Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.
Here is the original painting by Henry Hankey, made especially for John Chadwick’s book:
The book The Mycenaean World was published in 1976 and intended as an accessible description of what we know about life in the Mycenaean palaces based on the Linear B documents deciphered and read in the 1950s by Michael Ventris (in collaboration with John Chadwick). Dating from the 15th to the end of the 13th C BC, the archives of clay documents written in Linear B are the earliest surviving records written in the Greek language. They are almost entirely bureaucratic in nature, originating from large centralised complexes (“palaces”) and recording the personnel and commodities that the central administration wanted to keep tabs on.
While we can reconstruct some aspects of Mycenaean life, however, the practice of writing itself is much harder to understand from the surviving evidence. As I mentioned in another recent post, no accounts of the practice of writing survive, no depictions of scribes or the implements they used, no teaching texts. So reconstructing Linear B writing practices is a jigsaw puzzle put together from the surviving documents and their physical properties, their spatial/temporal distribution and the archaeological context in which they were found.
What is interesting about the cover art of The Mycenaean World is that it encapsulates a number of assumptions about how Mycenaean writing worked — some of which have stood the test of time and remain convincing 43 years after the book’s publication in 1976, while others have been revisited and rethought in more recent Mycenaean scholarship. Let’s have a closer look at the different aspects of the picture.
The scribal hierarchy
The image makes a clear differentiation between three people involved in different types of scribal activity. All three are male (NB approaching the gender of Mycenaean scribes is exceptionally difficult due to a lack of evidence), but they are of different ages and presumably have different status. This also highlights that what we mean by the word ‘scribe’ is quite fluid, and is really shorthand for ‘person involved in the production and writing of Linear B documents (whether or not they also did other things)’.
The figure who is standing up is not apparently doing anything other than overseeing the others and holding a long stick. Is his sideways glance directed at something going on outside the picture, or does it show an authoritative aloofness as the others get on with their work in front of him? Or perhaps he is in the middle of dictating something to be written down? We do have reason to think that some ‘scribes’ may have been important administrators responsible for numerous different areas of bureaucratic activity, and we even have examples of tablets that have been corrected by a second (presumably administratively superior) individual.
The figure sitting on a stool is incising a clay tablet with a pointed stylus. (This action is actually quite hard to render in Lego, and can I suggest holding your stylus less awkwardly if you try your hand at writing Linear B — and don’t keep dropping your tablet like he did when I positioned him!) In the painting, the figure is holding the stylus as you might a pen, but it is difficult to say exactly what the position of the stylus would have been, and we can only approach this question by examining the angles of impressions left in the clay.
The third figure is a child, who is rolling out wet clay and forming tablets for the older scribes to write on. You might wonder how we could possibly know whether children were involved in the production of Linear B tablets, but in fact we have direct evidence of this: child-sized palm-prints survive on the back of some of the tablets! The best evidence comes from Knossos on Crete, although more recently it has been suggested that the practice may have been different at Pylos in mainland Greece, where adult scribes perhaps formed their own tablets.
We may also question whether all of the activities pursued by these three individuals would have been happening in the same place at the same time. In fact it is worth looking more closely at the working space for clues.
The Pylos ‘Archives Complex’
The painting on the cover of The Mycenaean World is based on a real place discovered in excavations at Pylos in mainland Greece during the 20th century (mostly excavated in the 1950s and 1960s in this case). Some 1,200 Linear B tablets were discovered at Pylos, of which more than 750 were found in a small area comprising two rooms (usually referred to as rooms 7 and 8). This area was soon labelled as the ‘Archives Complex’ and understood to be integral to the process of recording and storing information on clay tablets, a sort of administrative centre keeping records on the day-to-day activities and industries of the palace. Today just the outline of the rooms can be seen, as only the bottoms of the walls survive in situ.
We can state some basic facts about these two rooms, but there is still quite a lot that has to be reconstructed concerning their physical layout. Room 7 on the left is larger, while room 8 on the right is smaller and has a low bench around parts of the walls on three sides. Room 7 on the left had a doorway at the front (visible on the left of the picture above), but there has been some debate as to whether room 8 had its own outer doorway or could only be accessed via room 7. (In the Lego model I have deftly avoided this question by leaving out the whole front wall so that we can see inside!) There was certainly a doorway between the two rooms.
If you are interested in reading in a lot more detail about the remains of the two rooms and the distribution of finds within them, and how we might use these to reconstruct how people interacted with the physical spaces, I recommend this openly accessible article by Thomas Palaima and James Wright and also this one by Kevin Pluta.
Inside the rooms
We can be quite certain that Linear B tablets were being stored in the Archives Complex, and we even know that they were stored in baskets. The baskets themselves don’t survive, but luckily some of the labels impressed on them do. These were made of clay and fixed onto the baskets when the clay was still damp enough to stick to the basketwork. We know that the labels indicated which tablets were inside the baskets because we have some examples where the label matches the subject matter of tablets it was found with.
The baskets seem to have been kept on shelves, which also did not survive. Indeed, the Linear B tablets themselves only survived because they were burnt in the fires that destroyed the palace — clay hardens into something more long-lasting when burnt, whereas other materials like wood and basketwork obviously fare much worse. So if you imagine that the wooden shelves and the baskets containing the tablets would have perished in the fires, it helps to explain how archaeologists found a jumble of clay tablets that would originally have been inside the baskets, and that had collapsed to the floor when they fell from the wooden shelves.
Baskets may also have been placed on the long bench that runs around three of the walls in room 8 (the room where the greater number of tablets were found).
But there is still a questionmark over the exact nature of human activity inside the two rooms of the Archives Complex. The painting on the cover of The Mycenaean World asks us to see the complex as a sort of administrative hub, where tablets were shaped, written and stored by multiple individuals, at least some of whom would presumably have spent a lot of time there. Room 7 would be for writing while room 8 was predominantly intended for storage. This would be quite similar to the picture we have of archival practices with cuneiform documents in the Near East, where it seems to have been common for nearby rooms to be used for writing and storage activities (and we even have Near Eastern examples of rooms with benches similar to the one in room 8).
Some of these assumptions can be questioned, however. Was the rather tight space available in room 7 large enough for so many activities to take place simultaneously? Was the lighting in that small space good enough for writing tablets (a question also posed by Anna Judson in this post)? Why were some tablets found in other parts of the palace? However we envisage the use of space in the Archives Complex itself, we know for certain that writing activities must have happened in other areas too, for instance when taking down information in locations away from the palace, or recording inventories of items stored in other palace rooms.
Making my little Lego model made me stop to think about these issues. I was recreating a picture that neatly encapsulates how we often assume Mycenaean scribes would have worked, but it is difficult to be certain about many aspects of Mycenaean writing. And actually that matters. At CREWS we are especially focused on problems related to the context in which writing happened, and that means thinking about the people engaged in writing activities and their position and status, the physical properties of the spaces where writing was done, the content of documents and how they related to the way in which they were written and stored… even the properties of the writing system, such as the use of visual aids including larger signs for headings and ideograms to denote commodities. These are all closely related aspects of writing that interconnect with each other in dynamic ways, leaving us with a big jigsaw puzzle to piece together from many different types and pieces of evidence.
I hope you enjoyed this Lego-tastic foray into the world of the Mycenaean palaces and their writing traditions. Just creating this in a 3D space made me feel much closer to the Mycenaean scribes whose work I spend so much time studying!
~ Pippa Steele (PI of the CREWS project)