Mycenaean Linear B Units of Dry Measure, Knossos Tablet KN 406 L c 02: Click to ENLARGE

KN 416 L c 02 akareu paito spice total

The translation of this tablet from Knossos into English is relatively straightforward. The problem is that no one really knows what exactly the unit of measure designated by the Linear B symbol that looks like a T means. My best guess is that the 9 shakers of coriander (I say, shakers, because the ideogram looks like a shaker & it is most likely folks used shakers back in the good old days in Knossos, just as we do nowadays). However, the problem remains, how do 9 shakers of coriander add up to only 2 units. My best guess is that the shakers were boxed, 5 units per box. So 9 shakers would have filled one box and most of another... something along those lines.

Andras Zeke of the Minoan Language Blog gives a value of approx. 3 kilograms per unit, meaning we would end up with about 5 kg. or so for 9 shakers of coriander. They would have had to be really huge shakers! No one could have held them. So it is quite apparent that the measured value Andras Zeke has assigned to our wee little T is in fact way off the mark, if we are to believe our eyes. On the other hand, that T might very well have been divisible by 10 or even 100, given that the Mycenaean numeric system is based on units of 10, just like our own. So it is conceivable that we are dealing with some kind of metric system here. Given that the Mycenaean numeric is base 10, that would make sense. So we could be dealing with something like 50 grams and not 5 kilograms of coriander... that would make a hell of a lot of sense.  But since we were not there to see how the scribes allocated the spice jars into so-called units, we shall never really know. Still, there is no harm in speculating.

Now, as for my translation of the ideogram for a spice container (spice shaker), I have translated it specifically as a “a coriander spice shaker”, since on every single every tablet, bar none, from Knossos mentioning spice containers, it is always coriander that is spelled out. The folks at Knossos must have been crazy about coriander!  Since there are only 2 or 3 tablets which do not mention coriander outright, that leaves us with around 95 % of all tablets referring to spices which do spell it out. Linear B scribes were very fussy about having to spell out the names of spices, or for that matter, anything on Linear B tablets which could be easily represented, i.e. symbolized by an ideogram. The ideogram appears on this tablet, but the word does not. This is practically beside the point. It appears that the scribe simply did not bother writing it, for some reason or another. The practice of spelling out the name of any item on a Linear B tablet which can easily be illustrated with an ideogram is very unusual. The scribes were sticklers for saving space at all costs on what is admittedly a very small medium, rarely more than 30 cm. wide by 15 cm. deep, and more often than not, even smaller than that!  So the fact that the scribes generally did spell out coriander as the spice of choice for Minoan Knossos seems to imply that the king, queen, princes and the palace attendants prized it very highly. 

Another point: almost all of the tablets mentioning koriyadana = coriander also use the word apudosi = delivery, i.e. they tabulate the actual delivery of so many units of coriander to the palace. So this tablet can be translated any of these ways:

Achareus delivers to Phaistos 9 shakers of coriander for a total of 2 units
or
Achareus delivers for deposit at Phaistos 9 shakers of coriander for a total of 2 units.
or even
Achareus delivers for deposit at the palace of Phaistos 9 shakers of coriander for a total of 2 units.

These are all valid translations, since after all everyone who was anyone, meaning the scribes, the nobility and the wealthy businessmen) knew perfectly well that such precious commodities as coriander could only be consumed by the well-to-do, and that these folks all lived – you guessed it – in the palace! There was absolutely no need in the minds of the scribes, meaning, in practice, for them to write out what was obvious to everyone. This is precisely why nowadays we need to learn to read out of the tablets what the scribes were actually inventorying, rather than trying to read into them. If this sounds like a tough slog, you bet it is. But it is far better to aim at getting the actual gist of the message on the tablet (whether or not spelled out in text, or simply with logograms and ideograms) than to strip down your translation to the point where it becomes unintelligible.

This is all the more true in light of the fact that at least 800 of 3,000 tablets I meticulously consulted from the Scripta Minoa from Knossos contain very little if any text at all, and rather a lot of supersyllabograms (single syllabograms), ideograms and logograms. The reason for this is obvious: in order to save as much space as humanly possible, the Linear B accountants (scribes) never wrote out what was obvious to them all as a guild. In other words, Mycenaean Linear B, as an inventory and statistical accounting language – which is what it basically is – combines two notable features: (a) the language is highly formulaic & (b) the greater part of it is shorthand for Mycenaean Greek text inferred but rarely explicitly spelled out. If this sounds peculiar to us nowadays, we need only recall that this is exactly how modern shorthand functions. All too many Linear B translators have completely overlooked this fundamental characteristic of Mycenaean Linear B, which in large part explains its almost total uniformity over a wide geographic area, from Knossos to Phaistos and other Mycenaean sites on the island to Crete itself to Pylos on the opposite coast, all the way to Mycenae and Tiryns on the far side of the Peloponnese and even as far away as Thebes in Boeotia, which was a key Mycenaean centre and which has been continually occupied from then on right through to today. Click on the map to ENLARGE:

Thebes Boetia

All of this further implies that, while Linear B, the accounting and inventorying language for Mycenaean Greek, was homogeneous, uniform and formulaic to the teeth, the actual Mycenaean dialect may very well have not been. In fact, I sincerely doubt it was, since it is symptomatic of all ancient Greek dialects, even those which are closely related (such as the Ionic and Attic) to diverge and go their own merry way, regardless of the structure, orthography and grammatical quirks of their closest relatives. Since that was surely the case with every ancient Greek dialect with which we are familiar – and God knows it was! - then it must have also been the case with Mycenaean Greek and with its closest, kissing cousin, Arcado-Cypriot Greek, the latter written in Linear C or in the quirky Arcado-Cypriot alphabet. Even though no other ancient Greek dialects were as closely related as were Mycenaean and its kissing cousin, Arcado-Cypriot, these dialects were somewhat different. What is more, it is almost certain that there were notable variations within each of these dialects, the further afield you went. In other words, the Mycenaean Greek spoken at Knossos and Phaistos, which would have been much more influenced by its forbear, the Minoan language, was a little different from that spoken at Pylos, and doubtless even more from the Mycenaean Greek at Mycenae, Tiryns and especially Thebes.

But spoken Mycenaean Greek and the Mycenaean Linear B accounting and inventorying language are not the same beast. The latter is a homogeneous, formulaic and largely shorthand subset of the former. I shall have a great deal more to say about this extremely important distinction between the two in future.

Richard