Linear B Workshops

Year 8 Latinists were very lucky to welcome Dr Philomen Probert to their lessons this week.

Philomen is a lecturer at the Department of Linguistics and Classics at the University of Oxford, and she visited to show how Linear B worked and what it was used for. She brought a range of different examples of Linear B tablets – some of which were from Knossos, in Crete, and some of which were from other sites such as Mycenae on mainland Greece.

Philomen talked about how the tablets, made out of clay, had retained two different sorts of fingerprints on them: very small ones which suggested that young children helped make the tablets, and adult fingerprints, for the people who inscribed them with the Linear B script, numbers and ideograms. The tablets were not meant to last for a long time, but the ones we still have were preserved because fires at the palaces broke out and baked them.

She explained that Linear B expressed the language of the early Greeks, but that because it was a simple kind of syllabic script, it didn’t work very well at expressing Greek, so some words were adapted. Examples were herbs such ku-mi-no (for ‘cumin’) and ko-ri-ja-da-na (for ‘coriander’).

We looked at tablets that contained ideograms for various things such as donkeys, rams, ewes, and pigs, and numbers. The classes were very good at guessing and adding up the numbering system, and also guessing some of the ideograms. The tablets also often contained some Linear B script which showed the owner of the items listed, and also the place where the items were.

You can explore more of these tablets here.

Someone asked Philomen how they worked out which ideograms were for female and which for male animals. Philomen said that it appears that Arthur Evans had already guessed that two extra horizontals means “male” and an extra vertical means “female”, but someone called Johannes Sundwall thought it was the other way round, but then classicist Alice Kober settled the question by noticing that in tablets containing the word likely to mean “total”, this word has one form if men or male animals are listed, and a different form if women or female animals are listed. Today we know that the forms meaning “total” are to-so (tosoi) and to-sa (tosai), which makes it even clearer, but Kober didn’t have the advantage of knowing the sign values or the language being written.

Finally, everyone was given some clay and they then made their own Linear B tablet with their names!

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