Tag Archive: metric

Coriander in Linear B. How does it measure up? Big time! Click to ENLARGE

measurmenrt of Coriander in Linear B on 3 tablets from Scripta Minoa

The translation of these three sequential * tablets is a straightforward affair ( * sequential because I have already translated KN 416). As I mentioned in a previous post, the Minoans & Mycenaeans at Knossos, Phaistos Lykinthos, Surimos, Pylos, Mycenae and elsewhere were crazy about coriander, because that is all they ever talk about on their inventory tablets referencing spices. The only thing that perplexed me at the outset on these tablets was the reference to crimson on tablets KN 417 L e 01 & KN 418 L e 11. I simply could not figure out why the total no. of grams for crimson were at variance with those for coriander. It is obvious to any experienced cook or chef that I know next to nothing about spices. This is unquestionably the reason why initially I could not figure out what the totals for crimson and coriander meant. I strongly suspected that the colour, crimson, was an instance of synecdoche, a literary device where the part represents the whole, in other words, the scribe is referring to a spice which is crimson coloured. Since coriander is green, the crimson spice must be another. That spice must be saffron, since saffron is vividly crimson in colour. So it appears our little conundrum is resolved. I freely admit I had to look these spices up on Google, then Wikipedia, just to confirm my suspicions, and thankfully, they turned out to be right.

So the two spices referenced on these tablets are coriander and saffron.

This is the last of our posts on the metric style measurement system used by the Linear B scribes at all of the locales mentioned above, and others besides.


Dry Measurement of Wheat, Barley & Grain Seeds in Linear B: Click to ENLARGE

Linear B tablet  KN 819 A j 0 wheat barley & seed

Because this tablet is largely intact, it is fairly easy to translate. But there are still a few small problems in the second line. First of all, the total wheat production for 1 month (or does this mean, the average monthly wheat total for 1 year?) is given as approx. 3 kilograms, if we are to trust the measurement table established by Andras Zeke of the Minoan Language Blog- and there is no reason why we should not under the circumstances, namely, that we really have no idea what the actual total (represented by the Linear B logogram which looks like a T) for dry measurement was. So kilograms will do as well as anything. Still, at least the system appears to have been metric. This is followed by a much larger output for barley of 3 x 9 = 27 kilograms, which strikes me as a little bit odd, given that wheat was probably the staple crop, followed by barley. On the other hand, there is nothing to indicate that this is a monthly total for barley. In fact, the total of approx. 27 kilograms is immediately followed by the number 7. My interpretation of this apparently stray number is that it may represent 7 months (the ideogram for month being conveniently omitted), yielding a total of a little less than 4 kilograms per month, which would align the barley production total with the wheat. But this still strikes me as really odd. Why would the scribe assign the total for only 1 month’s production of wheat, and follow it up with the total production of barley for 7 months? This does not make much sense. We then have a total production of about 3 x 3 = approx. 9 kilograms of seed, if I am interpreting this right. The reason I assign 3 x 3 = about 9 kilograms of seed is this: I believe the scribe deliberately omitted the T logogram (which is equal to about 3 kilograms), hence 3 (x 3) = 9.

Why would he do that? It is really quite simple. He has apparently omitted the ideogram for “month” right after the number 7. He has already used the T logogram twice on this line, and so – again to save valuable space on a very small tablet - he simply omits it the third time (as he did for the second occurrence for “month”), since he knows that all of the other scribes clearly understand that it is implicit. Just another shortcut. More shorthand. Big surprise. Still, the statistics do not seem to square. Our translation of the inventory totals just does not “feel right”. For this reason, I have to reserve judgement on the translation, given that there appears to be something the scribes all implicitly understood - I am not quite sure what – but which we do not at a remove of some 32 centuries. And I fear I may have taken the scribal practice of omitting what was “obvious” to the scribes a little too far.

My Cup Runneth Over! Liquid Measurement for Wine & Olive Oil in Mycenaean Linear B: Click to ENLARGE

A KN 160a J j 11 wine PE wine DI

Because it is damaged and fragmentary, a decent translation of this tablet is unattainable. But this is no excuse for not taking a stab at it. The several notes appended to the end of the tablet highlight the multiple problems facing the translator confronted with a fragmentary tablet in Linear B, let alone any other ancient script. Some difficulties are dependent on the nature (i.e. type) of script itself (hieroglyphs, cuneiform, a syllabary or an alphabet), hence, script-dependent. Taking our notes step by step:

[1] The difficulty posed by this ideogram for a “ladle” arises from the fact that we have no idea of the size of ladle (if that is what it is) the Linear B scribes were referencing. This problem is exacerbated by further considerations below.

[2] I am unable to accurately identify the syllabogram on the left side of this line, which is itself apparently the last syllabogram of a word in Mycenaean Linear B. This particular problem is not script-dependent. 
[3] The syllabogram following KE is illegible; the two-syllable word cannot be recovered.
[4] Same problem as in [3], although in this case the syllabogram, if it is one, is chopped off from the middle down. Such problems are endemic to fragmentary tablets, regardless of script (not script-dependent). 
[5] The ideogram for “wine” in Linear B is very easy to spot & identify. It is also commonplace.

[6] The ideogram for “olive oil” in Linear B is very easy to spot & identify. It is also commonplace.

[7] This is just one of the ideograms for “bowl”. Once again, we are confronted with the same old dilemma, which keeps popping up all over Linear B tablets. What kind of bowl is this? Once again, the scribes all knew perfectly well what kind of bowl this ideogram referenced, just as they knew precisely what all other ideograms in Linear B meant (mean). Unfortunately for us in the twenty-first century, the precise meaning of scores of ideograms is beyond our ken.  When I refer to meaning, I do not simply mean, “This is a mixing bowl.” - “That is a soup bowl” - “This is a cereal bowl” etc.

Far from it. Whenever the Linear B scribes referred to any kind of vessel: cauldron, cooking pot, bowl, cup, jar, jug, vase (including amphorae) etc. etc., they identified each and every type not only by its specific type (nomenclature), but by its capacity (liquid or dry measurement), and its primary function. That is a lot of “definition” to cram into one ideogram. And this is precisely why we will probably never be able to accurately identify the type of vessel so many ideograms refer to, because we were not there when the scribal guild assigned standard names married to standard measurements to identify and classify each and every ideogram.

The Key Rôle of Archaeology in Tentatively Identifying Types of Vessels Referenced by Linear B Ideograms: 

However, all this does not mean that we cannot take a good stab at tentatively identifying at least the type of vessel referenced by any given ideogram, in every case where an adequate description evades us. Why so? As my research colleague and friend, Rita Roberts, who lives not far from Heraklion, Crete, and who is an archaeologist, has pointed out on numerous occasions, archaeology is eminently suited to provide us with alternative tools to at least tentatively correlate many Linear B ideograms for vessels with the astonishing plethora of known vessel types which have been unearthed for each and every ancient civilization – including of course the Minoan and Mycenaean. Vessels of the same type (for instance, amphorae) can be readily identified. The archaeologist can then attempt to correlate a particular vessel type or sub-type (amphorae are easily classified into sub-types) with a particular ideogram. But here several problems arise:
(a) Since ideograms are by nature semi-abstract, we can never be really sure that any particular ideogram we assign to any particular vessel type actually does correspond to “the real thing”. It is always a best-guess scenario. But it is better than nothing, and in some cases, at least, the semi-abstract ideogram may look well enough alike the actual vessel to confirm the former with reasonable accuracy.
(b) Since several ideograms for vessels in Linear B look almost exactly the same, this poses yet another dilemma. What are the sizes of similar ideograms? - in other words, what dry or liquid volume are they intended to hold, as the function of measurement alone?
(c) There is also the very real question of the kind of function for any vessel. While the ideogram for some vessel look-alike types may refer to cooking vessels, pots, pans, utensils etc., others in the same run of ideograms may be symbolic of higher class, palatial and even royal vessels, such as silver and gold cups (dipa), bowls, plates etc.

A Plethora of Ideograms for Vessels in Linear B & their Approximate Archaeological Equivalents:

Click to ENLARGE:

LinearB ideograms  for vessels and actual vessels

I am sure our resident archaeologist, Rita Roberts, can think of other distinctions and functions of various Linear B look-alike ideograms and of their corresponding “real ware” than can I. Or perhaps we could assign the modern counterparts, “software” to ideograms and “hardware” to archaeologically identified vessel types.
[8] See [7]. Same difficulty. The most glaring problems with this ideogram are the size of the cup, and in particular, its function. Is this just any old cup or is it silver-ware or even gold? Who is to say? No one today. But you can be sure the scribes knew exactly what kind of cup this ideogram refers so.   

[9] Here is where things get really messy. According to Andras Zeke of the Minoan Language Blog, the T style logogram is supposed to reference dry measure only, and is meant to be the equivalent of approx. 3 kilograms (give or take). But on this tablet, the T measurement refers to liquid measurement for wine and olive oil. This appears to be another contradiction in terms. To further complicate the matter, the amount of wine measured appears to be quite voluminous, at some 4 x 5 = 20 litres in the first instance (if it is not right-truncated!) & 6 x 5 = 30 litres in the second. Someone must have thrown a huge party, and lots of folks must have got drunk as skunks! Or else Andras Zeke is wrong. This is all the more likely to be the case if we take into account the amount of liquid a ladle can hold – as in [1] above and in particular, how much a ladle of olive oil is supposed to be – as in [6] above. Those measurement standards [1] & [6] are way out of kilter with those for kilograms (dry measurement) or perhaps litres (liquid measurement) in [9]. How can we possibly square the small measurement standards for olive oil with the voluminous ones for wine on this tablet, without ending up in a morass of contradictions? - unless of course whoever wrote this tablet meant to say that the “the recipe” (if recipe it is) called for adding a small amount of olive oil to a heck of a lot of wine. Such a combination makes no sense to me, but I am no archaeologist. So my archaeologist colleagues and friends... come to the rescue! But then again, Andras Zeke is still right, and we are missing implicit rather than explicit details of the nature (type, volume & function) of any given ideogram for vessel. 

[10] This is clearly the supersyllabogram DI, which almost certainly refers to the Linear B word for “a drinking cup” or dipa in the specific context alone of ideograms for vessels. But it might also designate the function of the cup, which would be representative of any of the Linear B words beginning with diwo or diwe, in other words, to the God Zeus or possibly even Dionysus (also beginning with DI). In that case, the cup is a libation cup. However, the first meaning is the more convincing of the two. When used in a religious context, the supersyllabogram always takes on the latter meaning.

[11] This is the syllabogram PE, apparently left-truncated. If so, it is impossible to recover the rest of the Linear B word of which it is the ultimate. 

[12] This looks like a Linear B word, nopono (whatever that is), but once again, the word is almost certainly left-truncated, because the tablet is fragmented. So again, the word appears to be irretrievable.

As we can all see from this tablet, any attempt at a reasonable or definitive decipherment or translation is next to impossible. However, it is our solemn duty as translators of Mycenaean Linear B to make the best of the not-so-good of all possible worlds, and to attempt a translation that reveals something of the true intent of the text as the scribe wrote it. This is what I always do, and have done here.


A Mind Blower! Monthly Statistics on Wheat & Barley at Knossos, Amnisos & Phaistos in Linear B: Click to ENLARGE

Linear A tablet KN 777a K b 01 wheat monthly Knossos Amnisos Phaistos

Ambiguities pop up as a matter of course in any attempt to translate all too many tablets in Mycenaean Linear B. These ambiguities arise for a number of reasons, such as:

(a.1) The scribes routinely omitted any word(s) or phrase(s) which they as a guild implicitly understood, since after all no-one but themselves and the palace administration would ever have to read the tablets in the first place. The regular formulae involved in the production of Linear B accounting, inventory or statistical texts of whatever length were commonly understood by all, and shared (or not, as the case may be) by all the scribes.

Formulaic text, including the same Linear B stock phrases, the same logograms & the same ideograms appearing over and over again, are routine. But even that does not give us the whole picture. Some text, which would have otherwise explicitly appeared as per the criteria just mentioned, was deliberately omitted. This bothers us today, in the twenty-first century, because we expect all text to be there, right on the tablet. Sorry. No can do. The scribes merely wrote what were routine annual accounts only, and nothing more (to be summarily erased at the end of the current fiscal year and replaced by the next fiscal year’s inventories). That was their job, or as we would call it today, their job description, as demanded by the palace administration. Nothing more or less. It would never have entered the minds of the scribes or the palace administrations of any Mycenaean city, trade centre, harbour or citadel to preserve inventories beyond one fiscal year, because they never did. Routine is routine.

So if we take it upon ourselves to complain that “vital information is missing”, we mislead ourselves grossly. That information was never “missing” to the personnel concerned. It is only absent to us. It is up to use to try and put ourselves into the mindset of the palace administration(s) and of the scribes, and not the other way around. Tough challenge? You bet it is. But we have no other choice.

(a.2) In the case of this tablet specifically, the text which is annoyingly “missing” is that in the independent nominative variable upon which the phrase in the dative, “for barley-by-month” (kiritiwetiyai) directly depends. The “whatever” (nominative) ... “for barley-by-month” (dative) has to be something.  But what? I translated the missing nominative independent variable as “ration” on the illustration of the tablet above, but this is a very rough translation.

(b) What is the semantic value of the implicit independent nominative variable?

If we stop even for a second and ask ourselves the really vital question, to what step or element or procedure in barley production do our average monthly statistics refer, then we are on the right track. Note that the word “average” is also absent, since it is obvious to all (us scribes) that monthly statistics for any commodity are average, after all. It is impossible for these monthly statistics for Knossos, Amnisos & Phaistos to refer to the barley crop or harvest, because that happens only once a year. The scribes all knew this, and anyway it is perfectly obvious even to us, if we just stop and consider the thing logically. So to what does the dependent dative variable refer?

There are a few cogent alternatives, but here are the most likely candidates, at least to my mind. First, we have (a) ration. Fair enough. But what about (b) consumption of barley -or- (c) monthly metropolitan (market) sales of barley for the city of Knossos alone -or- (d) routine monthly trade in barley, by which I mean, international trade?  All of these make sense. In fact, more than one of these alternatives may apply, depending on the site locale. Line 1 refers to the independent variable in the nominative for Knossos. That could easily be the monthly metropolitan market (akora) sales of barley. However, line 2 refers to Amnisos, which is the international harbour of Knossos, and the major hub of all international trade and commerce between Knossos and the rest of the Mycenaean Empire, and between Knossos and the rest of the then-known maritime world, i.e. all empires, nations and city states surrounding at least the mid-Eastern & South Mediterranean, especially Egypt, Knossos’s most wealthy, hence, primary trading partner. So in the case of Amnisos (line 2), the independent variable in the nominative is much more likely to be the average monthly figure for international trade in or for barley-by-month. As for Phaistos, it is probably a toss-up, although I prefer international trade. 

(c) Hundreds of Units of Barley or is it Wheat? But how many Hundreds?

(c.1) Before we go any further, it is best to clear one thing up. While line item 1 on this tablet refers specifically to barley, and not to wheat, I find it really peculiar that, in the first place, the ideogram used in line 1 (Knossos) is the ideogram for wheat and not for barley. This appears to be a contradiction in terms. The only explanations I can come up with are that (a) the scribe used the ideogram for wheat in line item 1, because he used it in both line items 2 & 3 (for Amnisos and Phaistos), where he actually did intend to reference wheat specifically, and not barley, or (b) the other way around, that he meant to reference barley in all 3 line items, but did not bother to repeat the phrase kiritiwetiyai = “for barley-by-month”, because (as he perceived it) he did not have to. Wasn’t it obvious to all concerned, himself and his fellow scribes, and their overseers, the palace administration, that is exactly what he meant? Of course it was. But which alternative was obvious (a) or (b)? We shall never know.
(c.2) Since the right hand side of this tablet is sharply truncated immediately after the appearance of the numeric syllabogram for 100, we are left high and dry as to the value of the total number of units for each of lines 1 to 3. The number must be somewhere between 100 & 999. Ostensibly, it cannot possibly be the same for Knossos, Amnisos & Phaistos. The problem compounds itself if we are referring to sales or consumption of barley at Knossos versus international trade for Amnisos and Phaistos or, for that matter, any combination or permutation of any of these formulae for each of these line items in the inventory. This being the case, there is obviously no point wasting our breath trying to figure out which is which (consumption, sales or international trade) because it will get us nowhere. One thing is certain, however. The scribes themselves knew perfectly well what the figures in each of lines 1 to 3 referred to. We are the ones who are the poorer, not the wiser.

(d) You will have noticed that, whatever the semantic value of the implicit nominative independent variable is in lines 1 & 2, which reference Knossos and Amnisos respectively, I mentioned on the illustration of the tablet above that the line item figure for Amnisos could either be lower than or higher than that for Knossos. And that is a correct observation. Assuming that the figure for Knossos probably refers to either average monthly consumption or metropolitan market sales of barley in the city itself, with a population estimated at some 55,000 at its height, the average monthly figure for consumption or sales alone would probably have been quite high, ranging well into the multiple hundreds. But how high? I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess.

Likewise, the average monthly volume in international trade of barley (let alone wheat and all other major commodities such as wool, olive oil, spices, crafts and fine Minoan/Mycenaean jewelry) would have been very significant, probably at least as great if not greater than the the average monthly figure for consumption or sales of barley, wheat etc. etc. in the city market (akora) of Knossos. Regardless, the monthly figures for Amnisos and Knossos almost certainly do not reference the same economic activity, so we are comparing apples with oranges.

As for Amnisos and Phaistos, the average monthly figures are more likely to reference the same economic phenomenon, namely, international trade. If this is the case, the monthly figures would have been far greater for Amnisos, the primary port of the entire Mycenaean Empire, for international commerce and trade, than for Phaistos, which was an important centre for commerce, but certainly not the hub. However, once again, we have no idea of the average ratio for monthly international trade and commerce between Amnisos and Phaistos, although I surmise it was probably in the order of at least 4:1. 


Minuscule Units of Measurement & yet Another Major Breakthrough in Supersyllabograms in Linear B: Click to ENLARGE

Minuscule Units of Measuerment for spices saffron etc
Upon close examination of the syllabogram WE in the context of dry weight in Mycenaean Linear B, in this particular instance, dry weight of saffron, I have come to the conclusion that the line(s) transversing the syllabogram WE at an approximate angle of 105 - 110 º are actually equivalent to the tens (10 & 20), while the black circles in the upper and lower portions of WE are equivalent to the 100s (100 & 200) in the Linear B numeric system. Once again, the scribes would never had added these lines and circles to the syllabogram, unless they had good reason to. And they surely did. There is a striking resemblance between the approximately horizontal lines to the 10s, and of the black circles to the 100s in that system, as can be seen from the actual placement values for 10s and 100s immediately above the syllabogram WE. As if this is not impressive enough, there is even more to this syllabogram.

It is in fact a supersyllabogram. Its meaning is identical to the same SSYL for crops in the agricultural sector, namely; WE is the first syllable of the Mycenaean Linear B word weto, which literally means “the running year”, in other words “the current fiscal year”. This makes perfect sense, since the scribes at Knossos, Phaistos, Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes and other Mycenaean locales only kept records for the current fiscal year, never any longer. The most astonishing feature of this supersyllabogram is that it combines itself as a SSYL with the Linear B numeric system, meaning that it alone of all the SSYLS refers to both the number of minusucle items (in this case, saffron, but it could just as easily refer to coriander or other spices) and the total production output of the same items for the current fiscal year. The Linear B scribes have truly outdone themselves in this unique application of the supersyllabogram, distilling it down to the most microscopic level of shorthand, thereby eliminating much more running text from the tablet we see here than they ever did from any other tablet, including all of those sporting “regular” supersyllabograms. In this instance alone (on this and the few other tablets on which it appears), this unique “special” SSYL is a supersyllabogram with a specific numeric measurement value at the minuscule level, something entirely new, and seen nowhere else in all of the extant Linear B literature.

Quite amazing, if you ask me.

NOTE: the assignment of a value approximating 1 gram for the single unit, i.e. the simple syllabogram WE with no traversing lines or black circles, is just that, nothing more than an approximation. I had to correlate the single unit with something we can relate to in the twenty-first century, so I chose the gram as an approximate equivalent. One thing is certain: the unit WE is very small, indicating as it does minuscule dry measurement weight.  


Measurement of Wheat Crop Yields in Mycenaean Linear B: Click to ENLARGE

Mycenaean Linear B wheat yields Kn 849 KN 850

In the case of these two tablets from Knossos, apart from the fact that we do not know what the base unit for the measurement of wheat crop yields was in Mycenaean Greek, the numeric totals are very easy to translate. As I have said before, in previous posts, I am convinced that their measurement system was metric, to keep it in line with their metric base-10 counting system. So whatever the base unit for the measurement of wheat crop yields was, it was mostly likely metric. The best yardstick we have is, I suppose, the Imperial measurement of a bushel, but there is absolutely no way of telling what real value the Mycenaean base unit had, so there is no point wasting our time trying to figure it out... except that we can be sure that 130 or more units of wheat crop yield was a lot of wheat.

The First Tablet: KN 849 K j 72 

The real problems with any attempted translation of these two tablets, however valiant, lies in the fragmentation of the tablets themselves, resulting in the unfortunate loss of (right-truncated) text in the first tablet, and (left-truncated) text in the second. It is a lot easier to reconstruct or retrieve right-truncated text, especially in the case of the first tablet, in which the missing syllables of the last word almost leap at us. Immediately after the phrase “cultivated estates” we see the preposition “pera”, which in this case is almost certainly not the simple preposition, but the prefix “pera” of a longer Mycenaean Linear B word.  In Chris Tselentis’ fine Linear B Lexicon, we immediately happen upon a word which fits the bill to a T, peraakoraiya = the further provinces, more properly translated as, the outer provinces. So far, so good.

But where on earth did I dig up the word, kotona = plot of land -or- estate? How can I possibly justify the insertion of a word that is not on the tablet? The adjective putariya = cultivated is the give-away. If we are saying that something is cultivated, that something has to be a field, plot of land, estate ... whatever. Now since our scribe is referencing lands in the outer provinces, which are at quite a geographic distance from Knossos (presumably at Mycenae, Tiryns or even Thebes), these lands must be of great enough importance to merit such close scrutiny. The actual wheat yield of 130-139 basic units of wheat, makes it all the more likely that the scribe means to say estate, because that is quite a lot of wheat. Once again, the Mycenaean scribal practice of not explicitly writing out what is implicitly understood by all of the scribes as a guild rears its head. Once again, to save space on the tablets, minuscule as they were. After all, if the adjective cultivated is already spelled out on the tablet, then we know for certain that the scribe is referring to land. It is that simple. Simple in a sense, since we still have to come up with the most appropriate translation for the kind of land the scribe is talking about. Since we were not there when the scribe wrote this tablet, or for that matter, when any scribe wrote other tablets with the almost identical formula on them, we can never be certain that we have assigned the right word to the generic concept of land. But, as is always the case with myself, I am not loathe to venture at a sensible translation... ergo.

The Second Tablet: KN 850 K j 31

Here we run up against the opposite scenario. The tablet is left-truncated, meaning of course that the syllablograms masiyo are the last three syllables of some Mycenaean Linear B word. But what word? Your guess is as good as mine.  The translation goes on to read, “at the same time (as)” followed by the totals for wheat yield. But we are left up in the air concerning what other crop(s) if any are being tabulated “at the same time as” the wheat crop yield. In other words, the yields for at least one other crop (the other likely being barley) is tabulated here together with wheat yields, as being harvested “at the same time”. Beyond this we can go no further, because all else is speculation. So any attempt to reconstruct the missing parts of this tablet is an exercise in futility. I merely wanted us to be aware that there assuredly is missing text on this tablet, probably on the right as well as on the left.  As for masiyo, I hazard a guess that this is the name of the person who was accountable for the crops. But even this is uncertain.

We are still left with one last problem. Why does the tablet report 132 units of wheat and then add (almost as an afterthought) the syllabogram TO, which just so happens to be the supersyllabogram for toso (so much, so many, i.e. a total of), and then add another figure, 5? 5 what? What is going on here? Why does the scribe give us a total of 132 units of wheat, and then go on to reference 5 units? What are these units?  What do they have to do with the 132 units (cf. bushels) of  wheat? Here is my take on it. It appears that there were a total of 5 separate crops of wheat harvested, yielding a total of 132 units in all, or approximately 42 units per harvest. It is a good try, if nothing else.


Mycenaean Linear B Units of Measurement, Liquid & by Weight: Click to ENLARGE

Mycenaean Linear B Units of Measurment, Liquid & by Weight A

Aside from the fact that we cannot be at all sure how much each of these units of measurement is supposed to represent, I am still operating on the premise that the Mycenaean system of measurement is 10-based or decimal, hence, something along the lines of the modern metric system. However the units are configured, it is quite certain that in the case of these two tablets, the units must be small, because the items measured, saffron (on the left) and olive oil (on the right) are usually dispensed in small amounts. Since saffron is very light, I assume that the weight is something like 10 grams, while the liquid measurement for the olive oil is in the range of about 2 litres, or whatever amount the Minoans & Mycenaeans used to house these commodities.


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
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.


Mycenaean Linear B Units of Measurement (Liquid, Dry & Weight): Click to ENLARGE

Units of Mesurement in Mycenaean Linear B

This table illustrates the syllabograms, logograms & ideograms used to represent units of measurement, liquid, dry and by weight. As can clearly be seen, the exact values many of the units are uncertain. I have hazarded a guess that the unit of measurement in this table which is represented by the ideogram for sheep may very well be the agricultural unit, a hogshead, in which case it is a liquid unit of measurement. Even that unit is variable, ranging anywhere from 46 to 65 US imperial gallons, with several stops in between. So if the Mycenaean measurement is anything like a hogshead, then it is probably just as unreliable, especially in light of the fact that the Mycenaean unit is ancient. Ancient units of measurement were notoriously variable. After all, if merchants could cheat, they would. There is nothing new in that practice!

The following units of measurement, which are syllabograms – RO, PE, ZE, MO & O, are all also supersyllabograms (more on this in subsequent posts). The meanings of ZE, MO & O are clear, and well established. ZE always means “a pair of” (wheels etc.) or “a team of” (horses, oxen etc.), while MO always means “a single” wheel etc., and O always refers to “deficit”. 

The meaning of PE is unclear. The meaning of PE as a supersyllabogram varies from sector to sector of the Mycenaean economy. In the field of agriculture, sub-field livestock/sheep, it is periqoro in Mycenaean Linear B Latinized, which means “an enclosure, i.e. a sheep pen”, whereas in the wine-making sector it appears as perusinowo (Latinized), meaning “last year’s (wine)”. Prof. Lynne Ribaud, who initially compiled this table of units of measurement in Mycenaean Linear B, assigned the value “a bunch of...”, presumably referring to “a bunch of grapes”, but this meaning is very uncertain.

Since these accounting terms are extremely common in Linear B inventories, anyone wishing to truly master Linear B must become familiar with all of them.  

Andras Zeke of Hungary, the owner of the now defunct

Minoan Language Blog
(a terrible pity, since it was such a magnificent blog) has taken a further step in the right direction, by hazarding more exact estimates of the values of several of the these measurement units, as illustrated here: Click to ENLARGE

Mycenaean-measurement-systems Minoan Language Blog
I have always greatly admired his extremely meticulous logical approach to the analysis of both the Linear A and Linear B syllabaries, and so I am inclined to accept the measurement values he assigns at their approximate face value, although I have no way of verifying his overall accuracy. Other Linear B researchers must have already cross-checked his findings, but as of now I am unaware of the results of any such findings. If anyone reading our blog is aware of other research into the units of measurement in Mycenaean Linear B, please advise me as soon as possible.



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