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How old are the earliest Mycenaean tablets? Absolute and Relative Chronology of the Linear B Tablet Deposits of the Room of the Chariot Tablets (RCT) and the North Entrance Passage (NEP) at Knossos

Rachele Pierini

University of Bologna

The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, it aims at briefly retracing the steps having led to recognise RCT and NEP as the earliest Linear B tablet deposits, focusing especially on the methodology applied to reach such a conclusion. Second, linguistic considerations will be added to further corroborate their earliest date and their strong link with inscriptions written in the yet undeciphered Linear A script.

Most of our knowledge of the Bronze Age Aegean comes from studying texts written in the Linear B syllabary. Of the two Bronze Age ‘linear’ writing systems, namely Linear A and Linear B, Linear B is the only one to have been deciphered and records the earliest form of the Greek language known to us (Mycenaean). Instead, the language behind Linear A (Minoan) is still poorly understood. From a palaeographical point of view, these are standardly understood to be derivative from one another, with Linear A having acted as template for Linear B. However, it has been recently argued that a ‘soft’ process of script adaptation is likely to have taken place on the north coast of Crete, as Linear A from this area shows the closest similarity to the earliest known evidence of Linear B (Salgarella 2018). Therefore, deepening our knowledge of these earliest Mycenaean inscriptions from Crete and defining their date becomes crucial.

Located on Crete by the Kephala Hill, the Palace of Minos at Knossos is one of the most renowned archaeological sites in the world, home to the mythical Labyrinth inhabited by the Minotaur. ‘Labyrinthine’ may be said to have been the task of identifying the find-spots of Linear B inscriptions at Knossos and dating them, primarily because of the unsystematic and contradictory nature of the primary sources (recently Del Freo 2016). With respect to the former question, one now relies on two robustly argued, precise, and up-to-date works (Firth 1996-1997; 2000-2001). As regards the latter issue, after a first classification attempt (Palmer-Boardmann 1963), a thorough palaeographical study (Olivier 1967) took the subject a step forward and, in addition, singled out two particular Linear B tablet deposits for their idiosyncratic features, namely RCT and NEP. Further in-depth palaeographical analyses, along with probative archaeological, epigraphical, and pinacological evidence powerfully demonstrated that RCT and NEP not only fail to show any link with other Knossos deposits (albeit with some caveat: Driessen 1999, Salgarella 2018), but also that the former is the earliest Linear B archive on Crete (possibly earlier than Mainland archives as well), and the latter is slightly later in date than the RCT but earlier than all other Knossos deposits (Driessen 1990; 1999; 2000). Recently, the phylogenetic systematics method, commonly used in biology to trace the evolutionary path of organisms, has been applied to Mycenaean palaeography and has corroborated the isolation of RCT and NEP (Firth-Skelton 2016). Follow-up inquires have added further weight to the hypothesis that especially tablets from the RCT are the closest in shape and physical characteristics to the Linear A documents (Tomas 2017). If in terms of relative chronology RCT is currently datable to Late Minoan II-IIIA1 and NEP to Late Minoan IIIA2, what is yet difficult to establish is the absolute chronology of the Bronze Age Aegean (Karnava 2005).

A research field that provides further data to better clarify the chronology of the earliest Linear B tablets is linguistics. The chronological gap between Knossos tablet deposits has rarely been taken into due account. However, by looking at the data in their diachronic development, features taken as idiosyncratic have been recently proved to be older, e.g. the use of the syllabogram a2 (Pierini 2014; Nosch forth.) and the ending -Xo, instead of the expected -Xo-jo, in the o-stem genitive singular (Pierini 2018). Drawing on this, further considerations may ensue regarding the chronology of these linguistic phenomena.

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Inscriptions and Dates

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