Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean) as a guide to Mycenaean chariot construction and design

KN 894 An1910_211_o.jpg wheel ZE

In spite of my hard gained experience in translating Linear B tablets, the translation of this tablet on chariot construction and design posed considerable challenges. At the outset, several of the words descriptive of Mycenaean chariot design eluded my initial attempts at an accurate translation. By accurate I not only mean that problematic words must make sense in the total context of the descriptive text outlining Mycenaean chariot construction and design, but that the vocabulary entire must faithfully reconstruct the design of Mycenaean chariots as they actually appeared in their day and age. In other words, could I come up with a translation reflective of the actual construction and design of Mycenaean chariots, not as we fancifully envision them in the twenty-first century, but as the Mycenaeans themselves manufactured them to be battle worthy?

It is transparent to me that the Mycenaean military, just as that of any other great ancient civilization, such as those of Egypt in the Bronze Age, of the Hittite Empire, and later on, in the Iron Age, of Athens and Sparta and, later still, of the Roman Empire, must have gone to great lengths to ensure the durability, tensile strength and battle worthiness of their military apparatus in its entirety (let alone chariots). It goes without saying that, regardless of the techniques of chariot construction employed by the various great civilizations of the ancient world, each civilization strove to manufacture military apparatus to the highest standards practicable within the limits of the technology then available to them.

It is incontestable that progress in chariot construction and design must have made major advances in all of the great civilizations from the early to the late Bronze Age. Any flaws or faults in chariot construction would have been and were rooted out and eliminated as each civilization perceptibly moved forward, step by arduous step, to perfect the manufacture of chariots in their military. In the case of the  Mycenaeans contemporaneous with the Egyptians, this was the late Bronze Age. My point is strictly this. Any translation of any part of a chariot must fully take into account the practicable appropriateness of each and every word in the vocabulary of that technology, to ensure that the entire vocabulary of chariot construction will fit together as seamlessly as possible in order to ultimately achieve as solid a coherence as conceivably possible. 

Thus, if a practicably working translation of any single technical term for the manufacture of chariots detracts rather than contributes to the structural integrity, sturdiness and battle worthiness of the chariot, that term must be seriously called into question. Past translators of the vocabulary of chariot construction and design who have not fully taken into account the appropriateness of any particular term descriptive of the solidity and tensile strength of the chariot required to make it battle worthy have occasionally fallen short of truly convincing translations of the whole (meaning here, the chariot), translations which unify and synthesize its entire vocabulary such that all of its moving and immobile parts alike actually “translate” into a credible reconstruction of a Bronze Age (Mycenaean) chariot as it must have realistically appeared and actually operated. Even the most prestigious of translators of Mycenaean Linear B, most notably L.R. Palmer himself, have not always succeeded in formulating translations of certain words or terms convincing enough in the sense that I have just delineated. All this is not to say that I too will not fall into the same trap, because I most certainly will. Yet as we say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.      

And what applies to the terminology for the construction and design of chariots in any ancient language, let alone Mycenaean Linear B, equally applies to the vocabulary of absolutely any animate subject, such as human beings and livestock, and to any inanimate object in the context of each and every sector of the economy of the society in question, whether this be in the agricultural, industrial, military, textiles, household or pottery sector.

Again, if any single word detracts rather than contributes to the actual appearance, manufacturing technique and utility of said object in its entire context, linguistic as well as technical, then that term must be seriously called into question. 

When it comes down to brass tacks, the likelihood of achieving such translations is a tall order to fill. But try we must.

A convincing practicable working vocabulary of Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean):

While much of the vocabulary on this tablet is relatively straightforward, a good deal is not. How then was I to devise an approach to its translation which could conceivably meet Mycenaean standards in around 1400-1200 BCE? I had little or no reference point to start from. The natural thing to do was to run a search on Google images to determine whether or not the results would, as it were, measure up to Mycenaean standards. Unfortunately, some of the most convincing images I downloaded were in several particulars at odds with one another, especially in the depiction of wheel construction. That actually came as no surprise. So what was I to do? I had to choose one or two images of chariots which appeared to me at least to be accurate renditions of actual Mycenaean chariot design. But how could I do that without being arbitrary in my choice of images determining terminology? Again a tough call. Yet there was a way through this apparent impasse. Faced with the decision of having to choose between twenty-first century illustrations of Mycenaean chariot design - these being the most often at odds with one another - and ancient depictions on frescoes, kraters and vases, I chose the latter route as my starting point. 

But here again I was faced with images which appeared to conflict on specific points of chariot construction. The depictions of Mycenaean chariots appearing on frescoes, kraters and vases unfortunately did not mirror one another as accurately as I had first supposed they would. Still, this should come as no real surprise to anyone familiar with the design of military vehicles ancient or modern. Take the modern tank for instance. The designs of American, British, German and Russian tanks in the Second World War were substantially different. And even within the military of Britain, America and Germany, there were different types of tanks serving particular uses dependent on specific terrain. So it stands to reason that there were at least some observable variations in Mycenaean chariot design, let alone of the construction of any chariots in any ancient civilization, be it Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece throughout its long history, or Rome, among others.

So faced with the choice of narrowing down alternative likenesses, I finally opted for one fresco which provided the most detail. I refer to the fresco from Tiryns (ca 1200 BCE) depicting two female charioteers.


This fresco would go a long way to resolving issues related in particular to the manufacture and design of wheels, which are the major sticking point in translating the vocabulary for Mycenaean chariots.

Turning now to my translation, I sincerely hope I have been able to resolve most of these difficulties, at least to my own satisfaction if to not to that of others, although here again a word of caution to the wise. My translation is merely my own visual interpretation of what is in front of me on this fresco from Tiryns. Try as we might, there is simply no escaping the fact that we, in the twenty-first century, are bound to impose our own preconceptions on ancient images, whatever they depict. As historiography has it, and I cite directly from Wikipedia:      

Questions regarding historicity concern not just the issue of "what really happened," but also the issue of how modern observers can come to know "what really happened."[6] This second issue is closely tied to historical research practices and methodologies for analyzing the reliability of primary sources and other evidence. Because various methodologies categorize historicity differently, it's not possible to reduce historicity to a single structure to be represented. Some methodologies (for example historicism), can make historicity subject to constructions of history based on submerged value commitments. 

wikipedia historicity
The sticking point is those pesky “submerged value commitments”. To illustrate even further, allow me to cite another source, Approaching History: Bias:

approaching history

The problem for methodology is unconscious bias: the importing of assumptions and expectations, or the asking of one question rather than another, by someone who is trying to act in good faith with the past. 

Yet the problem inherent to any modern approach is that it is simply impossible for any historian or historical linguist today to avoid imposing not only his or her own innate unconscious preconceived values but also the values of his own national, social background and civilization, let alone those of the entire age in which he or she lives. “Now” is the twenty-first century and “then” was any particular civilization with its own social, national and political values set against the diverse values of other civilizations contemporaneous with it, regardless of historical era.

If all this seems painfully obvious to the professional historian or linguist, it is more than likely not be to the non-specialist or lay reader, which is why I have taken the trouble to address the issue in the first place.  

How then can any historian or historical linguist in the twenty-first century possibly and indeed realistically be expected to place him— or herself in the sandals, so to speak, of any contemporaneous Bronze Age Minoan, Mycenaean, Egyptian, Assyrian or oriental civilizations such as China, and so on, without unconsciously imposing the entire baggage of his— or -her own civilization, Occidental, Oriental or otherwise? It simply cannot be done.

However, not to despair. Focusing our magnifying glass on the shadowy mists of history, we can only see through a glass darkly. But that is no reason to give up. Otherwise, there would be no way of interpreting history and no historiography to speak of. So we might as well let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with the task before us, which in this case is the intricate art of translation of an object particular not only to its own civilization, remote as it is, but specifically to the military sector of that society, being in this case, the Mycenaean.

So the question now is, what can we read out of the Tiryns fresco with respect to Mycenaean chariot construction and design, without reading too much of our own unconscious personal, social and civilized biases into it? As precarious and as fraught with problems as our endeavour is, let us simply sail on ahead and see how far our little voyage can take us towards at least a credible translation of the Tiryns chariot with its lovely belles at the reins, with the proviso that this fresco depicts only one variation on the design of Mycenaean chariots, itself at odds on some points with other depictions on other frescoes. Here you see the fresco with my explanatory notes on the chariot parts:

Mycenaean-Fresco-Mycenae-women-charioteers

as related to the text and context of the facsimile of the original tablet in Linear B, Linear B Latinized and archaic Greek, here:

Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 original text Latinized and in archaic Greek
   
This is followed by my meticulous notes on the construction and design of the various parts of the Mycenaean chariot as illustrated here:

Notes on Knossos tablet 894 N v 01 Wheel ZE

and by The Geometry of chariot parts in Mycenaean Linear B, to drive home my interpretations of both – amota - = - (on) axle – and – temidweta - = the circumference or the rim of the wheel, referencing the – radius – in the second syllable of – temidweta - ,i.e. - dweta - , where radius = 1/2 (second syllable) of – temidweta – and is thus equivalent to one spoke, as illustrated here:

The only other historian of Linear B who has grasped the full significance of the supersyllabogram (SSYL) is Salimbeti, 

The Greek Age of Bronze chariots


whose site is the one and only on the entire Internet which explores the construction and design of bronze age chariots in great detail. I strongly urge you to read his entire study in order to clarify the full import of my translation of – temidweta – as the rim of the wheel. The only problem remaining with my translation is whether or not the word – temidweta – describes the rim on the side of the wheel or the rim on its outer surface directly contacting the ground. The difficulty with the latter translation is whether or not elm wood is of sufficient tensile strength to withstand the beating the tire rim had to endure over time (at least a month or two at minimum) on the rough terrain, often littered with stones and rocks, over which Mycenaean chariots must surely have had to negotiate.  

As for the meaning of the supersyllabogram (SSYL)TE oncharged directly onto the top of the ideogram for wheel, it cannot mean anything other than – temidweta -, in other words the circumference, being the wheel rim, further clarified here:

wheel rim illustration

Hence my translation here:

Translation of Knossos tablet KN 984 N v 01 Wheel ZE

Note that I have translated the unknown word **** – kidapa – as – ash (wood). My reasons for this are twofold. First of all, the hardwood ash has excellent tensile strength and shock resistance, where toughness and resiliency against impact are important factors. Secondly, it just so happens that ash is predominant in Homer’s Iliad as a vital component in the construction of warships and of weapons, especially spears. So there is a real likelihood that in fact – kidapa – means ash, which L.R. Palmer also maintains. Like many so-called unknown words found in Mycenaean Greek texts, this word may well be Minoan. Based on the assumption that many of these so-called unknown words may be Minoan, we can establish a kicking-off point for possible translations of these putative Minoan words. Such translations should be rigorously checked against the vocabulary of the extant corpus of Minoan Linear A, as found in John G. Younger’s database, here:

Linear A texts in transciption

I did just that and came up empty-handed. But that does not at all imply that the word is not Minoan, given that the extant lexicon of Linear A words is so limited, being as it is incomplete.

While all of this might seem a little overwhelming at first sight, once we have taken duly into account the most convincing translation of each and every one of the words on this tablet in its textual and real-world context, I believe we can attain such a translation, however constrained we are by our our twenty-first century unconscious assumptions. As for conscious assumptions, they simply will not do. 

In conclusion, Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean) serves as exemplary a guide to Mycenaean chariot construction and design as any other substantive intact Linear B tablet in the same vein from Knossos. It is my intention to carry my observations and my conclusions on the vocabulary of Mycenaean chariot construction and design much further in an article I shall be publishing on academia.edu sometime in 2016. In it I shall conduct a thorough-going cross-comparative analysis of the chariot terminology on this tablet with that of several other tablets dealing specifically with chariots. This cross-comparative study is to result in a comprehensive lexicon of the vocabulary of Mycenaean chariot construction and design, fully taking into account Chris Tselentis’ Linear B Lexicon and L.R. Palmer’s extremely comprehensive Glossary of military terms relative to chariot construction and design on pp. 403-466 in his classic foundational masterpiece, The Interpretation of Mycenaean Texts.

So stay posted.