the palace (after all, we don't have any other "legal" texts at Pylos)?  Why might they write it down?

What kind of information might you try to retrieve from economic documents such as these?  What kinds of "source criticism" should you keep in mind?  What kinds of things are likely to be preserved and what things aren't? 

Ep 704, the tablet under discussion: 

Last updated: 2/23/2000