Tag Archive: dyes

Supersyllabogram A for amphora with the aromatic and dye saffron UPDATE


The supersyllabogram A for amphora is usually associated with vessels, and in that context it means that the vessel concerned is clearly an amphora, as illustrated below:

vase A  

This, the standard use of A as a supersyllabogram for vessels, is fully documented in my article, An Archaeologist’s translation of Pylos Tablet TA 641-1952 (Ventris), with an introduction to supersyllabograms in the vessels & pottery Sector in Mycenaean Linear B, to be published in the February 2016 issue of Archaeology and Science (Belgrade) ISSN 1452-7448. Following is the text of my discussion of the standard use of the SSYL A for amphora from this article:

Yet the most astonishing characteristic of supersyllabograms in the pottery and vessels sector of the Minoan-Mycenaean economy is this: the majority of them are attributive, and dependent on the ideograms they qualify. Attributive dependent supersyllabograms always appear inside the ideogram which they qualify, never adjacent to it. They always describe an actual attribute of the ideogram. For instance, the syllabogram a inside the ideogram for a vessel with 2 handles is the first syllabogram, i.e. the first syllable of the Mycenaean word apiporewe, unequivocally identifying the vessel as an amphora. But why even bother noting this, when it is obvious that the ideogram in question is in fact that for an amphora? Again, I repeat, the Mycenaean scribes never used any device without a reason. In this particular case, the reason, I believe, is apparent. Any scribe who places the syllabogram a inside the ideogram for what is probably an amphora anyway, does so on purpose to draw our attention to the fact that he is tagging said vessel as a highly valuable and very likely ornate specialty amphora fashioned specifically for the palace elite, and not any old amphora at all, as we see illustrated here in Figures 12 and 13: click to ENLARGE  

Fig. 12

l fig 12 minoan-amphora

Fig. 13:

m fig 13 MERI amphora

The distinction is crucial. I can conceive of no other reason why any Mycenaean scribe would resort to such a ploy other than to identify the vessel in question as a precious commodity.  Similarly, the simplified and streamlined syllabogram sa inside the ideogram for a vessel on a stand is, in my estimation, almost certainly the supersyllabogram for an unknown pre-Greek, possibly Minoan word for raw flax, the agricultural crop the ancient Greeks called rino = linon, from which linen (being the selfsame word in both Mycenaean and ancient alphabetical Greek) is derived. Both of these supersyllabograms are incharged, a term I have had to coin to describe the presence of syllabograms inside ideograms, given its complete absence in  previous research on so-called  “adjuncts” to Linear B ideograms, in other words, supersyllabograms.

END of discussion

The supersyllabogram A with the ideogram for – saffron:

Yet after my submission of this article to Archaeology and Science, I discovered another use of the same supersyllabogram, the vowel a, this time in conjunction with the ideogram for saffron, as illustrated by these 3 tablets from Knossos: 


Translations of these tablets:

KN 669 K j 21
Linear B Latinized:
line 1: yo wheat 195 + saffron in amphorae 43 + saffron 45
line 2: (syllabogram truncated right, probably ma for -ama-) yo wheat 143 + danetiyo + wheat 70 + saffron 45


line 1: yo? 195 units of wheat + 43 small amphorae filled with saffron & 45 units of saffron harvested (the units being very small)
line 2: ma for -ama? = at the same time, meaning along with yo? 143 units of wheat +  
70 units of wheat on loan + 45 units of saffron (harvested)

NOTE that the amphorae containing saffron would have to be small, very much like perfume bottles, given that saffron threads would not take up much space. 
KN 851 K j 03
Linear B Latinized:
line 1: syllabogram truncated right, uncertain, possibly -i- ) yo wheat + epikere  + wheat (right truncated, amount unknown)
line 2: ama
line 3: saffron in small amphorae 46 (or possibly more due to right truncation)

line 1: i? yo? uncertain amount of wheat well planted (from the earth) + uncertain amount of wheat
line 2: along with
line 3: 46 (or more) units of saffron in small amphorae

KN 852  K j 01
Linear B Latinized:
line 1: dawo amaepikere + wheat 10,000 (or more, being right truncated)
line 2: saffron in amphorae 70 + saffron 20

line 1: i? yo? along with (= ama, prefix of amaepikere) 10,000 units of well planted wheat from Dawos (Dafos)
line 2: 70 units of saffron in small amphorae + 20 units of saffron (harvested)  

This application of the supersyllabogram a for saffron I find truly intriguing. Yet again, it clearly designates an amphora, but in this context a small amphora which contains saffron, which takes up little space. Now since saffron is an aromatic which is usually refined to delicate threads plucked from the flower of the same name, as illustrated here:


it naturally follows that, if it is stored in an amphora, represented by the supersyllabogram a, the amphora must be small and capped with a stopper with a handle to prevent the saffron from blowing away. I am not sure how the Minoans and Mycenaeans fabricated the caps with handles for a small amphora filled with saffron, but it strikes me that they (the caps) would have been made of pottery of some kind. The cap with a handle would have had to be fashioned so that it was air tight. It is scarcely any wonder that the Minoans and Mycenaeans would have stored saffron in this fashion, as this extremely precious and expensive aromatic would have been used as a dye or its finely woven threads would have been woven into textiles, often ritually offered to divinities, as well as being used in perfumes, medicines, and body washes. See Wikipedia, Saffron: click to READ:

wikipedia saffron

There exists a stunning fresco the "Saffron Gatherers" fresco of the "Xeste 3" building. According to Wikipedia, this is one of many Minoan style frescoes depicting saffron; they were found at the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Santorini. which illustrates the harvesting of saffron, of which we see here a close up detail: click to ENLARGE


Associative Versus Attributive Supersyllabograms in Mycenaean Linear B: Appendix H

Appendix H neatly summarizes the rôle of supersyllabograms in Mycenaean Linear B. Click to ENLARGE:

H Appendix
I wish to stress one thing in particular. There is a marked difference in associative supersyllabograms, which account for the greatest number of SSYLS in Mycenaean Linear B, and attributive supersyllabograms, which appear primarily in the textiles and vessels (pottery, amphorae, cups etc.) sectors of the Late Minoan III & Mycenaean economies.

Associative supersyllabograms inform of us of some element, usually a land tenure factor, which relates to the ideogram itself, or which circumscribes its environment, especially in the livestock raising sub-sector of the agricultural sector. For instance, the supersyllabogram O, which you see in this Appendix, plus the ideogram for sheep + the number of sheep accounted for in the inventory of any particular tablet, informs us that the sheep are being raised on a lease(d) field, more specifically a usufruct lease field (i.e. a lease field which a farmer tenant cultivates for the use of his own family and village neighbours, with a taxation imposed by the overseer). In other words, the supersyllabogram is associated with the raising of x no. of sheep. The scribe could have simply informed us that x no. of sheep were raised, and left it at that. But he did not. By adding just one syllabogram, in this case a simple vowel = O, he has given us a great deal more information on the raising of the sheep (rams & ewes) on this particular tablet. And he has done all of this without having to resort to writing it all out as text. Since it was critical for the scribes to use as little space as possible on what were (and are) extremely small tablets, the use of supersyllabograms as a substitute for wasteful text is illustrative of just how far the scribes were willing to go to save such invaluable space. They did not do this only occasionally. They did it a great deal of the time, and they always followed the exact same formula in so doing. Not only are syllabograms such as O (on a lease field), KI (on a plot of land) & NE (in their sheep pens) in the field of sheep husbandry associative, they are all what I designate as dependent supersyllabograms, since they are meaningless unless they are immediately adjacent to the ideograms they qualify. No ideogram, no supersyllabogram. Period.

To illustrate the radical difference between a Linear B tablet on which a supersyllabogram + an ideogram is used, and another on which the text is spelled out, take a good hard look at this comparison: Click to ENLARGE

Knossos Tablet KN 933 G d 01 supersyllabograms and text

This comparison between the real tablet from Knossos using only supersyllabograms and ideograms (left) and a putative one using text in full (right) is precisely the reason why so many scribes much preferred the former formulaic approach to inscribing tablets to the latter discursive and space wasting technique. A textual version of this tablet would have been twice as long as the actual tablet. Even if no one nowadays has ever managed to decipher dependent supersyllabograms until now, that cannot conceivably mean that the Linear B scribes did not know what they were, since otherwise, they would never have used them so liberally in the first place. In other words, using SSYLS for no reason at all is tantamount to a reductio ad absurdum. There are thousands of supersyllabograms found on 700 tablets from Knossos. They are there because all of the scribes, as a team or, if you like, as a guild, all understood each and every supersyllabogram to mean one thing and one thing only in its proper context. In other words, supersyllabograms are standardized and always formulaic. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Homer, who also heavily relied on formulaic expressions, though for entirely different reasons. My point is that formulaic language is a key characteristic of ancient Greek texts, right on down from Mycenaean times through to Attic and beyond. We should never overlook this extremely important characteristic of ancient Greek, regardless of period (1450 – 400 BCE).   

Attributive dependent supersyllabograms always appear inside the ideogram which they qualify, never adjacent to it. They always describe an actual attribute (usually known as an adjectival function) of the ideogram. For instance, the syllabogram PO inside the ideogram for “cloth” is the first syllabogram, i.e. the first syllable of the Mycenaean word ponikiya = “purple”, hence the phrase = “purple cloth”.  Likewise the syllabogram TE, when it appears inside the ideogram for “cloth” is the supersyllabogram for the Mycenaean word tetukuwoa, which means “well prepared” or if you like, “well spun”. Hence, the syllabogram TE inside the ideogram for cloth must mean one thing and one thing only, “well-prepared cloth”. I have discovered, identified & classified well over a dozen examples of associative supersyllabograms. 

Neither type of dependent supersyllabogram, associative or attributive, was ever isolated and tabulated in Mycenaean Linear B until I systematically studied, deciphered and classified scores of them on some 700 tablets from Knossos.


All About Sypersyllabograms: Their Enormous Impact on the Nature of Linear B – Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask!

Given that supersyllabograms invariably display the characteristics highlighted in the previous post, they must also be formulaic by nature. The several restrictions placed on their disposition next to or inside ideograms, the invariability of their meanings within each sector, and other such considerations means they are always formulaic. Although the language of Homer is also very often formulaic in the Iliad, especially in The Catalogue of Ships in Book II, there is probably little or no relationship between the formulaic nature of supersyllabograms in Mycenaean Linear B and his archaic formulae. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that formulaic language is a particular characteristic of both Mycenaean Linear B and of Homer’s own so-called Epic Greek. However, the nature of the formulaic language of Linear B and that of Homeric Greek are of a different order.

In the chart which follows, we see for the first time ever on our blog the disposition of each supersyllabogram in each sector of Minoan/Mycenaean society, with repetitions of certain supersyllabograms, which re-appear in different sectors, usually with different meanings from one sector to the next, with the exception of the supersyllabogram “newo/newa”, which always means “new”, regardless of sector. It alone appears in three sectors: agriculture (livestock, mainly sheep, rams & ewes), textiles & vessels, as seen in the chart here: Click to ENLARGE


While the meanings of some supersyllabograms are firmly established, due primarily to their high frequency on Linear B tablets from Knossos, others are less firmly demonstrable. For instance, in the sector, agriculture, sub-sector sheep husbandry, the meanings of the supersyllabograms O = lease field, KI = plot of land , NE = new & PE = enclosure or sheep pen, are firmly established with a very high degree of probability, if not total accuracy. In the case of PE, the definition is 100 % confirmed, since on one of the tablets in that series, the scribe conveniently spelled out the word in full, instead of using the simple superyllabogram PE. It is this very tablet which establishes beyond a doubt the authenticity of supersyllabograms as a phenomenon innate to Linear B alone, and not found in Arcado-Cypriot Linear C. As for Minoan Linear A, no-one knows whether SSYLS exist, because the language remains recalcitrant to decipherment.

In the military sector, the supersyllabogram ZE almost certainly means “a pair of..” or “a team of...”, with a 90 % or greater probability. However, once we get past the two primary sectors in which supersyllabograms are used extremely frequently, given that there are so many tablets to be found in these two primary sectors of Minoan/Mycenaean society, the situation devolves by degrees into less certainty.

Supersyllabograms found adjacent to any ideogram, as for instance those with the ideograms for sheep, ram, ewe (livestock), or horse or chariot (military) are considered to be associative. Associative Supersyllabograms are those which define characteristics of the environment or specific context in which their associative ideograms appear. For instance, it is natural and logical to associate sheep with lease fields, plots of land & sheep enclosures. The same goes for military ideograms. The ideograms for horse and chariot naturally associate with pairs or teams of... (fill in the blanks).    

There are still quite a large number of tablets in the textiles sector; so the meanings of most of the supersyllabograms in that sector are more than likely still very reliable, not the least because each of them still makes good sense: KU = gold cloth, PA = dyed cloth, PU = purple or Phoenician cloth (amounting to pretty much the same thing, anyway) & RI = linen. I would assign at least a 70 % to 90 % degree of probability to each of the definitions I have deduced for each of these supersyllabograms in textiles. The supersyllabograms in the sector of vessels (amphorae, drinking cups, water jugs etc.) may be a little less firm, but I am still convinced that I deduced most of them accurately, yielding a probability of 70 % - 80 %.

Supersyllabograms in the textile and vessels sector are another kettle of fish. Since they appear inside the ideograms they modify, they are attributive in nature. In other words, they describe attributes of the textiles or vessels which they modify, and are, in almost all instances, adjectival in nature. Their placement inside the ideograms makes it quite clear that this is what the scribes actually indented, since a symbol inside another always describes attributes of the ideogram in which it appears. Should anyone doubt this, we have only to appeal to symbols appearing inside others as they are found in today’s world, since they follow the exact same principle. For instance, we have: click to ENLARGE:

Modern Superalphabetical Symbols

Need I say more?     

On the other hand, I have been quite unable to decipher at least one supersyllabogram, SE, which sadly appears only 3 times on extant tablets from Knossos. For this reason alone, I dare not assign it a meaning, since I am quite sure that if I did, I would probably be (way) off the mark.

There remain the supersyllabograms for place names, which are in a category of their own, since none of them appear with ideograms, and all of them are found on only 1 tablet, Heidelburg HE Fl 1994, which Prof. Thomas G. Palaima so expertly deciphered in 1994. Click on this banner to read his translation and my explanatory POST in its entirety:


There can be no question whatsoever that these are in fact supersyllabograms, the very first ever to have been isolated, for which we owe Prof. Palaima full credit. Of course, he did not define them as supersyllabograms, as he was unaware of the high frequency of the rest of them as adduced above in this post. Nevertheless, they are what they are, supersyllabograms. We have KO for Konoso (Knossos), MU for Mukene (Mycenae), ZA for Zakros etc.

And if a few of you are still in doubt as to the viability of supersyllabograms in Mycenaean Linear B, remember: the very same phenomenon applies to internationally standardized signs nowadays.

Once again, nowadays, we have a symbol within a symbol, or if you like, a symbol inside an ideogram. It is truly amazing how such a practice has resurfaced after at least 32 centuries, even if it was only the Minoan/Mycenaean scribes in the ancient world who figured out the system in the first place, leaving it interred for 32 centuries before it re-appeared in the twentieth century. So once again, we find ourselves face to face with a very ancient script, namely the Linear B syllabary, which was so systematic, formulaic and logical that it can only be considered as a brilliant breakthrough in the art of writing. After all, supersyllabograms are not the only phenomenon Linear B sported with such bravado. Ideograms in and of themselves abounded (over 100 of them!). They even used ideograms as the equivalent of subject headings as they resurfaced in nineteenth century libaries, in the Dewey Decimal & Library of Congress systems.

Witness just one tablet alone, namely, Pylos 641-1952 (Ventris), the very first tablet ever translated with complete success by none other than the great Michael Ventris himself, and you can see these “subject headings” for yourself, plastered all over that amazing tablet! Why did the scribes use so many ideograms for vessel types on this single tablet? The answer was obvious, at least to them... the ideograms for vessels were the signposts or indexing markers of this tablet which instantly allowed the scribes to identify the precise type of vessel described in the full text immediately preceding each one, even before they bothered reading the descriptive text. That this is a very clever indexing system goes without saying. And it re-appears over and over on so many tablets that it is without question one of the hallmarks of the Linear B syllabary. Finally, their numeric accounting system was the most efficient ever devised in the ancient world. Summarizing all of the streamlined characteristics of Linear B we have just enumerated, it becomes obvious that Linear B was, first and foremost, a carefully devised form of shorthand for Mycenaean Greek. Once again, the Mycenaean scribes anticipated a methodology for writing business transactions which would not re-appear as modern shorthand – you guessed it – until the nineteenth century AD.

All of this adds up to one inescapable conclusion: Linear B was the world’s fist ever commercial shorthand, and until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was nothing even remotely as efficient, logical and practical ever to be found throughout history until... the modern era. This is precisely why I am so in awe of Linear B, a script which was millennia ahead of its time. It is also why I refuse to characterize Linear B as being prehistoric. It is nothing of the sort. It is in a word, a proto-historic writing and accounting system, leading me to the inexorable conclusion that Minoan/Mycenaean society was in fact not prehistoric at all, but proto-historic. I am not the first linguist specializing in ancient linguistics to have asserted this claim, but I am the first to speak up as emphatically and unequivocally as this.        

This then has been a brief summary of the functions and the key rôle supersyllabograms play in the decipherment of Mycenaean Linear B.


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