A KEY TO THE MINOAN ECONOMY? An emphatic YES. 21,904 sheep in one place? Guess where…

A KEY TO THE MINOAN ECONOMY? An emphatic YES. 21,904 sheep in one place? Guess where... (Click to ENLARGE):

Knossos KN 162a D b

Knossos, of course! I have a number of relevant comments to make on this fascinating numeric tablet, which is is typical of the scads of numeric tablets the Minoan scribes (mostly at Knossos) produced for inventory, just as they did with pretty much every other agricultural animals or crops, or economic merchandise or trade in general. One of my comments in particular [2 infra] turns on the possibility, if not probability, that the word in question may even be Minoan! 

Following the NOTES in the illustration above, we notice that:

[1] the numbers to the left of the generic ideogram for sheep seem to be meaningless, for lack of context, the usual bugbear that plagues so many Linear B tablets. What these numbers, which seem quite haphazard, refer to is anyone’s guess, but I prefer to think of them as mere practice scribblings. On the other hand, they may refer to the ideogram [3] below. See infra.    

[2] This is undoubtedly the ideogram for “month”. The problem is, what does the supersyllabogram RE immediately preceding it refer to, if not the name of the month itself? And that is just what I take it to mean. The difficulty we are now faced with, what is the name of the month which begins with the first syllable, the syllabogram RE? We cannot assume it is a Classical Greek name for any month, because in the Minoan & Mycenaean era (ca. 1900 BCE – 1200 BCE), Classical Greek month names did not exist. So either the month name referred to here beginning with the supersyllabogram RE is a Mycenaean Greek month name or even a Minoan month name, for the simple reason that the Minoan scribes writing in Mycenaean Greek sometimes very likely transposed (i.e. used) Minoan names for islands, municipalities, names of people, names of the seasons and months etc. This practice, if indeed it was their practice, may very well serve to provide a definite clue to the categories of Minoan vocabulary I refer to above, and then some. It is an approach to the partial decipherment of Linear A we need to take seriously. The problem with supersyllabograms such as RE is that they are only the first syllable of any word they represent, and are thus incapable of revealing what the word behind the supersyllabogram in question refers to, unless we already know the language the supersyllabogram is used for. If the language is Mycenaean Greek in Linear B, then we stand a (usually remote) chance of deciphering the word, but if the word is Minoan, and – I must strongly emphasize this – a Minoan month name written, not in Linear A, but in Linear B (since this is after all a Linear B tablet) we stand no chance whatsoever of deciphering the month name, at least for the present. 
[3] This ideogram looks remarkably like the ideogram for “honey”, but wait! Hold on now! Does that make any sense at all in the context of this tablet, which otherwise and principally provides meaningful statistics on sheep, and nothing else? So it appears that suggesting this is the ideogram for “honey” may be stretching the limits of credibility, especially in light of the fact that the numbers to the left of the generic ideogram for “sheep” appear haphazard at best, hence, probably meaningless, except as (practice) doodles. There is simply no way of knowing.   

[4] The scribe appears to have effaced the lower half of this 1K (1,000), but I prefer to assume that he did so in error. If not, then the total number of sheep would be 21,804 rather than 21,904, as if that makes much of a difference! It is still a helluva lot of sheep. 

[5] This modified ideogram for “person”, in which the person appears to be holding a spear or something of that ilk, poses a few problems, none of them insurmountable, and any of which may be valid in the context of this tablet. First of all, why would a person hanging around sheep bear a spear, except to chase off predators such as wolves? If we assume that this modified ideogram actually means “shepherd”, then the problem almost resolves itself. Almost. The difficulty now is, what is the shepherd holding? It certainly could still be a spear, but shepherds usually hold staffs, and so that it what I take it to mean for this modified ideogram, unless... this is the signature of the scribe, which is an entirely plausible alternative. So this ideogram could mean 1 of 3 things. Take your pick.

Last, but far from least, we are still left with two nagging questions. How is it possible that this tablet, in combination with the 5 tablets on rams from Knossos, all 6 of them, can yield a mind-boggling total of over 45,000 sheep?  Was the even countryside around Knossos capable of sustaining such an immense number of livestock, let alone only sheep, not counting bulls & cows, horses etc. etc.? What is going on here? Have our assiduous scribes gone overboard?  The answer is simply, no. The second part of our question must reference the time, i.e. the year, season or month each and every one of these tablets was composed. This is no idle matter for speculation. The tablet in this post seems to refer only to the month RE, though only on the left side of the ideogram for sheep, leaving us with the question whether the rest of the tablet dealing only with sheep to the right of the ideogram for sheep, refers to the same time period, i.e. on month, that month being RE. It could go either way. But once again, we shall never know.

It simply strikes me as a little odd, in fact bordering on the ridiculous, that there would be 45,000 sheep around Knossos all at once! However, the explanation for this oddity follows. Once we clear that up, we can then conclude, within reasonable parameters, that there more than likely were never as many as 45,000 sheep wandering around, stinking up the countryside, and posing an awful environmental hazard to the city of Knossos. Otherwise, the city, as prosperous and as clean as the Minoans were, would never have survived more a few years. But ostensibly it did. I have addressed this issue before in posts where I refer to the strong likelihood that the Minoans, being the advanced civilization they were, were not only plainly familiar with the basic principles of hydrology and plumbing (which they most certainly were), but equally with the principles and practice of crop rotation and even rotation of animals in husbandry. If we allow for this scenario, then there would more likely than not, be far fewer than 45,000 sheep hanging around Knossos in any given running or fiscal year, though how many there would be we can never know... except that, given the fact that almost all sheep-related tablets from Knossos itself rarely inventory fewer than 5,000 sheep on any one tablet. So we can at least speculate an annual figure of some 5,000-10,000 sheep, if nothing else.      
And who is to say this tablet, and any or all of the remaining tablets, were inscribed in the same year? Again, no idle question, for two inescapable reasons.

[1] The Minoan scribes kept annual statistics for absolutely anything and everything they inventoried, and erased the very same tablets on which these annual statistics were inscribed, and replaced the whole shebang with the new statistics for the next fiscal year for the same inventories of whatever they were recording (sheep, rams, ewes, cows, bulls, horses, chariots, armour, vessels and vases of all kinds, cloth, jewelry, you name it, the list goes on and on and on). In other words, putting it in a nutshell, there is simply no way of determining whether any or all of these 6 tablets in this and the previous post originate from the same “wetos” or “running year” = fiscal year, as the Minoan scribes so aptly called each inventory year.

[2] Add on top of this scenario the fact that all 4,000 or so of the tablets at Knossos were unearthed from the rubble of either a massive earthquake or the destruction of the city by invasion (the place is scarred with burns), or both, how can anyone be sure that any fragments laying side-by-side in the messy rubble on any aspect of Minoan life whatsoever, are from the same year, let alone the same category of inventory shelves on which they were almost certainly stored according to some classification system making it easy for the scribes to retrieve any tablet on any aspect of the Minoan agri-economy for any given running year, i.e. fiscal year? Once again we are at an impasse, up against a solid (or if you like, crumbling) brick wall.  The likelihood that there is a strong relationship, some sort of relationship, or little relationship at all between one tablet and the next lying beside aside in the rubble that Sir Arthur Evans and company had to all too meticulously and cautiously rummage through remains an open question at best. True enough, as I have myself discovered in certain sequential ranges of tablets and fragments in Scripta Minoa, there are several instances in which the tablets in a particular entirely intact series, say speculatively, KN 1610 – KN 1654, for the sake of argument, all deal with the very same aspect of the Minoan agri-economy, for instance, sheep, rams and ewes, but even when they do, there is still absolutely no guarantee that any of these intact sequences all deal with the same running or fiscal year. And all too many adjacent tablets are not directly related. So we are left with the same enigma we were confronted with in the first place.