Plaster reproduction of a clay Linear B tablet from Knossos, Plaster
14 × 8 cm
The British Museum, London (original held in The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
This tablet is just one example. You can see immediately that the Linear B script is made up of at least some ideograms – small signs or pictures representing objects, never pronounced phonetically but instead used as semantic identifiers. You might be able to spot the chariot wheels dotted throughout the text above, giving us a clue as to its meaning: and indeed, the translation of the text shows that this is an inventory of chariot wheels. Other signs represented on the tablet are syllabic – that is, they have a phonetic value; each of them would have been pronounced aloud when read.
What's fascinating about Linear B tablets like this one is that, contrary to the hopes of classical scholars before their decipherment, they do not give us epics or high poetic texts: more often than not they are lists, inventories – testaments to a massive and highly efficient bureaucracy which operated out of each of the Mycenaean palaces. And, as such, they testify to a central aspect of Mycenaean civilisation which would otherwise have been entirely lost to us. Written on clay, they were preserved by an accident of fate when the Mycenaean palaces and their cities all across the Greek world succumbed around 1200 BCE to torching and fire – heralding the end of the Mycenaean Greek civilisation, but also, miraculously, preserving these tablets for posterity.