Announcing Another Breakthrough in Linear B since 1952: The Decipherment of Linear B Supersyllabograms: Part A: Prof. Thomas G. Palaima’s Translation of Heidelburg Tablet HE Fl 1994


Since the successful decipherment of Mycenaean Linear B by the genius cryptographer, Michael Ventris, in 1952, some 10 % of Linear B has defied decipherment. Why? That is the very question which has haunted me ever since I began learning Linear B in the winter of 2012. Although I have made enormous strides since then, and have effectively mastered Linear B, and have made significant inroads to learning the Linear C syllabary, in use from ca. 1100- 400 BCE for the Arcado-Cypriot dialect, the closest cousin to Mycenaean Linear B, that remaining 10 % of Linear B as yet undeciphered remained an elusive mystery to me until the spring of 2014, when something altogether unexpected and extraordinary happened.

It was this.   
By early 2014, I had a pretty solid grasp of the syllabary. However, certain elements and aspects of Linear B still mystified me. I encountered considerable difficulty mastering some of the ideograms, especially those which appeared in one and the same series, such as the numerous ones for vessels and military affairs, some of which seemed rather too vague for my taste. Why this vagueness? Were the Mycenaean scribes sloppy in their usage of ideograms? I found that notion extremely hard to swallow.

On the other hand, the fact that some 10 % of the Linear B syllabary had stubbornly resisted decipherment in the 63 years since Michael Ventris had cracked the script left some reason for hope. I was convinced that the key for the eventual decipherment of at least a discrete subset of the remaining 10 % of undeciphered Linear B, if such a thing were ever possible, lay hidden somewhere beneath the surface of that elusive 10 %. The fact that no one in the past 63 years had ever bothered to ask this very question seemed utterly inconceivable to me. Yet I was quite sure that we had all overlooked something absolutely critical to the decipherment of a good chunk of the remaining 10 % of Linear B still apparently out of bounds. I was also persuaded that, however small or large the “missing link” was, it did in fact constitute a discrete logical block of Linear B, itself conditioned by clear “rules”, in other words, by an underpinning logically sound hypothesis that simply had to hold water. But what that hypothesis could possibly be utterly escaped me.      

As an inventorial script for Mycenaean Greek, Linear B demands precision:

If anything, the Linear B scribes at Knossos, Pylos, Phaistos, Mycenae, Thebes and elsewhere surely must have been aiming for precision in their recording of inventories, which I knew by then was the primary reason why they kept records in Linear B in the first place. Yet, in spite of the need for complete accuracy which inventorial accounting demands, most of the tablets which I translated seemed anything but precise. Text in Mycenaean Greek actually written out in full, word by word, was more the exception than the rule. Regardless of provenance, more was left unsaid on the majority of Linear B tablets than was expressly transcribed. How could this possibly be, in light of the absolute prerequisites of accounting systems, ancient or modern: (a) the totally accurate transcription of line items and (b) zero tolerance for errors in calculation? I was stumped.

The tablets were, if anything, even more abstruse and more susceptible to various plausible interpretations, often at odds with one another, than anyone should have realistically expected. Scribes routinely replaced complete words and even phrases in Mycenaean Greek with single logograms and ideograms, and what was still worse, they frequently – indeed all too often — inscribed single syllabograms all by themselves on hundreds and hundreds of tablets, especially in the Scripta Minoa series from Knossos. I failed to grasp why the Linear B accountants could be possibly be so careless – sloppy, if you like – in transcribing their accounts onto the tablets. It simply made no sense to me. Stumped as I was, I let sleeping dogs lie, all the while continually haunted by the commonsense notion that accounting records cannot and must not be inaccurate, and perfectly aware that the Linear B scribes, who were, first and foremost, accountants, would not and could not have committed that cardinal sin.

Something was surely amiss, not in the methodology of their accounting procedures or in the way they transcribed their inventorial accounts onto the tablets, but in our understanding, in other words, in our interpretations of them in the twenty- and twenty-first centuries. Note that I say interpretations, plural, rather than interpretation, singular. But to the Linear B scribes themselves, who all used the same repetitive formulaic accounting language (Linear B), there was only one possible interpretation for each inventorial category (agriculture, industry and crafts, trade, military, religious etc.) What that was we can and shall never precisely know. But we can and we must make a supreme effort to get as close as we possibly can to the actual content the Linear B scribes routinely conveyed to one another with an unerring formulaic consistency in their inventorial tablets, from geographic location to another, Knossos, Phaistos, Pylos, Mycenae etc. In this light, I stress and stress again, the Linear B scribes never intended to compile their inventorial accounts for anyone else but their palace administrations, and at that, for the current fiscal year or “wetos” (running year) only. So it is our responsibility to master as much of their accounting language (Linear B) as we possibly can. Until 2014, the logical substrate or template, if you like, of their accounting system had been lost to us, but that was soon to change. I knew it had to. But I could not figure out how to even begin to take a stab at a workable approach to the irksome dilemma staring me in the face.   
What the proverbial “missing link” was in this mysterious apparent paradox, I could not even begin to guess, until...   

Prof. Thomas G. Palaima’s Translation of Heidelburg Tablet HE Fl 1994:
In the early spring of 2014, as I was rummaging through as many of the major Linear B tablets online that I could lay my hands on, I fortuitously stumbled on the one you see here: Click to ENLARGE 

Linear B Hheidelberg HE fl 1994 Palaima

and to my utter astonishment, I discovered something quite unexpected and very peculiar in its text. And it was this discovery that set me on the scent for the trail that was eventually to lead me straight to the key to the decipherment of that mysterious block of Linear B which had eluded decipherment for the past 62 years.

If you are to benefit fully from my discussion of Prof. Palaima’s article, A Linear B Tablet from Heidelburg (PDF), I strongly urge you to download it from References & notes [1] at the end of this article.

5 Single Syllabograms in a Row!

Since Prof. Thomas G. Palaima has done a superb job of translating this tablet, there is no point in re-translating it. But there is one critical point in Prof. Palaima’s astute translation to which I would like to draw to your undivided attention. It occurs on the fifth line of this tablet, where we find 5 single syllabograms in a row. This struck me as a singular occurrence, in both senses of the word. Why one earth would this scribe – or for that matter – any Linear B scribe – use single syllabograms in a row, rather than spelling out all of the words in Mycenaean Greek on a tablet in Linear B, as we might have expected? Was this not the routine scribal practice – to spell out every word and phrase on every tablet? Until I ran across Heidelburg Tablet HE Fl 1994, that is what I had rather blithely assumed to be the case, in spite of my misgivings to the contrary, even in the face of my own conviction that one should never rely on assumptions, since they were bound to disappoint, sooner or later. Assumptions are, in a word, made to be disproved. And before I knew what had hit me, the assumption I had made that the scribes always wrote out in full all the Mycenaean words in Linear on all of their tablets crumbled in a flash before my eyes. This discovery would eventually prove to have profound implications for the 4,000 + tablets in Linear B at Knossos, Phaistos and elsewhere in Crete and for the 1000 + more from Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes and elsewhere in the Mycenaean Empire outside of Crete itself.

What was going on here? Until I ran across this critical tablet, I had never seen any Linear B tablet containing not just one or two, but several single syllabograms in a row, which if spelled out as word, meant nothing at all. Yet, one glance at the contiguous placement of these 5 syllabograms in a series on Heidelburg Tablet HE Fl 1994 made one thing perfectly clear to me. They did not constitute a single Mycenaean word, but were in fact merely the first syllable of a series of Mycenaean words. But what words? And in what context? At least as far as Thomas G. Palaima was concerned, that context was clear enough. As soon as I saw his translations of these single syllabograms, I agreed with him at once, and I still do... only far more so, and not simply because of their function in the specific context of this tablet in particular, but for reasons generic.   

As we can see from his translation, Prof. Palaima correctly concluded that all of these syllabograms were the first syllable only of the names of 5 Mycenaean cities and settlements, which he was able to rattle off with no effort at all: KO = Konoso, ZA = Zakoro, PA = Parakastro, PU = Puro & MU = Mukene in Linear B (which I have transcribed in full in the illustration above), or as they would appear in English orthography corresponding to their ancient Greek alphabetic names: Knossos, Zakros, Palaikastro, Pulos & Mukenai.

I thought I could let sleeping dogs lie. But I just couldn’t get it out of my head. The dogs awoke over and over, startling me awake in the middle of the night. There dawned on my the sneaky suspicion that in fact there was far more to this apparently stray phenomenon than I could ever have suspected. I simply had to pursue the trail this tablet might put me onto, if any there was. Here was a phenomenon which was much more significant than what it looked like superficially. In fact, I swiftly became convinced that this tablet had handed me the master key I was looking for. Although, as it was soon to turn, it was not the master key, but merely the key to one of the “rooms”,  it was one of the several keys for which I was eventually to find the master key. To say that I was excited by this discovery is an understatement.

And so, by May 2014, I decided to take the next step, which was to prove instrumental in my search for what were then merely syllabograms as the first syllable of 5 Mycenaean toponyms. Although I call the new term by its name in the subject line of this post, I am leaving it undefined in the text of this post, as I do not wish to run ahead of myself. It would just add to confusion for you, my readers. So please be patient.

One thing I can tell you is that by August 2014 I had rummaged through no less than 3,000 of the Scripta Minoa tablets from Knossos. The shock I got from this thorough-going investigation of so many Linear B tablets was to revolutionize my perception of what the Linear B syllabary was all about, as we shall see in the next post, Part B of our Search for our Subject,“ Supersyllabograms” [2], to come online sometime later this month or in early February 2015. 

Each successive part of our investigation into the phenomenon of supersyllabograms will add more and more clarity to their meaning and the immense implications they will prove to have on the whole notion of what Linear B is all about. I cannot yet say how many parts (A,B,C... ). I shall need to lay out the entire Theory and Practical Applications of Supersyllabograms to the Linear B Syllabary, but rest assured that when we come to end of our search, you will know everything you need to know about them, and you will end up as astonished as I was in early 2014, when you too finally come to realize that they, supersyllabograms, are the very key to the decipherment of at least 5 % of the 10 % or so of Linear B which has remained recalcitrant to interpretation in the 63 years since Michael Ventris first cracked the vast majority of the syllabary in June-July 1952.

In effect, what we are proposing is the first major step forward in the further decipherment of Linear B since 1952, a breakthrough which is bound to have a profound impact on our current and future understanding of the script.


[1] Palaima, Thomas G. A Linear B Tablet from Heidelburg (PDF)

Heidelburg Linear B HE FL 1994 PDF link

[2] A point in passing: as it was eventually to turn out, supersyllabograms are never logograms, as I had erroneously assumed when first I posted this tablet with the table of Mycenaean settlements on this blog. But I have left it as is, to illustrate that one’s initial assumptions can often be way off the mark.

[3] The successive Parts (B, C, D...) to this article will all be found under the Category, SUPERSYLLABOGRAMS, third entry in at the top of this page.

© by Richard Vallance Janke 2015 (All Rights Reserved = Tous droits réservés)
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