As someone who works on the written documents of the ancient Aegean and Cyprus, I come across clay tablets a lot. Clay was a very useful medium for writing in the ancient world because it was quite easily available and could be formed into different shapes, and all you need in order to write on it is a stick. Luckily for us, a clay tablet also has a good chance of surviving for thousands of years provided it has been baked.

A while ago I posted a picture of one of my favourite clay tablets on Twitter, a Linear B document that we label PY Ep 704 (which is code for saying that it comes from Pylos and deals with landholdings). (Photo courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.)

There are lots of reasons why it is one of my favourite tablets. It features whole sentences, for one thing – quite a rarity in Mycenaean documents. It tells us of some landholdings of religious personnel at Pylos, including two particularly interesting priestesses who are apparently failing to uphold the terms on which they hold their land. One, Karpathia, is supposed to be working but isn’t – our colleague Anna Judson recently wrote a lovely blog post calling her the procrastinating priestess (see HERE). Another one, Eritha, is involved in a dispute about the type of landholding she has and presumably the terms on which she holds it. One of my first published articles focused on these disputes in an attempt to work out whether Linear B tablets could be used by concerned parties as ‘legal’ as evidence (it rather looks like they could not, but that is a topic for another time) – so I have personal reasons for being fond of this tablet too!

Anyway, when I posted this picture of PY Ep 704, @brixtandrew on Twitter made this comment:

I always love it when we are set a challenge for a blog post, so here are some musings on the question of good tablets and bad tablets (with a focus on the ancient Aegean and Cyprus).

We have already seen that a clay tablet can be a good one if it contains lots of interesting information, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a tablet has to contain interesting information to be an interesting tablet. A Linear B tablet listing goats doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But there is a very nice one from Pylos where, if you turn it round, you find this (image from Wikipedia):

A labyrinth doodle has been added to the back of the tablet, presumably by the scribe or by someone involved in the tablet’s production (the incisions are deep enough to have been made when the tablet was still relatively damp – if the tablet had dried a lot by the time it was made, they might have been shallower). The image has nothing to do with the content of the tablet, so perhaps the scribe was just bored with that day’s administrative duties. We’ve all been there (though we might be less accomplished doodlers). For us this doodle is a rare glimpse into the circumstances in which the tablet was written.

What about undeciphered tablets? If a tablet is written in an undeciphered script, you might think it is even less likely to contain anything interesting, seeing as we can’t read it. But you’d be wrong, because not only are undeciphered writing systems inherently interesting (trust me!), it is also sometimes possible to work out what a word means in an undeciphered text. The Linear A tablet HT 13 is one of the ones that has the word ku-ro at the end followed by a numeral (we know the values of the signs because of the relationship between Linear A and later deciphered Linear B) – the word is highlighted below. (Image from here.)
HT 13 red.jpg

A study of occurrences of this word shows that it must mean “total”, because it is followed by a numeral that comprises the total of other numerical entries in the tablet. So we know what the word means not because we understand the language but because we can understand something about its context, which is provided by the tablet itself.

CM3.jpgOn reflection it is actually difficult to think up any bad tablets. There are some very fragmentary ones – look at this little bit of Cypro-Minoan tablet to the right. Doesn’t look like much, does it? But this is one of only four Cypro-Minoan tablets found at the Syrian site of Ugarit, and it is just as precious as the larger and more complete specimens like the one below. Cypro-Minoan is another undeciphered script, but just because we cannot read the contents of these texts, again it doesn’t mean that they don’t give us some very valuable information. These ones are particularly striking because they show a distinctive Cypriot writing system being used on tablets that look similar to ones inscribed in Ugaritic and Akkadian cuneiform at the site, and apparently they were stored alongside the cuneiform documents. (Photographs courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.)

CM3 2.jpg

volosHere is another example of a little fragment that is of great importance: it is one of only two Linear B tablet fragments identified at Volos in Thessaly. This is the furthest north that a Mycenaean Linear B tablet has ever been discovered, showing the use of this writing system – and with it associated administrative practices – in an area of Greece where we would not otherwise have expected to find them. Not much of it is left but this little bit of clay tablet expands our understanding of the Mycenaean world by its very existence. (Image from here.)

I think we have to conclude that there is no such thing as a bad clay tablet – even the smallest piece of evidence can change and shape our understanding of the ways in which writing was used in the ancient world. It is not only content that is important, but context too. There might be some A-list famous tablets, like the tripod tablet shown below (photo courtesy of Rupert Thompson) that was used to confirm the decipherment of Linear B in its convenient attestation of the Greek word ti-ri-po-de (tripodes “three-footed”) next to ideograms consisting of small images of three-footed vessels…

PY Ta 641 tripods.jpg

… but every tablet has its own charms and its own importance, as we have seen. So do not judge a tablet by its cover, and stop to think about what even a tiny fragment might tell you before you reach for the big famous one!


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

idalion bilingual selfie

7 thoughts on “What makes one clay tablet better than another?

  1. I love this post because it says all the things I think. i.e. no clay tablet is boring they all tell us something of ancient history albeit whole or fragmentary . Thank you.
    PS Pippa you may like to take a look at my translation of Py 641 Ventris. about the tripods and other vessels listed on this tablet. You will find it on An Archaeologists translation of Py 641 Ventris on Academia.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m interested in that too. There’s this Roman play called Poenulus and the main character Hanno who’s a Carthaginian does a speech in Punic, one of the most intact samples of the language! I thought that was really cool to know 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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