As promised, today’s post is going to deal with the first line of the CREWS logo. As some of you may already have observed, the first line is written in Linear B, which is one of several writing systems that will be studied as part of the CREWS project.
Linear B was the writing system used in the administration of the Mycenaean palaces of Crete and mainland Greece roughly between 1400 and 1200 BC. We call it Linear B because the archaeologist Arthur Evans gave it this label following his discoveries at the Cretan site of Knossos at the beginning of the 20th century, contrasting the abstract ‘linear’ nature of its signs with the more pictorial-looking earlier system that he labelled Cretan Hieroglyphic. There was another category, Linear A, which again applied to an earlier system but one that looked much more like Linear B.
Although it has stood the test of time, the label ‘Linear B’ is not very helpful except as a basic identifier of the writing system being referred to. Linear B is primarily a syllabic system, in which each of the core signs represents an open syllable (i.e. a vowel on its own such as a or i, or a consonant+vowel combination such as te or ku: a table of these core signs is shown in Figure 1). The language written in Linear B was the earliest surviving form of Greek, which we refer to as the Mycenaean Greek dialect.
Almost all surviving Linear B inscriptions are overtly administrative in nature, dominated by large numbers of clay tablets found at the different palatial sites. These tablets record a range of different commodities in which the palaces had an economic interest, from food stuffs and animals to weapons and furniture, as well as the names of people and places associated with the commodities, and sometimes more complex information.
Because of the type of information being recorded, it was useful for Linear B to employ not only the core set of syllabic signs that were used to spell out words, but also a different type of sign that could represent a whole word or concept: such signs are usually referred to as ideograms or logograms. Separate individual signs for commodities such as ‘sheep’ or ‘grain’ or ‘bronze’ could then be used in conjunction with other signs to represent numbers and measures of each item or substance. Figure 2, for example, shows a line drawing one of the Knossos chariot tablets, in which a man’s name (o-pi-ri-mi-ni-jo) is spelt out, followed by an ideogram for a piece of armour with the numeral 1, an ideogram for a chariot with the numeral 1 and then an ideogram for a chariot (after which the tablet is broken).
Following this brief explanation of the Linear B writing system, we can return to the CREWS logo. The first line is in Linear B consists of the following syllabic signs: ko re e wi su.
If you compare the signs with the versions in the table in Figure 1, you will see that they are mostly a little different in shape, which is because instead of using ‘perfect’ abstract versions of the signs I wanted to use versions that looked closer to what you might see in a real tablet. I used some palaeographic variants found among the Knossos tablets as a basis for each individual sign.
But why ko re e wi su? The intention is to represent the acronym CREWS, which stands for the project title, Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems. Now, writing out an acronym in a syllabic script is not easy, given that each sign represents not just a letter but a whole syllable. So instead of taking a single letter, I isolated the first syllable of each word.
ko = Contexts
re = Relations
e = Early
wi = Writing (well, wi is not the first sound of the word ‘writing’, but Linear B has a system for writing consonant clusters, which can involve a dummy vowel – so wri- could be represented by the sequence wi-ri-, which we do in fact find for example in wrinos “leather, oxhide”, written wi-ri-no)
su = Systems (su rather than si because ‘system’ is a Greek word, σύστημα)
While spelling out a whole acronym in this way might not be easy in Linear B, the concept of using the first sound of a word to represent it as a concept was clearly not alien to this writing system (or its immediate predecessor, Linear A, which had a similar composition of a core of syllabic signs plus ideograms/logograms, measures and numerals). In fact, Linear B frequently abbreviated in this ways, using for example an o on its own to represent the whole word o-pe-ro (/ophelos/), “owing, deficit”, when someone had failed to supply a commodity to the palace. Many of the ideographic signs probably had their origins in this ‘acrophonic principle’ too: for example, the use of the sign ni to refer to figs as a unit, which we have good reason to believe was an abbreviation of a Minoan word for a fig (i.e. a word from the unknown language written in the earlier script, Linear A).
I hope that this has given an interesting, if very basic, introduction to the Linear B script – as well as explaining how part of the CREWS logo acquired its appearance. If you wish to read more about Linear B and the texts written in it, I cannot recommend a better starting place that Documents in Mycenaean Greek by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick (1973 2nd edition, CUP), which is still in print.
We will return to other parts of the CREWS logo in future posts, but before that, I hope next time to have some exciting news regarding the advertisement of a PhD studentship on the project.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)