Linear B and the Destruction of Pylos: A Response to Recent Claims

Among other things, this past year saw the publication of a new corpus of the Linear B tablets from Pylos: Les Archives du Roi Nestor (ARN), edited by Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi. Featuring pictures, drawings, and transcriptions — but no translations or commentary — it’s an austere work:

He had also bought a gift for Henry: a corpus of Mycenaean inscriptions from Knossos.

I looked through it. It was an enormous book. There was no text, only photograph after photograph of broken tablets with the inscriptions – in Linear B – reproduced in facsimile in the bottom. Some of the fragments had only a single character.

‘He’ll like this,’ I said.

‘Yes, I think he will,’ said Francis. ‘It was the most boring book I could find. I thought I might drop it off after dinner.’

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Godart worked on that one, too, so it’s a fairly apt description. But though hardly a beach read, ARN does make some important claims, and is in some ways not boring enough — not least because of an introduction (freely available here) which blithely posits some bold new arguments.

Even for those of us interested in page after page of broken tablets, though, the nature of this year’s ‘other things’ meant that reading through a new corpus wasn’t quite the top priority (and that’s just for those who could get their hands on it: the two volumes together will set you back €990). But reviews have started trickling in (Ferrara , Civitillo, and the best so far — albeit it in German — Weilhartner), and some of its new claims are catching wider attention.

And, for what was already well-studied material, there were a lot of those, not least a complete renumbering of scribal hands (so Hand 1 is now 601, and so on and so forth), re-attribution of many tablets, and the identification of entirely new scribes. Some of this is certainly right, but as with any radical edition, it will take scholars a long time to work out what will stick and what won’t (Anna Judson’s concordance is an excellent starting point).

At any rate, it is not my intention to offer a full review of ARN (unless someone wants to send me a review copy). But I do want to examine of its most extreme claims: that the conventional date for the destruction of the palace, and so the Linear B archive, is off by about 50 years. Dating in the Aegean Bronze Age is typically done, not by absolute dates derived from radiocarbon or other scientific methods (though this is slowly starting to change), but by relative dates derived from pottery style (more on the methods and difficulties of dating here). In these terms, Godart and Sacconi want to see the destruction occur in Late Helladic (LH) IIIB1, rather than very early LH IIIC as is more commonly accepted (so ca. 1250 BC rather than ca. 1200). The most distinctive, and so dateable, feature of pottery is often its decoration, but while Blegen and his team found tens of thousands of complete vessels at Pylos, the vast majority were plain. The relative date of the destruction has, therefore, been the subject of legitimate disagreement between pottery experts over the years.

The editors’ new date picks up on this, but the treatment is highly selective, and relies on a 2004 article by Patrick Thomas that argues for a final destruction in early LH IIIB. Recent studies which support the traditional, lower date (Vitale 2006, Mountjoy 1997) are not mentioned, nor is recent archaeological work on the palace itself (Hruby 2006, Lafayette Hogue 2011). In fact, most of their evidence is presented in an email from Jean-Claude Poursat, reproduced in a footnote. It does not particularly lay out the reasons for favouring a higher date, but does present some context:

‘Actually, there are two positions: that of P. Thomas (destruction in LH IIIB1, around 1250 BC), and that of the excavators of Pylos, who hold absolutely to the low date, around 1200 BC… Jack Davis and his colleagues maintain a date at the very beginning of LH IIIC for the destruction of the palace by contesting and minimising the importance of ceramic analyses such as those by P. Thomas.’

(ARN xvii-xviii, n. 42, my translation)

The whole issue is, in fact, discussed with more emphasis on who is offering the interpretations than the merits of either case. While there may be room for disagreement, neither editor displays the ceramic or archaeological knowledge required to make their argument seriously.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this archaeological perspective has not been emphasised in most reviews. Rather, reviewers haver picked up on an argument that the editors are eminently qualified to make: the new attribution of a tablet to a known scribal hand. The identification of hands is one of the Mycenaean epigrapher’s standard tools, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Beazley’s method for identifying painters in Attic Black and Red Figure pottery. As with his largely-pseudonymus attributions (Berlin Painter etc.), we do not know the names of individual Mycenaean scribes (or even that they were dedicated scribes in any meaningful sense, rather than simply literate administrators), so we identify them as Hand x, based on the distinct ways they write individual signs. These attributions can help identify everything from joins between fragments to the nature and extent of a scribe’s administrative activity. What is particularly interesting about the editors’ new attribution is that it seems to connect tablets from two separate archaeological contexts.

Though the vast majority of tablets from Pylos date to the final destruction and form a coherent corpus, there are a handful do not belong with this main archive. These are generally from earlier or mixed archaeological contexts, and probably date from LH IIIA2, prior to the construction of the familiar palace in LH IIIB1. It is one of these — La 994 — that Godart and Sacconi have attributed to a known scribe, Hand 13 (their 613), thereby arguing that it should be associated with the main archive.

This attribution is made on the basis of a rare feature of the wool logogram, LANA (logograms are signs which stands for words — like our $ — and are conventionally named in Latin). Like many others in Linear B, this was inherited from Linear A, where it was formed by combining the cat’s head sign ma (yes, this is probably onomatopoeic) with the sign for ru, apparently to represent the word MA-RU (sometimes instead spelled out in full), which should be (a) Minoan word for wool; it may be related to Hesiodic μαλλός, ‘wool’.

You can see the logogram here in red on a Linear A tablet from Agia Triada (HT 24a):

Note the ‘eyes’ in the cat’s head, especially clear in lines 1 and 2.

The sign was constructed in basically the same way in Linear B, with the cat’s head ma still the base (though now somewhat more abstracted) and something more like a re or ro adjuncted — probably just a graphical simplification.

Here’s a pretty typical version from Knossos (KN Dk 671).

The ears have been extended, the ru element compressed, and — vitally — we’ve lost the eyes. Though these were a typical feature of both Linear A MA+RU (wool) and the bare MA sign, in Linear B we get the eyes only once in the ma sign (painted on stirrup jar MA Z 1, which poses its own problems) and (it was thought) only once in the LANA sign, on PY La 994.

Here is La 994 from Godart’s corpus:

Though broken, this is pretty readily identifiable as the bottom part of LANA or ma, with eyes clearly visible. Godart and Sacconi have now identified the same feature in the LANA logogram as written by Hand 13.

On La 632:

And La 635:

They’re small, and hard to see at first, especially on La 632, but Hand 13 has definitely added extra points — ‘eyes’ — to the logogram in both cases. This is brilliant find, and distinctive enough that it offers a firm basis for scribal attribution, though La 994 is so fragmentary that this can only be tentative.

The editors demur somewhat on the significance of this attribution, merely noting that it assists those positing an early date for the main archive (xviii). But they do not really spell out how this should work. La 994, whatever hand wrote it, was apparently found alongside Ae 995 underneath rooms 55-7 of the current palace (Palaima, Scribes of Pylos 113). It must therefore antedate the final palace, and cannot be associated archaeologically with the main archive, which belongs inside the palace at the date of its destruction.

Though this provenience is not entirely secure — the relevant notebook was missing when Palaima established the tablets’ findspots — it is universally accepted, if prudently marked with a question mark (as in the draft of PoN IV). Godart and Sacconi have not challenged it (xviii). Their interpretation should therefore be that both the early LH IIIA2 destruction and the final destruction of the palace happened within the lifespan of Hand 13. Since the earlier destruction can be dated to ca. 1300, and the editors place the latter around 1250, this is just possible. I am not entirely confident that this was the argument they intended to make, but it fits the evidence as they present it; as in the section on dating, the editors’ interpretations would be better served by more fulsome discussion.

The ambiguity of their argument is reflected in various reviews, which offer interpretations different from that adduced above. So Ferrara:

What is proposed by this palaeographical re-evaluation is not without repercussions: Godart and Sacconi offer a considerable shift in the chronology of the Pylian tablets, and, they argue to move the whole Archive to an earlier date, namely the Late Helladic IIIB1, as opposed to IIIB2, the phase which has been commonly accepted. The argumentation pivots around the scribe behind tablet La 994, whom they propose was also responsible for other documents related to tablets dealing with wool—La 632 and La 635—all of which would share the same date, namely the beginning of the 13thcentury BCE.

BMCR 2020.12.28

And Civitillo:

Returning to the palaeographical analysis of La 992, La 632 and 635, if the same scribe is responsible for all these tablets, it would follow, according to the authors, that all of them are to be attributed to the same chronological horizon; the whole Central Archive, as a consequence, may need to be dated before the generally accepted Late Helladic IIIB2/ Late Helladic IIIC early date.

Mnemosyne (2020), 1-17

Both reviewers seem to think the LH IIIA2 date of La 994 — a date determined by its context beneath the final palace — should now be used to date the entire archive. Unless Civitillo’s ‘same chronological horizon’ refers, as above, to the lifespan of Hand 13, this is simply impossible. La 994 is given an early date because it is not part of the main archive; we cannot turn around and use that also as a date for the final destruction.

But this isn’t even the real problem. In a 2001 Minos article, José Melena proposed that the tablets written by Hand 13, which represent the bulk of those found in the megaron, did not belong to the main archive. Against the old interpretation that they had fallen from an upper storey of the final palace, he posited that ‘the tablets are likelier to be the remnants of a previous clearing operation… [which] were later used in making crude bricks, used in reparation works on the upper storey of the Megaron’ (367). This is further supported by Shannon Lafayette Hogue’s work on the upper storey of the palace, which found that the megaron almost certainly did not have a balcony or upper storey from which tablets could fall, as in the famous reconstruction:

Pretty, but wrong.

Christina Skelton addressed the tablets themselves in a 2010 Kadmos article, where she was able to demonstrate on palaeographical and pinacological grounds that the work of Hand 13 was entirely distinct from that of other scribes at Pylos, with its closest affinities to the small group of early tablets discussed above — including La 994 — and the earliest deposit of Linear B at Knossos. She was also able to demonstrate that no tablet by Hand 13 was found outside the megaron, and that his work therefore had no necessary association with the main archive. Rather, the work of Hand 13 was a distinct corpus, fortuitously preserved when it was incorporated into the mudbricks used to build the megaron in complete accordance with the archaeological data.

In fact, Skelton even posits the association of La 994 with Hand 13:

Ae 995 and probably Ua [now La] 994 come from Rooms 55–57, a “complex of rooms [which] preserves at least three successive and complicated phases of occupation together with ‘wares of Mycenaean IIIA’” (Palaima 1988, 113). Ua 994 contains a single sign, the lower half of a LANA. This LANA shows two dots between the two semicircles and the vertical line in the lower half of the sign. These dots are unparalleled in the Linear B corpus, and the examples of LANA found in the Megaron tablets do not have them (Nosch 2007). However, since Ua 994 shares the same subject material with the Megaron tablets, and is fired bright red, like the Megaron tablets, there is a possibility that it may have been fired in the same destruction as the Megaron tablets. However, this must remain speculation, given the fragmentary nature of this tablet and its poorly known archaeological context.

Skelton 2010, 111.

The case is of course much stronger now that Godart and Sacconi have identified the same ‘eyes’ on La 632 and 635. But in light of Skelton’s assessment, attributing La 994 to Hand 13 does not associate it with the main archive, but simply another early deposit, and can have no implications for the dating of the final destruction.

The association of La 994 with the main archive was the most significant argument put forth in the corpus for an earlier destruction of the palace. But as the work of Hand 13 forms part of a separate, earlier deposit, this new attribution has no bearing on our interpretation of the main archive. Against what has been reported, therefore, Godart and Sacconi have not made any meaningful argument for adjusting the date of the Pylos tablets. While they have also presented some archaeological evidence in favour of their early date, their evidence is too selective and discussion too limited for this to be a meaningful contribution. While archaeological and epigraphic assessments can be fruitfully married, the editors have not succeeded in that endeavour, and there is no reason to re-date the destruction of the palace based on their claims.

I am grateful to Dimitri Nakassis for guidance and additional references, as well as the scans of La 632 and 635 from ARN.

A Child’s Letter (P.Mich.XMAS)

As I was tidying papers from the semester, a small slip fell from the pile and caught my attention. Picking it up, I realised it was the transcription of a papyrus I’d rescued from my office at the beginning of lockdown and subsequently completely forgotten. I’d found the papyrus in the early winter among unpublished material in the Michigan collection; it seems to have attracted no attention in the past, and had strangely not been given an inventory number. But it was well enough preserved, barring some burning to the top right. It is written in a deliberate and somewhat clumsy hand that should probably not date to before the fourth century of our era. Unfortunately, I did not photograph it — I had intended to return to it sooner than circumstances have allowed. Proper publication will therefore not happen anytime soon. But as it may be of some interest to others, I offer a preliminary edition here.

‘Johnny to <x>, many greetings. First I pray that you are healthy and happy. I want you to know that that I am a good boy. If you want to find sure proof of this, ask my sisters. They will say that I am good. And my parents will agree with them. And indeed my friends. And so don’t believe my teachers. Therefore do not send me coal. I do not at all deserve that. Send instead a new toy, for my sisters broke my old one. Please send one. I pray that you are well.’

The papyrus itself is almost fully complete, with only the top right lost — to burning, from the looks of it. Most of the missing material was pleasantries of the sort easily restorable. It has a formal sort of air, despite its juvenile subject matter; our Johnny (there is little need to doubt he was the author) was certainly the recipient of a good education, whatever his teachers may have thought of him.

The letters were somewhat more generously spaced at the beginning, but by around line 10 it seems Johnny realised he had rather more to say than he had thought. There is a simple charm to the pile-on of those who will agree that he is good, marshalled against the evidence of the teachers, whom he perhaps remembered as he went. His relationship with his sisters seems complicated in the typical ways of childhood: they are happy to serve as character witnesses, we read, but broke Johnny’s old toy. We can only imagine the childhood politics behind this old fact and their current stance. The postponed ‘thanks’ at the end gives the sense of a mind that got to the point rather too quickly, forgetting his manners on the way and stopping only to pick them up again at the end. Social historians, no doubt, will make much of this precocious child.

Perhaps it is the eggnog talking, or else the seasonal music, but I cannot but wonder if we ought not supplement the first line so:

Ἰωαννί[δης Ἁγίωι Νικολάωι
πλεῖστα χα[ίρειν…

Fleecing a Discipline

Mike Sampson’s new article on the provenance of P.Sapph.Obbink (‘the newest Sappho’, containing the Brothers Poem) is a magnificent bit of detective work, which, like all developments in this case, leads in some ways to more questions than answers. This is an attempt to explore some of those questions, and tease out the implications of the new answers. Ultimately, I think there is now enough evidence to suggest that Dirk Obbink himself was the papyrus’ owner, and its public announcement a marketing ploy to raise its prestige and asking price.

After Sampson, along with Anna Uhlig, published a piece on Eidolon about P.Sapph.Obbink and its provenance issues, he was contacted by Ute Wartenberg Kagan, a papyrologist and former Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, who shared with him a Christie’s brochure advertising P.Sapph.Obbink for private sale. This had (remarkably) not been seen by any scholar (as far as Sampson could ascertain) working on the history of the papyrus. His article analyses the metadata of this PDF, which record when it was created, how often it was edited, and even when the photos embedded in it were taken. While some of his basic conclusions were already reported in January by Charlotte Higgins, the data he extracted are incredibly rich and allow for multiple angles of analysis.

His central finding is that the reported provenance of P.Sapph.Obbink is a demonstrable fiction. A photograph in the brochure showing the cartonnage from which P.Sapph.Obbink and the closely related Green Collection (GC) Sappho fragments were supposed to have been extracted was taken on 14 February, 2012, a full week after Scott Carroll had publicly displayed the GC fragments (7 February, 2012), and nearly a month after they had been ‘discovered’ by Scott Carroll at Baylor (16 January, 2012, an event recounted at length in an Atlantic article by Ariel Sabar; this ‘discovery’ was announced by Scott Carroll on his Facebook page two days later, 18 January, 2012).

The inevitable result of this timeline is that everything Dirk Obbink has said in public about the provenance of the papyrus is a lie. There is simply no value in analysing any of his statements or publications for hints of truth. While Sampson’s article clarifies some questions arising from the changing and contradictory accounts (we finally know why Bettany Hughes referred to a ‘high-ranking German officer’ in the first public announcement of the papyrus), this approach can only reveal the nature of Obbink’s lies, not what really happened. There was probably enough evidence to take this stance before, but I don’t see how it can be disputed now.

While Higgins’ article also alluded to an earlier (attempted?) sale in 2013, Sampson’s article gives much more insight into this imperfectly understood event. Though the brochure was ‘created’ on 26 February, 2015, this reflects the date of the final, not the earliest, change. The earliest date in the PDF’s history is rather 18 July, 2013, and there are then 49 other changes recorded before 27 August, 2013 (after this, no changes are recorded until 2015). It is from this cluster of dates that Sampson extrapolates the existence of an earlier brochure, and therefore at least an attempted sale in the summer of 2013. These data are preserved because (as Sampson argues) the new brochure is not a completely new document, but simply an edited version of the old. It does not seem that the metadata are sufficient to identify which, if any, parts of the brochure remain unchanged from 2013, but as Sampson was able to find a collector with a physical copy of the 2015 brochure, it is at least possible that physical copies of the 2013 brochure also still exist. It may also, of course, still exist as a PDF on the hard-drive of one collector or another. We may hope that this document one day surfaces.

One thing about the 2013 brochure is known, however. Within the metadata, Sampson found a sequence including ‘Books_2013: Rom_Sappho/Adelphos, private sale August 13’. As he interprets it (surely rightly), this indicates that the papyrus was advertised (or sold) as a ‘book’ on August 13, 2013, and identified as a Roman-era text of Sappho, containing a poem about her brother (‘Adelphos’ = ἀδελφός, brother). The poem had already been read in August 2013, 18 months before it was announced to the public. Who did the reading? Here we feel acutely our ignorance of the 2013 brochure, but even without that corroboration there is no reason to doubt that it was Dirk Obbink.

P.Sapph.Obbink has always been closely associated with the GC Sappho fragments, which were written in the same hand and come from the same book of Sappho’s poems, which is to say they are all fragments of the same ancient papyrus roll. It is hard to imagine, therefore, that they were looted from Egypt separately. Rather, they were presumably together until the point that the fragments were sold to the Greens and the longer papyrus to its eventual owner.

Thanks to the Museum of the Bible’s belated (but, apparently, genuine) efforts at transparency, we know something about where the GC Sappho fragments came from: they were purchased on 7 January, 2012, along with hundreds of other papyrus fragments, from Yakup Eksioglu. Earlier accounts that they were recovered by dissolving mummy masks were simply an attempt to launder papyri bought from a dealer who apparently had no compunctions dealing with freshly looted material. In Sabar’s Atlantic article, Eksioglu also claimed to be the source of P.Sapph.Obbink, which seems inevitable even if we aren’t inclined to take a liar and a brute at his word (details of his terrible threats against Roberta Mazza can also be found in Sabar’s article).

We also know that Obbink was working with Eksioglu at this point, apparently as a go-between for him and the Green Collection. Sabar’s article refers to an event ‘in early 2012’ when Obbink took Jerry Pattengale, then-executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative, to Eksioglu’s flat in London and tried to talk him into buying a Coptic fragment of 1 Corinthians for $1,000,000 (Pattengale didn’t bite). It’s possible Obbink was also involved in the sale of the consignment including the Sappho fragments: the day before the purchase agreement was signed, Scott Carroll shared on Facebook that he was in Oxford, ‘dismantl[ing] a mummy mask for the BBC‘. (I do not know if video if this event exists). That Obbink was involved can hardly be doubted; this may have been preparatory laundering of the papyri he was about to purchase.

Obbink’s involvement in this sale is further suggested by the fact he was in possession of a photo of the GC Sappho fragments taken on 7 December, 2011 — a month before their sale to the Greens on 7 January, 2012, and so presumably while they were still in Eksioglu’s possession. As his possession of this photo is only documented in 2016, it remains possible that this was shared with him later, but the simplest solution is that he was working with Eksioglu at this point to identify the material he was smuggling out of Egypt and onto the market in London (by way of his home country, Turkey). If Obbink had indeed identified the GC Sappho fragments prior to their sale, he almost certainly also saw P.Sapph.Obbink.

If this is indeed the correct re-creation of events, then there was never a collector who brought the new papyrus to Obbink’s attention — he was aware of it even before it hit the market. So new questions arise: who was trying to sell the papyrus in 2013? Did Scott Carroll buy it along with the GC fragments? Did Eksioglu hold onto it for another 18 months? Or did Dirk Obbink buy it himself?

Details of Obbink’s own collecting and dealing have slowly come to light in the past few years; we now know (from Sabar’s article) that he was personally selling papryi to the Green Collection from January 2010 until February 2013. Most famously, of course, he sold them ‘First Century Mark’ and other Oxyrhynchus papyri owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (he denies these allegations, but the evidence publicly available is damning). The appeal of a new Sappho poem would be obvious to him, as would the potential for profit — after all, he didn’t need to go far to get a world-class Oxford papyrologist to authenticate it.

This is all admittedly speculative, but there are a few other data that might suggest Obbink may have been motivated to sell the Sappho papyrus in the summer of 2013. As already noted, he had stopped selling to the Green Collection in February of that year, perhaps because he realised he had overstepped by selling Oxyrhynchus material to a man who couldn’t keep his mouth shut (Dan Wallace announced ‘First Century Mark’ apparently at Scott Carroll’s behest, on 1 February 2013, three days before the sale was finalised. As Higgin’s Guardian article lays out, it was the loose ends from this event that eventually snared Obbink).

Could he have been motivated to sell the Sappho papyrus after this revenue stream had been cut? It was also midway through 2012 that his employment at the University of Michigan (for a cool $105,000/year) was terminated, some time after it had been revealed that he was double-dipping by still teaching at Oxford, too (a discovery detailed in Sabar’s article). The evidence is quite circumstantial. But we do know that it was in 2013 that he first took an interest in Cottonland Castle in Baylor, a money-pit he would end up buying the next year. He certainly seems to have enjoyed the prerogatives of wealth.

It is not clear whether the 2013 brochure resulted in a sale or not. If it was, it was not mentioned in the provenance section of the 2015 brochure, as Sampson notes, but later in the article he still remains open to the possibility that a private sale was brokered on 13 August, 2013. Having seen the 2015 brochure, he is certainly in a better position to judge than I am; I also do not know the intricacies of private treaty sales, and whether an old brochure would be re-used for a completely new sale, rather than a second go-around. It therefore seems simplest to me that there was no 2013 sale. Why this may be we can only guess: perhaps the provenance was unconvincing, or the asking price too high. But unless a collector solicited in 2013 shares their story, I doubt we will ever know for sure.

It should admitted that a much less involved version of this narrative is possible. Beyond, apparently, identifying the poem and author, there is no ‘smoking gun’ linking Obbink to the 2013 ‘sale’. It is just possible that Eksioglu sold it in early in 2012 to someone else, and Obbink was genuinely brought in as an outside expert when it was put on the market again. Because of the privacy of the market, it is likely we will always be dealing with less than complete information. On balance of probabilities, however, it is hard to assume Obbink is something like an innocent party, especially in light of the evidence from 2015.

Whatever happened in 2013, the timeline Sampson identifies in 2014-5 is openly shocking. The papyrus was publicly announced on 28 January, 2014, some six months after the 2013 ‘sale’. The flurry of media and scholarly attention it received is well-outlined in Sampson and Uhlig’s Eidolon article. Sappho wasn’t just a rock star — she was even better. At least for a while, P.Sapph.Obbink was probably the most famous papyrus in the world.

Obbink wasn’t quite in the meantime. In between publicising and publishing the poems, he was told by the Egypt Exploration Society to cut ties with the Greens in July 2014 (a conversation vividly recounted by Sabar). On September 30th, he bought Cottonland Castle for upwards of $270,000, with apparently $1,400,000 in planned renovations (Sabar). Then, on 31 October, 2014, Obbink went into business with Mahmoud Elder, incorporating Castle Folio, a company that ‘works with… experts and collectors to help identify, preserve and monetize private collections‘. Elder would later advertise that he had ‘expanded [a] dealer’s online presence to connect with an eager network of buyers‘. It seems that Obbink was ramping up his activity on the market, perhaps because the Green Collection was no longer an accessible font of money. Could he have had a specific sale in mind?

On 9 January, 2015, Obbink presented P.Sapph.Obbink at the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in New Orleans over Skype. This was the culmination of almost a year of press coverage surrounding the new poems, and represented an opportunity for their vetting and acceptance by the profession. Four days later, the brochure, which had not been edited since 27 August, 2013, was edited again. And there can be no doubt that Obbink was involved in the process: as Sampson notes, the new brochure does not cite Obbink’s SCS talk, nor the earlier TLS article, but rather his forthcoming article in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (194), ‘Interim Notes on “Two New Poems of Sappho”‘, which would not be published until 15 July, 2015. Whoever was preparing the sale had access to Obbink’s unpublished material: the inescapable conclusion is that Obbink was personally involved. Six weeks later, on 26 February 2015, the brochure was published and the papyrus advertised for sale with an asking price of $12,000,000, according to two collectors who inquired. Before this figure was announced in Sampson’s article, the estimated asking price was £800,000. A year of publicity and public association with an Oxford professor had clearly raised its prestige — at least in the eyes of its owner. We do not know whether the sale was realised, or if it was at what price.

The sequence is shameless. Whether Obbink owned the papyrus or was simply working to help a friend sell it (Scott Carroll? Mahmoud Elder?), it now seems that the public announcement of the papyrus was solely designed to drum up interest in a sale and increase the asking price. It is possible that after no sale was realised in 2013 (as I think most likely), Obbink realised that it was within his power to authenticate the papyrus publicly, expose it to the scrutiny and acceptance of the guild (there remains no good reason to think it is fake), and thereby mitigate whatever concerns hindered the first attempted sale. Perhaps, too, he was motivated by a professional desire to make it public before it disappeared into the ether. But he had no such scruples in 2013.

Much of this is speculative, and more information will (hopefully) trickle out from the murk surrounding the antiquities market. But the data we have, based on the new information from Sampson’s article, contextualised by the invaluable work of Roberta Mazza, Brent Nongbri, Candida Moss, Ariel Sabar, Charlotte Higgins, and many others, allows a plausible narrative to be reconstructed. Obbink was involved with the papyrus from its first ‘discovery’, tried and failed to sell it in 2013, and staged an advertising campaign in 2014 and 2015 using the entire discipline of Classical Studies as patsies to drive up the market value of an artefact he should never have owned, all while acting as the heroic scholar who dared to deal with collectors in the interest of sharing information that would otherwise be lost. A dramatic image, maybe, but one that fits a scholar who had already betrayed the principles of his guild.

The timeline I constructed while preparing this post can be viewed here. It is not exhaustive, and is primarily concerned with Obbink’s interactions with the Sappho papyri. Please get in touch if there is anything you think should be added.

Richard Bott offered valuable feedback, and saved me from more embarrassing mistakes than I would like to admit.

Looting and Faking

This post is rather a departure from the Mycenological material typically presented here, and was born out of recent Twitter conversations that required responses of greater depth than 280 characters allow.  I am not, of course, a papyrologist, though being at Michigan I have been lucky to meet and learn from many; nor am I an expert in the antiquities market, though again I have been lucky to learn from those who are.  If I am therefore wrong in any of the points I present, I will be happy to learn it.  

Papyrology, as the study of written documents, exists at the juncture of two academic fields — the study of ancient languages, and the study of the material remains of the past: which is to say archaeology.  It has,  however, proven to ‘belong’ rather more to the former.  Some of this depends on the fact that the physical artefact itself is rarely as informative as the text written on it, which requires a great deal of expertise to decipher even in the best preserved cases.  Moreover, most papyri were excavated (if not looted) in the late 19th and early 20th century, when scientific archaeology was still very much embryonic, and many were excavated at any rate from secondary contexts (a midden, notably, at Oxyrhynchus); not the most promising material for archaeologists.

Because, in part, the excavation of the material in major western study collections had largely finished by the 1930s, experience in excavation has not been (if it ever was) a pre-requisite for the professional papyrologist, as it remains for the study of other excavated material.  In recent years, however, the publication of certain high-profile papyri (the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, P.Sapph.Obbink), have foregrounded relating to the texts as artefacts.  How these ancient documents, found (when authentic) invariably in Egypt, made their way to major western research institutions, raised eyebrows, and archaeological questions of provenance and provenience became primary avenues of investigation. These related directly to two other, higher profile, questions: looting and forgery.

The different coverage of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and P.Sapph.Obbink have been interesting.  The former, far more sensational, raised immediate controversy over its textual material, and on this basis its authenticity was challenged.  This led to scientific testing and further uncertainty.  In the case of P.Sapph.Obbink, however, presented no major problems in terms of its content; it was the fact that it had appeared, suddenly and without sufficient explanation, in Oxford, that created the controversy.

Provenance and Provenience

Much depends on an understanding of the significance of provenance and provenience.  The former properly indicates an object’s post-excavation history, especially as relates to owners or collections of which it was part.  The latter is simply where an object was found — this can be as vague as the report that it was looted from a specific site, or as precise as a specific context within an archaeologist’s trench.  Neither can nor should be taken for granted; both can be and are misrepresented by the unscrupulous.  

A secure provenience is the sole guarantor of authenticity — unless you can be sure an artefact was responsibly excavated (i.e. not planted) in the course of properly documented archaeological work, you cannot be sure it is what it purports to be.  For this reason, the art market has a complicated relationship with it.  On the one hand, anyone selling an antiquity is quite concerned to guarantee its authenticity and show that it came from the ground and not a forger’s workshop.  But they are generally more reticent about revealing when it came out of the ground: artefacts that left their source country after 1970 — the year a major UNESCO convention was passed — are no longer considered ethical for sale or purchase.  While this is essentially arbitrary, as different countries ratified it at different times, and it was at any rate illegal to remove antiquities from most source countries well before 1970, it serves as a useful line in the sand.  And so provenance becomes important.  On the art market today, a secure provenance is the only way to demonstrate that an antiquity left its source country before 1970 and so aligns with this accepted standard.

In all this the word ‘secure’ is doing a lot of work.  Especially when considering objects on the market, it cannot be assumed that the given provenance and provenience are true.  The fundamental problem is that, 50 years after the UNESCO Convention was passed, the number of artefacts that demonstrably meet its standards is not nearly enough to satiate collectors.  So: people lie.  Of course this came from Greece well before 1970; my Swiss uncle has been keeping it in his attic since the 40s.  For many, this lie (near enough to those often used) is enough.  The simple fact is that, if provenance were subject to even basic scrutiny, the market would not be able to function the way it does.  And, since those implicated in the market are interested in its continuing function, tighter controls will never be willingly applied.  As it is, those with more money than integrity are quite able to buy antiquities, illegal though they may be, and get away with it.  Arthur Houghton, a curator at the Getty in the 1980s, developed the Museum’s policy of ‘optical due diligence’, and this approach — asking for but accepting uncritically any given provenance — remains a standard modus operandi.

The importance of provenance, and the flimsy scrutiny it tends to receive, means that a great number of antiquities now on the market are bought and sold with only the most feeble accounts of their history.  In the case of looted antiquities, it is not in the buyer’s best interests to ask too many questions.  But it is important to remember that not all ‘licit’ antiquities have a secure provenance either: if nothing more than oral family history serves to remove the object from its source country before 1970, then the provenance is no more secure than those constructed for recently looted artefacts.  Fake artefacts must also (necessarily) be sold with falsified histories.  All three categories of artefact — looted, faked, and poorly documented — will have either unverified or fabricated provenances, and will appear for this reason functionally identical on the market.  Because they are shared across categories of artefacts, problems with provenance are not in and of themselves evidence of anything other than the need for further investigation.

Publication Ethics

It should, but unfortunately does not, go without saying that academics should not be interacting with artefacts offered for sale on the market.  If presented with one, a secure provenance placing it outside its source country before 1970 is the bare minimum they should acquire before discussing it in print.  Indeed, the Archaeological Institute of Archaeology has increased the language in its code of ethics from simply prohibiting members from ‘participat[ing] in the illegal trade in antiquities’ (1990) to ‘refrain[ing] from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects’ (1997).  The 2016 (and current) version makes the latter more explicit, and is worth quoting in full:

[Society members of the AIA should:] Refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that give sanction, directly or indirectly, to that trade, and to the valuation of such artifacts through authentication, acquisition, publication, or exhibition. Undocumented antiquities are those that are not documented as belonging to a public or private collection before December 30, 1970, when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In principle, therefore, no American archaeologist should ever be fooled into publishing a fake artefact as though it were authentic.  Only if they can satisfy themselves that its provenance, and therefore provenience, is secure, will they be able to publish it; a fake cannot by definition satisfy these criteria.  The investigation of the given account of an object’s history is, far from a formality, a professional obligation and sine qua non for publication.

Papryologists, at least in America, have followed suit: in 2007 the American Society of Papyrologists passed a resolution condemning the illict trade of papyri, including similar language prohibiting the purchase of post-1970 materials by members of the Society.  Publication of such material is not allowed under the Society’s auspices (so in its Bulletin or at its Annual Meeting), ‘unless the author, speaker, or curator includes a frank and thorough discussion of the provenance of every item’.  Though this weakens the language to some extent, it is still worth nothing that Obbink’s editio princeps of P. Sapph.Obbink (which does not include the word provenance once) would presumably not have been eligible for publication in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.  The German periodical in which it was published, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, offers no ethics statement on its website.  


A secure provenience is the sole guarantor of authenticity; a secure provenance is the guarantor of that provenience.  If, therefore, the provenance does not seem secure, then provenience and authenticity can come into question.  There is no better way to ensure an artefact’s authenticity than to trace a secure line from its current owner to the site where it was excavated.  Indeed, the market’s uncritical acceptance of flimsy provenance in the case of looted antiquities makes it uniquely susceptible to infiltration by fakes (as my friend Richard Bott demonstrated in his excellent Macquarie MRes thesis).

Both looted and fake artefacts are often sold with fake provenances, and only by investigating these can their true nature be determined.  Because the necessity of constructing a fake history for both types of artefacts is essentially the same, evidence that the provenance may be false does not, in and of itself, suggest that an artefact is fake, only that it could be.  At this point, internal evidence will often be adduced one way or another, the conclusions of which will often dictate the tenor of further investigation.

In the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, questions of authenticity emerged almost immediately, and Karen King’s publication of the editio princeps was in fact delayed to incorporate and be published alongside the results of scientific testing.  In that same issue of the Harvard Theological Review, however, the case was made  from internal evidence that the text of the papyrus could not be genuine.  The tension between philological approaches, which consistently suggested against authenticity, and scientific tests, which showed the ink was appropriate and the papyrus itself ancient, brought the situation to something of a stalemate.  That it is now considered a fake is the result of research into its provenance by Ariel Sabar in an Atlantic article well worth reading (a book will be published in August).  Faced with his results, even Karen King conceded it was unlikely to be real with the remarkable statement that ‘Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated.’

Now, it’s fair to say that not everyone has the time and resources to conduct the type of research that Sabar did (though I wonder whether his research was actually any more costly than the tests performed on the papyrus).  But it is also fair to say that only this investigation was able to quell any further debate.  And, of course, if false provenance could be offered for a fake artefact, the exact same could have been offered for a looted one.  All the scientific tests and grammatical infelicities in the world will fail to identify an artefact’s modern history.  And yet there was never any concern by those who believed in its authenticity, to my knowledge, that she may have published a looted artefact, though this was of course not an issue for those who thought it was fake.

In rather stark contrast, the authenticity of P.Sapph.Obbink was essentially never at question.  In his initial announcement of the poem in the TLS Obbink did offer a brief defence:

Sappho Authenticity

Within the context of the article, however, this is presented as almost an after-thought, and the argument is ultimately bloodless.  In a later discussion of the poem’s authenticity, Obbink allows Martin West’s initial impression to represent the communis opinio: ‘My initial impression was that it was very poor stuff, and linguistically problematic. But the more I look at it, the more OK it seems. It’s certainly not one of her best, but it has her DNA all over it’.  Controversy was rather immediately centred on its provenance — or rather the lack thereof.

The variants and permutations of the provenance given at different stages defy the possibility that the full story is known.  I can hardly improve on the account given by Bettany Hughes in a recent Guardian article, which ultimately shows that the cartonnage from which the poem was supposedly removed was still unsold after other fragments of Sappho ‘extracted’ along with P.Sapph.Obbink in the same hand had been waved around by Scott Carroll, then associated with the Green Collection.  Indeed, though that same article does note that some thought that it may be a fake (more on this later), the controversy of its provenance and potentially looted origin presupposed that it was authentic.

That provenance is, bluntly, a headache.  The most recent overview, and newest information, can be found in an(other) Atlantic article by Ariel Sabar, though earlier posts by Brent Nongbri and Roberta Mazza offered a more detailed look at various aspects.  As reported by Sabar, the owner of both P.Sapph.Obbink and the fragments purchased by the Green Collection was the Turkish antiquities dealer Yakup Eskioglu.  The article further demonstrates that no significant Green Collection papyri were actually extracted from mummy cartonnage, as was famously claimed, but rather purchased from Obbink or Eksioglu.  The destruction of mummy masks was, it seems, both literal and figurative papyrus laundering.  In light of this, it seems likeliest to me that the same happened with P.Sapph.Obbink, and the convoluted cartonnage narrative was simply a red herring to legitimise a recently looted papyrus.  Paul Barford offers a good overview.

As was mentioned, all of this rather presupposes something: that the papyrus is authentic.  But, of course, a shaky provenance could equally belong to a fake, and speculation on Twitter recently turned in that direction when Clara Bosak-Schroeder (@thaumatic) tweeted:

This sparked a fair bit of discussion, including ultimately this post.  I stand by my immediate response, though it does not in fact make a great argument:

And, of course, we have this from Armand D’Angour

… but a faker would say that, wouldn’t they?  Ultimately, any statement about how a forger thinks is likely to be tendentious.  Some forgers may go for the sensational; others, perhaps more wary of being caught, the hum-drum.  Arguments can be marshalled in either direction, limited only by the ingenuity of those posing them.  Psychologising our putative faker gets us nowhere.

(Not to cast aspersions on Armand, of course, who who surely would have written something much more interesting.)

In spending more time with the poem prior to this post, I have found with West that familiarity does improve it, though it ultimately lacks something of the vivid immediacy and subtle imagery of her more justly famous poems.  I do not doubt that it is real, though it is not my intention here to make a comprehensive case for the text’s authenticity.  At any rate, I have no particular investment in its authenticity; I have never published on it, and doubt I ever will.  It is, ultimately, much less exciting to argue for the authenticity of a text, especially when there are no major issues that need defending.  That is very much the case with this poem.  The most lethal objection, the linguistic problems noted by West, is not so bad as all that.  These are generally points of orthography where the text does not conform to the Lesbian Aeolic dialect.  These sorts of errors are only to be expected in a papyrus written in the third century AD, perhaps 800 years after the poem was written; few today would offer to copy out Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and guarantee there would be no errors, especially if the possibility presented that the exemplar may need correcting.  This is essentially what has happened, and these sorts of errors are incredibly common in Greek literary papyri.

The case is further bolstered by the fact that the Brothers Poem, and other Green Collection papyri in the same hand, join textually with previously known fragments.  This is not a smoking gun — our faker may have been deeply familiar with Sappho — but the effort would be quite extraordinary.  Given what amounts to, I think, fairly significant evidence for its authenticity, the case that it may be a fake needs to be made explicitly, and with something more than just dubious provenance.  As has been stressed, this is a shared feature of both fake and looted antiquities, and so problematic provenance is not evidence, in and of itself, that an artefact is fake.  As in the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, knowing the true provenance would solve the problem, but in the absence of that arguments have to be made from internal evidence, and, for all those who’ve expressed doubt, I’ve yet to see any case actually made.

(Throughout I have used ‘authentic’ to mean that it was collected in the first book of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho and circulated as one of her works in antiquity.  The question of whether is it from the hand of Sappho ipsa, or an ancient imitator, is a very different one, and not immediately relevant to the authenticity of P.Sapph.Obbink.  While there are some divisions within the Sapphic corpus based on metrical and dialectal differences [the so-called ‘abnormal’ poems], there is no reason to count this poem among them — and indeed no consensus that they couldn’t be by her anyway.  But we are coming here to the limits of my expertise, and these arguments are probably better made by others.)

On the other side, what we do know about its provenance points to the eminent possibility that it was looted.  A connection with Yakub Eksioglu is nearly guaranteed, given that he was the one who sold the related fragments to the Green Collection, and it’s fairly clear that had access to material looted from Egypt.  That P.Sapph.Obbink is an illicit, looted document is the most economical explanation — and the basis of the entire controversy.

Indeed, that’s why I find speculation as to its authenticity rather confusing.  As Enrico Prodi noted…

If P.Sapph.Obbink was faked, not looted, then the entire ethical problem is obviated.  The pivot is drastic, especially all that we know about other illegal dealings by all involved.  What does it benefit to reframe the conversation in terms of authenticity? At this point, with every reason to think that P.Sapph.Obbink is looted, and no positive evidence in favour of forgery, it simply confuses the issue.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t worry about fakes, but only when the evidence points us there.


So, then, what is the worse crime —  publishing a looted artefact, or a fake one?  This question, I think, has a clear answer, but the issue itself is not simple.  After all, the scholar who publishes a looted artefact can make the claim that they are performing a service to scholarship — if they didn’t publish it, the argument goes, it would disappear into a private collection, and the world would be (e.g.) one poem of Sappho poorer.  Publishing a fake as authentic, however, distorts the corpus, and so accomplishes rather the opposite effect.  It is almost inevitably malicious if done knowingly; at at best it is an act of scholarly irresponsibility.  Fakes have the ability to alter scholarly narratives, especially when opinion is divided, which (at best) suck oxygen away from more interesting debates, or (at worst) encourage the wrong questions and guide us to the wrong answers.

Without discounting the difficulties that fakes offer, their significance is generally limited to the pages of academic periodicals and monographs.  We can rank them of the utmost importance only if we consider academia a closed system, removed fromt the causes and consequences of the wider world.  But while a fake, if made by a scholar, may exist within this microcosm, when antiquities dealers intrude they bring the world with them.  The scholarship on looting and the black market in antiquities is now extensive, but the simple fact is that, beyond the inevitable damage to archaeological sites, it is a brutal form of transnational crime that leads to death, murder, and the exploitation of war-torn countries.

In this case it becomes, I think, absolutely clear that engaging with looted antiquities is worse than faked ones.  Looting in Egypt (where our papyrus must have been preserved) follows the same patterns as it does elsewhere, and was particularly bad in the disruption following the Arab Spring revolt of 2011.  Children employed by looters to dig through sites put their lives at risk, and occasionally lose them, and two guards hired to protect a site were shot and killed by looters in 2016 (see further this excellent article by Roberta Mazza).  It is not even the looters, often driven to the activity by desperation, who benefit; they are paid pennies compared with what those capable of getting objects out of the country and to the major auction houses in London and New York.  The sensationalised reporting of new artefacts, such as P.Sapph.Obbink, or knowledge that the Green Collection was willing to pay vast amounts for papyri, fuels and perpetuates this process.

As mentioned above, archaeologists are at this point well used to the idea that looted artefacts should not be published; the discipline has decided that whatever knowledge may be lost in this way is less important than avoiding contact with organised crime.  But in this the archaeologist who turns down an artefact for publication has an advantage over the papyrologist asked to do the same.  Archaeological finds offer, on their own, very limited information; we understand them through the context in which they were excavated — where were they found? what were they found with? One of the most spectacular recent finds in Classical Archaeology is the Combat Agate from Pylos.  Whatever its merits as a work of art, however, analysis would be far more limited if it had appeared without context.  We may place it on Crete, based on the quality, or else at Mycenae; Pylos would not be the first guess.  Understood as part of their proper context — the burial goods of the so-called Griffin Warrior — it is helping us re-assess our understanding of the early Mycenaean period in Greece.  In a different universe, where the tomb was looted and a scholar was offered the Combat Agate alone to publish, they would be rejecting only a(n exceptionally) pretty rock, not this entire scholarly opportunity.

The situation with papyri is obviously different.  Even those that have a recorded archaeological provenience are typically assessed based on what they say, not where they came from (the first papyrological publication based entirely on the building in which the papyri were found was published in 2018).  And so I think it is fair to say that the papyrologist who turns down a looted find is making a greater sacrifice than the archaeologist who does the same.  While, I think — as, albeit, an archaeologist, not a papyrologist — that rejection is the clear and necessary option, it is perhaps also fair to say that coming to that decision may not be easy.

Final Thoughts

But if the artefact is published, what then?  Archaeologists, in general, are happy to ignore looted artefacts, not least because they tend to lack the sort of contextual information that enable analysis.  But it is perhaps glib to suggest the same standard for papyrologists and textual scholars.  We could, I suppose, teach Sappho without the Brothers Poem, especially at the undergraduate level; but should we also ignore fr. 5 (relatively well-preserved, as things go) because one of the Green Collection papyri now records the first word?  Or fr. 16, the famous ‘what one loves’ poem, which has gained words in the same way?  It is not clear to me that this situation is tenable.  Because these looted texts were published, all who study Sappho are now implicated in the ethical question, and must make their peace with this.  I first read Sappho in depth this fall, and I devoured as much as I could — including the lovely Tithonus poem, published in 2005 — but deliberately avoided the Brothers Poem, a strategy which worked for about a month before it appeared on the midterm.  Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know — but I’m glad that I’m not likely to run into the same problem again soon.

While Obbink’s situation is clearly not resolved, and the ultimate fall-out (whatever it may be) will not be based on his publication of this poem, a comparison of his current circumstances with Karen King’s is in some ways instructive.  In many ways, she is lucky that doubt presented immediately, and the situation was resolved with (in academic terms) great speed.  The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife did not fully enter the corpus, but maintained a liminal position, and lasting damage seems to be minimal.  At any rate, she remains Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, and there has been no public consequence beyond, presumably, a fair deal of embarrassment.

In some ways she got lucky.  Had Sabar’s investigation found that the papyrus was not a fake, but had left Egypt much more recently, the narrative would be very different.  By accepting a piece presented by the stranger and the story he offered, this was the risk she took.  Provenance remains the only relevant question when dealing with an unknown artefact, and is far too important to accept at face value.

My thanks to Richard Bott for proofreading and years of valuable discussion on issues of fakes and forgeries.  All references to the excellence of his work are mine.

The Tacitean Trump

Pagnion of an April’s night.

in ea tempestate accedit ad imperium princeps haud credibilis, gente natus divite se ipsum peperisse prosperitatem abritratus: magnae opes isti inopum vindici. adeo sapiens ut, quod pro venatione veneficarum habuit ipsas veneficas semper invenisset. sed alitus non solum per populos plebesque, sed cultores eius senatores, obstrincti tanto amori iudicium. suffragatores eius bonos viros appelavit, ab aliis deplorati. consensu stultissimorum capax imperii, imperavit stultissime.

A Phaistos Disk Primer

The Phaistos disk is something of an embarrassment to students and scholars of the Aegean Bronze Age.  Its celebrity has given it an inordinately central position on the discipline, the extent of its fame something like inversely proportionate with its evidential value to scholars, to say nothing of certain knowledge.  Only Atlantis can vie with its centrality to pseudo-scientific narratives of the Bronze Age, and new ‘decipherments’ are often lauded by the media in breathless tones, ignorant, it seems, of the oblivion to which most previous attempts have been consigned.

The proximate cause of this post is the announcement of (yet another) decipherment by Gareth Owens, which he will announce at a ‘Cambridge Lecture’ that is nothing of the sort:

At a deeper level, though, the need for this post reflects the general absence of public-facing scholarship on the Aegean Bronze Age, and especially its scripts, in recent years.  This was noted four years ago, now, by Dimitri Nakassis, and while I think the situation has improved in some ways (the CREWS Project has an excellent blog, and the number of Linear B scholars active on Twitter has at least tripled), the fact remains that ancient scripts are inevitably considered abstruse and difficult, even by those in cognate disciplines.

So far as the Phaistos Disk is concerned, the best online resource (to my knowledge) is a page maintained by John Younger as part of a larger website on the Minoan scripts, with other sections dedicated to Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphics.  Anyone looking for a well-illustrated overview of the disk and its signs should certainly start there (he also, incidentally, offers a rebuttal of one of Owens’ earlier attempts at decipherment).  I aim here to complement it as a source, and so largely defer discussion of sign forms and their comparanda in other Minoan scripts, except as these pertain to the possibility of decipherment and the question of authenticity.

(While I was writing this, Anna Judson posted an excellent overview of the various scripts used in the Bronze Age Aegean, and how much we know about them.)

img_1497.jpg(Side A of the Disk on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.)

As ‘mysterious’ as the disk is, there are some facts which brook little disagreement.  On total count, it bears 241 signs, 45 of which are discrete.  This is quite too many for an alphabet, which renders consonants and vowels separately, and too few for a pictographic (or logographic) script, in which each sign represents a full word.  Rather, it suggests a syllabary, where each sign represents some combination of consonant and vowel.  We should think this even if all available evidence for the other Aegean scripts indicated that they, too, were syllabic in nature.  For Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary (a niece or nephew of the former, in crude genetic terms), we know this to be the case because we can read them.  Because of their relation to the other scripts, especially Linear A, we can be quite certain in their cases, too.  Both internal evidence (the count of signs on the Disk) and external evidence (our knowledge of writing in the Bronze Age Aegean) corroborate the same conclusion.  By processes such as these, it is possible to draw logical inferences that have some probability of being correct; this is how work should be done on the Disk.  For other examples of conclusions (never radical) which have a greater likelihood than others of being correct, and with which any decipherment attempt should in large part conform, see this excellent article by Yves Duhoux.

But that is not to say that, by working carefully out from plausible hypotheses, we can decipher the Disk.  On that front, I cannot improve greatly on Judson’s summary:

The Disc is a completely unique inscription whose function (and therefore likely content) we don’t know, and although some signs do bear resemblances to other Cretan writing systems, its exact relationship to these (also undeciphered and poorly understood) writing systems is very unclear.

There is one further problem: because the Disk is the only known representative of its writing system, even if we somehow arrived at the correct reading, there would be no way to prove it.  This would require external verification, which is prima facie impossible when dealing with a unique artefact.  Some of the more clever would-be decipherers attempt to side-step this by incorporating a ‘decipherment’ of Linear A which, on the grounds that (as deciphered) they represent the same language, this offers the necessary external verification.  Given the difficulties inherent in deciphering Linear A, this only has the effect of making their argument less likely.  Ultimately, the Disk cannot tell us anything certain about Minoan culture, and the ingenuity wasted on it sucks the air from much more interesting discussions about writing in the prehistoric Aegean.

(Side B of the Disk, Heraklion Archaeological Museum.)

For the last decade or so, another controversy has hounded the Disk.  This is the question of authenticity, provocatively questioned by Jerome Eisenberg in a 2008 Minerva magazine article.  Some context:  this was not a peer-reviewed article, nor did the author have to convince an editor of its merits, as Eisenberg himself plays that role.  This has no direct bearing on the strength of his argument, of course, but this is not a source, for example, that an undergraduate would generally be encouraged to cite.

I had (perhaps naively) not thought this view had won many adherents, but some recent discussion on Twitter suggested it had rather more traction than I had thought.    It is therefore, I think, worth offering an overview of the controversy.  I believe it is real, but some senior scholars do not, and the conclusion on either side must rest on a balance of probabilities; as so often in archaeological questions, we want for certainty.  For point-by-point discussion, readers should refer to Eisenberg’s original article (cited above) and this insightful response by Pavol Hnila.   Here I will simply review one aspect (scientific testing) untouched by Hnila, and the evidence of more recent scholarship.

Those who argue in favour of a forgery do claim that certain evidence is attainable, and take the Heraklion Museum’s refusal to allow the requisite scientific testing as a tacit admission of guilt (as it were).  Eisenberg’s views, and frustration, are laid out in this NYT article.  The fact of the matter remains, however, that the requested test (thermoluminescence dating)  is destructive, no matter how much Eisenberg seeks to minimize this aspect:

Dating by thermoluminescence would not really damage the disc, as it would require drilling a small hole or two on the edge that could afterward be infilled so that it would be virtually invisible.

It need not, I think, be said that the Heraklion Museum has many reasons beyond fear of the result to want to avoid destructive tests on, yes, one of its most famous artefacts.  However invisible Eisenberg imagines the damage will be, this is a test which requires taking a drill to a three-and-a-half thousand year old piece of baked clay.  It is further not clear that a single sample would be sufficient to determine the age of the Disk.  Contemporary discussion on the AegeaNet mailing list likewise demonstrates some uncertainty as to the infallibility of such a test; it depends on the clay being evenly fired, and so multiple samples, rather than one, may be required.  Despite the popular sense that scientific testing is able to offer the last word on controversies in the humanities, circumstances in reality are very rarely so clear-cut.  A test might be conclusive, but the destruction and expense might equally lead down only a dark alley.

Further contextual evidence was also offered in 2017, when the Middle Minoan stamped pottery from Phaistos was published by Alessandro Sanavia.  While it was already known that the use of stamps was paralleled both at Phaistos and elsewhere, we now have a much larger corpus available for study, and more of the Phaistos Disk signs have external comparanda (see especially pp. 89-94 of Sanavia’s article).  Though no less unique as a written document, neither the technology nor iconography of the Disk appear now so exceptional as could once be thought.

Linguistic evidence, comparing sequences of signs on the Disk with those found in Linear A records, has also been used in an innovative way to argue for linguistic continuity across the two scripts (Davis 2018 — unfortunately pay-walled, but get in touch if you’re particularly curious).  Needless to say, it would be quite remarkable if it were within our forger’s ability to reproduce accurately an unknown language.  This sort of approach, patient and ‘unspectacular’ in the broad sense (more of the article is taken up with arguing for the validity of the method than anything else), both demonstrates how responsible work can be done on the Disk, and ‘scholarly’ methods, rather than just scientific, contribute to the discussion.

I have not set out to answer the question of authenticity here, only compile and present the best available arguments and evidence.  For me, they make a convincing case for authenticity, but enough uncertainty remains (especially around the exact context of its discovery, for which see Hnila and this AegeaNet email by Vincenzo la Rosa) that I can see room for doubt.  Given the scope for misinformation when it comes to the Disk, it is my hope that this post, at least, may serve as a reliable first port of call for the curious.

A Lost Mycenaean Record

When I arrived in Ann Arbor this fall, word eventually made it to me that the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology had in its holdings an old photograph, terribly faded, of what appeared to be some sort of inscription.  My own interest in Linear B being well known, I was able to get a look at it; little, indeed, could be said except that some features (or were they shadows?) gave the dim impression of an Aegean script.  Disappointed, but not greatly surprised, I was soon occupied entirely by coursework, and between Tacitus’ torturous Latin and the great lacunae of knowledge in the Greek Early Iron Age, the damaged photograph very quickly passed from my mind.

All of that changed last night, when I found myself walking the halls of the Kelsey.  A dream, to be sure — not least because I had left Ann Arbor for home at the end of last week.  Something was different, though: details were wrong; the old wood looked fresh.  I soon came to realize I had no control over my wandering feet, and so relaxed, a passenger in my own body, or some oneiric simulacrum thereof.  As watched, the sense of strangeness increased, and the more I saw the more I felt out of time, as though I were seeing the old stones in much younger days.  Soon enough I was in the basement, and then the archives, and in my hands was an album; with a thrill I recognized it as that which hold the photo.

I opened it, or rather watched as it was opened, and soon I was faced with a clear photograph of a Linear B tablet, its crisp lines matching the dim outlines I had managed to perceive in the picture viewed now some months ago.  Along the bottom was written ‘Tablet in the Minoan Linear Script of Class B.  Gift of A. Evans to F. Kelsey.’   I forced my eyes back to the signs, insistent that I should not forget them, and after what may have been thirty seconds or minutes of dreamtime, just as I felt certain I could not forget what I had seen, all faded to white and I was staring instead at my ceiling.  With a jump I leapt from bed, grabbed a nearby pad of paper, and sketched what I had seen.  That it was indeed a true vision I had no doubt, but this of course falls well short of sufficient evidence for scientific publication, so I offer my drawing and findings here:

ChristmasWe may transliterate thus:

.1 po-me-ne                         VIR 12
.2                                          OVIS 60
.3 ma-ko                              VIR 3
.4                                          AUR M 1
.5                                          RI
.6                                          SU
.7 tu-pa-ni-ti-jo                  PUER 1


  • po-me-ne  is transparently ποιμένες, shepherds, a common word in Linear B records.  VIR 12 indicates that we are dealing with a dozen of them.
  • The following line, seemingly incomplete, must represent a continuation of the previous; that is, OVIS 60 (60 sheep) must represent animals accompanying the shepherds.  This is, of course, not a particularly coherent number; we have only 5 sheep per shepherd.  These cannot represent their whole flocks, but only a small portion, taken somewhere — as a gift?  It is not clear.
  • ma-ko is not a word known in Linear B, and must be a (probably nominative) plural, given VIR 3 (3 men) at the end of the line.  It is not clear what we should read; options include μάργοι, ‘mad men’, or perhaps more reasonably, μάγοι, ‘wise men’.
  • AUR M 1 is quite clear: roughly a kilogram of gold.  As with the sheep listed below the shepherds above, we must imagine that this accompanied the ma-koRI is, however, curious.  It would typically indicated λίνον (ri-no), ‘linen’, but the absence of a measure is curious.  The use of a logogram on its own is known in other contexts to indicate a full measure, but this never occurs with RI.  Something other than linen is, I think, being indicated here; may we conjecture λίβανος, frankincense?
  • SU must likewise be an unknown logogram.  If λίβανος is in fact correct for RI, then might we read *su-mu-na, σμύρνα — myrrh? These, I think, must be gifts, which may suggest that the curiously small number of sheep per shepherd are likewise gifts.
  • tu-pa-ni-ti-jo is another hapax graphomenon.  Likewise curious is the logogram, which takes the conventional form of VIR, man, but is much too small, from no apparent necessity.  This small size, and the ending –i-jo, which suggests the diminutive -ίον, have led me to suggest a reading PUER, which is to say ‘child.’  tu-pa-ni-ti-jo must therefore correspond; the only word which comes to mind is a diminutive of τυμπανιστής.  I would suggest, therefore, τυμπανιστίον, ‘little drummer boy’.  He is singular, and unlike the other groups, seems to have no gift to bring.  Since the situation seems to have demanded as much, perhaps he rather played his drum.

The record, then, records gifts given by shepherds, wise men, and a ‘little drummer boy’ to an unnmamed recipient.  What could have brought such an eclectic group together is only to be wondered at, as indeed is the identity of the one receiving these gifts.

A Cucurbitaceous Linear B Inscription

I set off home from the Kelsey Museum of Classical Archaeology last night under a drooping dusk, the streetlights just flickering into life as the leaves tumbled in their autumnal dance.  The air was cold, and a firm wind seemed to find my face no matter which way I turned.  Tucking in my chin, I set a deliberate pace with thoughts of a boiling kettle and hot tea on my arrival.  But as I passed through the deepening shadows between lights, my eyes were drawn past a decrepit fence to a house unusually dark and grim.

What guided my next steps I do not know, but soon I was standing before a gate which hung from its post only, it seems, by force of will.  It swivelled with a groan in the wind, and strange curiosity took me past it and into a yard, the air full of leaves, swirling as though levied for some dim purpose.  Still, my attention was rapt, and I squinted through the leaves and vesperal gloom to see — I know not what.  The house, perhaps, to catch the root of my purposing.  But before I could grasp illumination from the shadows, my attention was snatching away by something before my feet.

More substantial than a leaf, I looked down and saw a broken piece of pumpkin, curiously scratched — almost, I should think, inscribed.  But as I bent to take a closer look a shape leapt from the leaves to my right in a flurry of fur and fury; I could but watch as the darting squirrel snatched the pumpkin and ran off behind me.  I turned in indignation, and gave what pursuit I could — back down the path and through the tired gate.  But man for all his virtues cannot conquer a squirrel in the chase; soon it was halfway up an oranging oak, lost in the shadows of its remaining leaves.  From above, I could hear — or did I only imagine it? — the dim sound of gnawing.

Disappointed, I stood for a moment until with a sudden glare the streetlight above finally flared into life.  Startled, I turned with a sudden hope that the light might illumine the strange house, and all the night’s curiosity not be frustrated.  But as I looked back along the street I could not find the weary gate, nor the fence’s planks, ragged and raw; my eyes met only only a row of happy houses, their windows gayly gleaming.  I blinked, and shook my head, but the vision — had it been nothing more? — of only a moment prior was gone.

The walk home did not clear my thoughts, nor could I shake the curious sense that I had recognized something earlier as I clicked on the kettle; I stood, distracted, as it merrily steamed and bubbled, and only as I sat down and sipped at the brew did my mind return to the scratches on the pumpkin.  With a start I grabbed a piece of paper, and with a strange certainty I sketched them out from memory.  Only then did my thoughts come together: staring back from the page, clear as day, was the Mycenaean Linear B syllabary.

I have more questions still than answers, but here follows my drawing and what sense I can make of the signs, in hopes some sense might eventually be made of this evening most curious.


.1 a-re-ti-no-ta-to
.2 a-ko-ro

.2 me-ka-ra ko-ro-ku-ta


  • There is no ruling, which is odd for a Linear B inscription, but as this medium is unprecedented, we should perhaps not be surprised.
  • a-re-ti-no-ta-to a-ko-ro is clear enough in interpretation, though the sense is obscure.  The reading ἀληθινώτατος ἀγρός (/alethinotatos agros/, ‘most sincere field’) is suggested readily enough, though how or why a field should be sincere I cannot say.  Perhaps more helpful is a reading ἀληθινωτάτῳ ἀγρῷ (/alethinotatoi agroi/) in the dative/locative, situating events in this curious field.
  • me-ka-ra ko-ro-ku-ta is likewise straightforward as readings go, and only slightly less opaque in sense.  We may read μεγάλα κολοκύνθα (/megala kolokuntha/), which evokes the strange image of a ‘great pumpkin’.  How we might conceive of this figure is far from my understanding, as it is association with the ‘most sincere field’.  The vagaries of Linear B allow us to read this in a number of ways — a nominative, perhaps of rubric, or else a dative of reference (μεγάλᾳ κολοκύνθᾳ, /megalai kolokunthai/); was something offered to this figure?  Perhaps we may imagine the pumpkin itself was an offering; perhaps, indeed, we should conceive of the ‘field’ as a pumpkin patch.  The ‘great pumpkin’ might then be a tutelary deity or genius loci.  What is offered, then, is an offering to the ‘Great Pumpkin in the most sincere pumpkin patch’.

Linear B Translated: MY V 659

Another tablet in translation for your reading pleasure (you can find a full index here).

This one is fairly well served in modern handbooks (it’s in Documents and the more recent Companion to Linear B), but there remain some differences in interpretation — and it’s a personal favourite.  It was found in the West House at Mycenae, outside of the citadel proper, and indeed most of our records from that site come from outlying “houses”.  While on initial discovery it was thought that these recorded private transactions of the households, as more (such as this one) were found, it became clear that the same people were named on some of the tablets, suggesting a broader (probably palatial) level of control.

MY V 659 drawn

.1       wo-di-je-ja   ,      de-mi-ni-ja          1
.2       ma-no   ,   a-re-ka-sa-da-ra-ka           2
.3       ri-su-ra   ,   qo-ta-qe                         2
.4       e-ri-tu-pi-na   ,   te-o-do-ra-‘qe’       2
.5       o-to-wo-wi-je  tu-ka-te-qe               2
.6       a-ne-a2   ,   tu-ka-te-qe                     2
.7       pi-ro-wo-na  ki-ra-qe                       2
.8       p̣ụ-ka-ro  ke-ti-de-qe                         2
.9                               ]-ri-mo-qe                 2
.10                             ]ma-ta-qe                  2
.11                                ]*8̣2̣                         1
.12                                        ]-q̣ẹ                  2
.13                                                                 ] vac.
inf. mut.
lat. dex.
]  ,  i-ri-[•]1̣        ke-ra-so   ,   ki-ra-qe 2

.1 <For> Rose: 1 Bed
.2 <For> ma-no <and> Alexandra: 2 beds
.3 <For> ri-su-ra and qo-ta: 2 beds
.4 <For> e-ri-tu-pi-na and Theodora: 2 beds
.5 <For> o-to-wo-wi-je and <her> daughter: 2 beds
.6 <For> a-ne-ha and <her> daughter: 2 beds
.7 <For> pi-ro-wo-na and her infant daughter: 2 beds
.8 <For> pu-ka-ro and ke-ti-de: 2 beds
.9 <For> someone and ]-ri-mo : 2 beds
.10 <For> someone and ]-ma-ta: 2 beds
.11: <For> ]-*82: 1 bed
.12 <For> someone and someone]: 2 beds
.13 (empty)
Damaged below.
On the right side:
] <for> i-ri-[?]: 1 bed.  For Cherry and her infant daughter: 2 beds


  • While Duhoux (Companion to Linear B vol. 1, pp. 290-4) takes issue with the conventional interpretation that this tablet records the allotment of bedding, I see no problem with it.  He objects that the key word, de-mi-ni-ja (δέμνια, demnia, plural as is most often the case from Homeric poetry onwards) should, if really the key word, come first.  But it sits here quite naturally where a logogram would sit, after the name and before the numeral.  Its omission in subsequent lines also matches the omission of logograms on other tablets (cf. KN Fp(1) 48 where the sign for oil is only given once); it is perhaps even more explicable here given the length of the word.  He further objects that the names are all in the nominative, rather than the dative, which would be odd in a case where items are being distributed; but this is no real objection, as the so called “nominative of rubric” is common in the records, which simply indicates the person involved.  Hence the supplied <for> in the translation, which could likewise be omitted without any great injury to understanding.
  • Ma-no, along with a-ne-ha and ke-ra-so (“Cherry”) are also listed on MY Fo 101, which records the distribution of oil.  As Fo 101 was found in the House of the Oil Merchant, not the West House as was this one, it is clear that these records were not limited in interest to the “house” in which they were found.
  • In line .2, we can be quite certain that the scribe has made a mistake.  They have written a-re-ka-sa-da-ra-ka, “Alexandra-ka”.  In subsequent lines, the postpositive “qe” is used to link the two items (cf. alphabetic Greek τε, Latin -que).  The signs for ka and qe are perhaps the most similar in the syllabary, as can be seen in the drawing — the former a circle with a cross, the latter a circle with (generally) three or four dashes.  This, combined with the fact that “Alexandra” is such a recognisable name, makes it quite clear they did not intend an obscure alternative on the lines of “Alexandraka”.
  • Theodora joins Alexandra among the names still in use today.  As Chadwick already noted in the initial publication, names form from the stem θεός (theos, god) are hard to parse in Linear B (there is only one other), and it must have some other valence from the modern name with its overt Christian connotations.
  • The word tu-ka-te (θυγάτηρ, “thugater” — daughter) is one of the few which indicates that we should take the names as nominatives (the dative would be tu-ka-te-ri, θυγατέρι).  Mainland scribes don’t conventionally write the -ι in diphthongs, so (e.g.) te-o-do-ra could be read as nominative Θεοδώρα or dative Θεοδώραι.  Since all of the nouns on the tablet read most naturally if taken in the same sense, we should assume that if tu-ka-te is nominative, then so too are all the others in cases of ambiguity.
  • ki-ra, here translated “infant daughter” is somewhat obscure.  It seems unlikely to be a name, since it appears twice on the tablet (line .7 and the right side), and is therefore perhaps better taken as a noun akin to tu-ka-te.  If it corresponds to an alphabetic Greek word, it will be γιλ(λ)ά (gilla), attested in the form νεογιλός (neogilos) in the Odyssey.  Hesychius, an Alexandrian who compiled a dictionary of rare Greek words, glosses it as “newborn”, and a scholion to the Odyssey verse clarifies “nourished by milk”; it might also correspond etymologically to a Lithuanian verb meaning “to suck.”  If this interpretation is right (and it seems to be on fairly firm footing), then pi-ro-wo-na must have had a daughter still breastfeeding.  It is difficult to understand why a child so young would need a separate bed, but the exact sense of de-mi-ni-ja is somewhat opaque — bed, bedding, and other similar words remain possible, so we should not be too dogmatic in denying a child’s need for it.
  • In line .11, it seems only 1 name was recorded; it was probably too long to fit alongside another (cf. a-re-ka-sa-da-ra-ka, but in that case joined with the very short ma-no.)
  • We might, in the damaged space at the end, expect that the scribe had totaled the amount of bedding (vel sim.) distributed: to-sa de-mi-ni-ja 25 (τόσσα δέμνια, “so many beds”).  This could even have been done in .13, since it need not have run all the way to the right edge of the tablet.  Complicating this interpretation, however, is the fact that we have writing along the right edge, which is not common.  It is possible that the scribe reached the end and did not want to rule the opposite side to record only two lines of information; this assumes that line .13 was used normally and we have simply lost any trace of the 1 or 2 de-mi-ni-ja allocated (which is fully possible).  Alternatively, if .13 was used for a totaling formula, the scribe may have realised too late that he did not leave himself enough lines to record everything and total it, and so appended the information to the side.  But this is only so much speculation.

On a personal note, since my name is Theo(dore), this tablet has always held a special fascination for me — not least now because my fiancée’s name is Rose, so both of our names (in a sense) are recorded here.

Linear B Translated: KN Fp(1) 6, 7, 16, and 48.

This post (and others which will hopefully follow) is part of the initiative started by Dimitri Nakassis to make translations of Linear B tablets more widely available online.  While he so far has focussed on longer tablets, I wanted to take a look at some shorter ones, and offer in addition to translations the methods of reading by which we can arrive at interpretations.  To that end, I chose four tablets from the same series — they were found together, deal with very similar topics, and were all written by the same scribe.  Given these distinct similarities, we can be on quite sure footing when illuminating the ambiguities in one tablet by reference to one or more of the others; because the records can be so cryptic and abbreviated, this sort of contextual information plays a significant role in our interpretation of the evidence.

The series in question is Fp(1), a designation they received even before decipherment based on their ideographic content (now known to be OLE, the sign for olive oil).  The best known tablet in this series is Fp(1) 1, which includes such high-profile names as “Dictaean Zeus” and “Erinys”.  But it has received translation and discussion in every major Linear B publication, so I will largely pass it over (those interested in a recent discussion should see Joann Gulizio’s dissertation, pp. 201ff.).  What interests us here is that it is a “totalling document”, which collates and sum(marize)s other tablets, giving an overall total quantity of oil dispensed.

Many of the other tablets in the series are preliminary records, like Fp(1) 7:

.1 ka-ra-e-ri-jo , ‘me-no’ [
.2 di-ka-ta-de ,    OLE S 1̣[

.1 In the month of ka-ra-e-ri-jo
.2 To Dikte: ≥ 9.6 litres of olive oil.


  • me-no appears to be a genitive (μῆνος, menos), but the name of the month is almost certainly an adjective in the nominative.  On other tablets, the names of other months appear in the genitive, including Fp(1) 1 by the same scribe.  It may have been possible to refer to months in different ways (the “Marchy-month” or the “month of March”), or else the scribe was simply unscrupulous in his record-keeping.  This linguistic problem has no real bearing on our reading of the tablet, however.
  • ka-ra-e-ri-jo, like many words in Linear B, offers no obvious Greek interpretation.  This shouldn’t surprise — knowing only English, future scholars should make nothing of July either.  A link with Κλαριών (Klarion), the name of a month at Ephesus in the historical period, is possible but beyond falsification.
  • The tablet is damaged, which makes the exact quantity of oil difficult to determine.  Linear B counts using (essentially) an elaborate tally system, so while part of one mark is preserved, more could be lost.  This is where other tablets in the set can perhaps be of help; on FP(1) 1, which records the distributions for a different month, the amount of oil sent to Dikte is S 1 (or 9.6 liters).  In other cases it is clear that each recipient receives the same amount of oil in different months (so, for example, qe-ra-si-ja receives S 1 on both Fp(1) 14 and 48, in the months of a-ma-ko-to and wo-de-wi-jo respectively).  The context seems to suggest, at least, that only S 1 was sent in ka-re-ri-jo, and nothing is therefore missing.

With this tablet in mind, we can make sense of Fp(1) 6:

.1 ka-ra-e-ri-jo / pa-si-te-o-i S 1
.2 qe-ra-si-ja      OLE S 1

.1 <In the month of> ka-ra-e-ri-jo, for all the gods: 9.6 litres of olive oil.
.2 For qe-ra-si-ja: 9.6 litres of olive oil.


  • There is nothing in .1 to indicate that ka-ra-e-ri-jo represents the name of a month.  Given the shared syntax, scribe, and content with Fp(1) 7, however, we can safely provide it from that context.  It seems to be the case that Linear B tablets, especially preliminary records like this, were predominantly aide-mémoires for the scribes who wrote them.  If this was indeed the case, the records needed only be intelligible to one person, and such can could be understood in that light.  Of course, we could likewise write “June” instead of “In the month of June” and cause no confusion.
  • pa-si-te-o-i, “all the gods” (πᾶσι θεόhι, dat. pl.) seems to be a variant on a Near Eastern practice used when propitiating foreign gods.  We might therefore be seeing here evidence for the continuation of Minoan religion (or at least the worship of Minoan gods) into the Mycenaean period at Knossos; see further Gulizio and Nakassis 2014, pp. 123f.
  • qe-ra-si-ja admits of various interesting interpretations, but none is falsifiable.  The q- sound at the beginning would in Ionic dialects have become a t-; if aspirated, th-.  Therasia (Θηρασίαι, dat. sing.) is therefore a possible alphabetic reading; this could be linked to the word for beast, θήρ (ther), and thus to Artemis as πότνια θήρων (potnia theron, “mistress of animals”).  The use of an epithet alone to refer to a deity would be, however, without parallel in Linear B.  Since Artemis is also attested on other tablets under her own name, what we may be seeing here is a case of syncretism, where two formerly separate figures became joined to each other over time.  The name might alternatively be associated with Θήρα (Thera), ancient Santorini, or perhaps an early form of the name Teiresias (Kwερασίαι > Τερασίαι > Τερεσίαι > Τειρεσιαί), but the linguistic changes required for the latter are a bit suspect.  Ultimately, we can only say with certainty that we have no certain Greek interpretation.  Such agnosticism is, unfortunately, a large part of reading Linear B.

Next we have the very similar Fp(1) 16:

.1 wo-de-wi-jo , ‘me-no’ , pa-si-te-o-i S 1
.2    qe-ra-si-jo          OLE S 1

.1 In the month of the roses, for all the gods: 9.6 litres of olive oil.
.2 For qe-ra-si-<ja>: 9.6 litres of olive oil


  • We finally have a month with an intelligible name: Ϝορδήϝιος (Wordewios), derived from an early form of ῥόδον (rhodon), rose.
  • The reading qe-ra-si-jo is problematic.  This is its only attestation (hapax graphomenon), and it is very tempting to emend it to qe-ra-si-ja; the scribe may well have been distracted by the final -jo of wo-de-wi-jo directly above where he was writing.  Errors in the tablets are rare (there being no corruption introduced by later copying), but far from unknown.  Here’s a picture, with the two signs circled; it’s not hard to see how the top may have influenced the bottom in a moment of lapsed concentration: jo
  • But to reiterate: errors are rare, and our first instinct should not be to emend.  While qe-ra-si-ja is conventionally understood (as it has been here) to be a first declension noun, it might also be a feminine adjective, in which case qe-ra-si-jo would be the masculine equivalent.  But that qe-ra-si-ja appears so frequently in other tablets of the same series, especially Fp(1) 6 which is functionally identical, is a strong impetus to read this as scribal error.  But there is another tablet in this series which we must take into account:

Fp(1) 48:

.1       wo-de-wi-jo , ‘me-no’ / si-ja-ma-to    OLE    S    2
.2 pa-de ,    S  1     qe-ra-si-ja     S  1      pa-si-te-o-i      S    1̣
.3       a-mi-ni-so-de   , / pa-si-te-o-i       OLE    S    1

.1 In the month of the roses, for si-ja-ma-to: 19.2 litres of olive oil
.2 For pa-de: 9.6 litres of olive oil; for qe-ra-si-ja: 9.6 litres of olive oil; for all the gods: ≥ 9.6 litres of olive oil
.3 To Amnisos, for all the gods: 9.6 litres of olive oil

  • The relation of these two tablets to each other is not entirely clear.  Both record activity in the same month, and since Linear B records never seem to have been kept for more than a year (at least in clay), it seems likely that either these two should be combined or else Fp(1) 48 supercedes Fp(1) 16.  If that is the case, then we should certainly emend qe-ra-si-jo to -ja, since that is what we find on Fp (1) 48.
  • This tablet is of a different type than the others assessed so far, being both physically larger and recording more information.  It differs from Fp(1) in not providing a total amount of oil disbursed at the end, but in approach it seems closer to a record of total transactions for the month than a preliminary record such as Fp(1) 6, 7, and 16, which were perhaps written at the storeroom as the oil left.  But the fact it is clearly not a totaling document of the same type as Fp(1) must give us pause in thinking of this as an archival record.  It is possible it was simply a more elaborate sort of preliminary record, and was (or would have been) combined with Fp(1) 16 when the final record was made.
  • I am inclined to think that this was closer to a final, “archival” copy than a preliminary record, should be taken to supercede Fp(1) 16, and that qe-ra-si-jo therefore be emended.  There is no overlap in any of the other known preliminary records, and other tablets of this type show total numbers closely matching those in the totaling document Fp(1) 1.  That said, we do not have all the evidence, and nothing precludes the opposing interpretation.  Agnosticism again: Linear B is a game of relative probabilities.
  • Amnisos is one of the few place names recorded in Linear B that remains attached to the same place today.  The identification of proper nouns has played in a key role in the decipherment of many ancient scripts, and the story for Linear B was no different.  The identification of the sequences a-mi-ni-si-ja and a-mi-ni-si-jo with ethnic adjectives linked to Amnisos was a key stage for Ventris in beginning to fill out his grid, following on Alice Kober’s work in identifying signs with shared consonants but different vowels.

By way of a conclusion, I want to emphasize something about reading Linear B: the tablets are not purely philological documents, to be understood and edited on the same principle as, say, literary papyri.  They are also archaeological artefacts, and contextual information such as findspot and scribe allow us to associate ambiguous tablets with, and illuminate by way of, each other.  This sort of analysis, when done with tablets not so closely linked, becomes much less illuminating, if not downright misleading.  Only by marshalling the right evidence, in the right way, can we hope to make sense of these wonderful, enigmatic records.