liquid measure

Linear B

Linear B is a script that was used for writing Mycenaean, an early form of Greek. It predated the Greek alphabet by several centuries and seems to have died out with the fall of Mycenaean civilization. Most of the tablets inscribed in Linear B were found in Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, provides no evidence of the use of writing.

The script appears to be related to Linear A, an undeciphered earlier script used for writing the Minoan language, and the later Cypriot syllabary, which recorded Greek. Linear B consists of around 87 syllabic signs and a large repertory of semantographic signs. These โ€œsignifyingโ€ signs stand for objects or commodities, but do not have phonetic value and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence.

The application of Linear B was confined to administrative contexts. In all the thousands of tablets, a relatively small number of different "hands" have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete). From this fact it could be theorized that the script was used only by some sort of guild of professional scribes who served the central palaces. Once the palaces were destroyed, the script disappeared.

The script

Linear B has roughly 200 signs, divided into syllabic signs with phonetic values and logograms (or ideograms) with semantic values. The representations and naming of these signs has been standardized by a series of international colloquia starting with the first in Paris in 1956. After the third meeting in 1961 at the Wingspread conference center in Racine, Wisconsin, a standard proposed primarily by Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., became known as the Wingspread Convention, which was adopted by a new organization, CIPEM, affiliated in 1970 by the fifth colloquium with UNESCO. Colloquia continue: the 13th is scheduled for 2010 in Paris.

Many of the signs are identical or similar to Linear A signs; however, Linear A, which encoded the unknown Minoan language, remains undeciphered and we cannot be sure that similar signs had similar values.

Syllabic signs

Recognised signs of shape V, CV
-a -e -i -o -u
๐€€ a *08 ๐€ e *38 ๐€‚ i *28 ๐€ƒ o *61 ๐€„ u *10
d- ๐€… da *01 ๐€† de *45 ๐€‡ di *07 ๐€ˆ do *14 ๐€‰ du *51
j- ๐€Š ja *57 ๐€‹ je *46 ๐€ jo *36
k- ๐€ ka *77 ๐€ ke *44 ๐€‘ ki *67 ๐€’ ko *70 ๐€“ ku *81
m- ๐€” ma *80 ๐€• me *13 ๐€– mi *73 ๐€— mo *15 ๐€˜ mu *23
n- ๐€™ na *06 ๐€š ne *24 ๐€› ni *30 ๐€œ no *52 ๐€ nu *55
p- ๐€ž pa *03 ๐€Ÿ pe *72 ๐€  pi *39 ๐€ก po *11 ๐€ข pu *50
q- ๐€ฃ qa *16 ๐€ค qe *78 ๐€ฅ qi *21 ๐€ฆ qo *32
r- ๐€จ ra *60 ๐€ฉ re *27 ๐€ช ri *53 ๐€ซ ro *02 ๐€ฌ ru *26
s- ๐€ญ sa *31 ๐€ฎ se *09 ๐€ฏ si *41 ๐€ฐ so *12 ๐€ฑ su *58
t- ๐€ฒ ta *59 ๐€ณ te *04 ๐€ด ti *37 ๐€ต to *05 ๐€ถ tu *69
w- ๐€ท wa *54 ๐€ธ we *75 ๐€น wi *40 ๐€บ wo *42
z- ๐€ผ za *17 ๐€ฝ ze *74 ๐€ฟ zo *20

Additional Signs
Grapheme ๐ ๐‘ ๐’ ๐€ ๐† ๐Š ๐“ ๐ ๐” ๐… ๐• ๐– ๐‡ ๐— ๐˜ ๐€Ž ๐‹ ๐‰ ๐ƒ ๐ˆ ๐™ ๐š ๐› ๐‚ ๐œ ๐Œ ๐ ๐„ ๐
Transcription *18 *19 *22 a2 pu2 ra3 *34 a3 *47 nwa *49 *56 pte *63 *64 *65 ta2 ro2 dwe ra2 *79 *82 *83 au *86 twe *89 dwo two
Numerical value *18 *19 *22 *25 *29 *33 *34 *43 *47 *48 *49 *56 *62 *63 *64 *65 *66 *68 *71 *76 *79 *82 *83 *75 *86 *87 *89 *90 *91

The signs are approximations: each may be used to represent a variety of distinct combinations of sounds. Linear B does not consistently distinguish between voiced and unvoiced stops (except in the dental series) and between aspirated and unaspirated stops even when these distinctions are phonemic in Mycenaean Greek, though there are exceptions (there is a separate d-series for voiced dentals, and aspiration can be marked by alternatives such as a2).

The j-series represents the semivowel equivalent to English "y", and is used word-initially and as an intervocalic glide after a syllable ending in ฮน (e.g. -a-jo for -ฮฑแฟ–ฮฟฯ‚; a-te-mi-ti-jo for แผˆฯฯ„ฮตฮผฮนฯ„ฮนฮฟฯ‚).

The r-series includes both the /r/ and /l/ phonemes.

The "q"-series is used for the labiovelars resulting from Proto-Indo-European /kสท/, /gสท/, and /gสทสฐ/, the latter being devoiced to /kสทสฐ/ in Proto-Greek.

Of the additional syllabic signs in the second table:

  • Some signs do not follow the simple V/CV typological model, such as au, dwo.
  • Some signs alternate with a 'core' sign, such as a3 and pu2. Their phonetic value may or many not fit the CV model, but the use of a subscript denotes that these are true variants, i.e. the version without the subscript is always an option for the scribe (as opposed to, e.g. dwe, which is not written de2, because it alternates with du-we).

In editions of Mycenaean texts, those signs whose value has not been confirmed by CIPEM are always transcribed as numbers preceded by an asterisk (e.g. *64). CIPEM also allocates the numerical identifiers, and until such allocation, new signs (or obscured or mutilated signs) are transcribed as a bullet-point enclosed in square brackets: [โ€ข].


Linear B also uses a number of logograms, which are informally referred to as ideograms. These ideograms express:

  • The type of object concerned (e.g. a cow, wool, a spear)
  • A unit of measure.

They are typically at the end of a line before a number and appear to signify the object to which the number applies. Many of the values remain unknown or disputed. Some commodities such as cloth and containers are divided into many different categories represented by distinct ideograms. Livestock may be marked with respect to their sex.

The numerical references for the ideograms were originally devised by Ventris and Bennett, divided into functional groups corresponding to the breakdown of Bennett's index. These groups are numbered beginning 100, 110, 120 etc., with some provision of spare numbers for future additions; the official CIPEM numberings used today are based on Ventris and Bennett's numbering, with the provision that three or four letter codes (written in small capitals), based on Latin words that seemed relevant at the time, are used where the meanings are known and agreed. Unicode (as of version 5.0) encodes 123 Linear B ideograms.

The ideograms are symbols, not pictures of the objects in question - e.g. one tablet records a tripod with missing legs, but the ideogram used is of a tripod with three legs. In modern transcriptions of Linear B tablets it is typically convenient to represent an ideogram by its Latin or English name or by an abbreviation of the Latin name. Ventris and Chadwick generally used English; Bennett, Latin. Neither the English nor the Latin can be relied upon as an accurate name of the object; in fact, the identification of some of the more obscure objects is a matter of exegesis.

Glyph Codepoint Bennett CIPEM English
People and Animals
๐‚€ U+10080 100 A- VIR
๐‚ U+10081 102 A- MUL
๐‚‚ U+10082 104 Cn CERV
๐‚ƒ U+10083 105 Ca S- EQU
๐‚„ U+10084 105 Ca EQUf mare
๐‚… U+10085 105 Ca EQUm stallion
๐€ฅ U+10025 106
Bous ergatฤ“s
"Adjunct to ox" (1973)
๐‚† U+10086 106b C- D- OVISf EWE
๐‚‡ U+10087 106a C- D- OVISm RAM
๐’ U+10052 107
๐‚ˆ U+10088 107b C- Mc CAPf SHE-GOAT
๐‚‰ U+10089 107a C- CAPm HE-GOAT
๐‚ U+10042 108
*85 C-
๐‚Š U+1008A 108b C- SUSf SOW
๐‚‹ U+1008B 108a C- SUSm BOAR
๐€˜ U+10018 109
*23 C-
๐‚Œ U+1008C 109b C- BOSf COW
๐‚ U+1008D 109a C- BOSm OX/BULL
Units of Measurement
110 Z
111 V
112 T Dry
113 S Liquid
114 Weight
*21 Weight
*2 Weight
115 P Weight
116 N Weight
117 M
118 L
*72 G- Bunch?
*74 S- Pair
*15 S- Single
*61 Deficit
By Dry Measure
๐‚Ž U+1008E 120 E- F- GRA
๐‚ U+1008F 121 F- HORD
๐‚ U+10090 122 F- U- OLIV
๐‚‘ U+1001B NI
*30 F
๐‚‘ U+1000E *65 FARINA FLOUR
"some kind of grain
๐‚‘ U+10091 123 G- Un AROM
*70 G-
U+1002D SA
*31 G-
*81 G-
*9 G-
*80 G-
124 G- PYC cyperus
๐‚’ U+10092 125 F- CYP cyperus?
126 F- CYP+KU cyperus+ku
๐‚“ U+10093 127 Un KAPO fruit?
๐‚” U+10094 128 G- KANAKO safflower
By liquid measure
By weight
By weight or in units
Counted in units
๐ƒ† U+100DF 200
๐ƒ† U+100E0 201 TRI
๐ƒ† U+100E1 202
๐ƒ† U+100E2 203
๐ƒ† U+100E3 204 Ta
๐ƒ† U+100E4 205 K Tn
๐ƒ† U+100E5 206 HYD
๐ƒ† U+100E6 207 TRIPOD AMPHORA
๐ƒ† U+100E7 208 PAT
๐ƒ† U+100E8 209 AMPH
๐ƒ† U+100E9 210 STIRRIP JAR
๐ƒ† U+100EA 211 WATER BOWL?
๐ƒ† U+100EB 212 SIT
๐ƒ† U+100EC 213 LANX
๐ƒ† U+100C4 220 Ta
๐ƒ† U+100C5 225 ALV
๐ƒ† U+100C6 230 R HAS
๐ƒ‡ U+100C7 231 R SAG
๐ƒˆ U+100C8 232 Ta *232 ?
๐ƒ‰ U+100C9 233 Ra DAGGER
๐ƒ‰ U+100CA 234 GLA
๐ƒŒ U+100CC 240 Sc BIG
๐ƒ U+100CD 241 Sd Se CUR
๐ƒŽ U+100CE 242 Sf Sg CAPS
๐ƒ U+100CF 243 Sa So ROTA



The tablets are classified by the location of their excavation.

  • KN Knossos: ca. 4360 tablets (not counting finds of Linear A).
  • PY Pylos : 1087 tablets.
  • TH Thebes: 99 tablets + 238 published in 2002 (L. Godart and A. Sacconi, 2002; see under Thebes tablets)
  • MY Mycenae: 73 tablets.
  • TI Tiryns: 27 tablets.
  • KH Chania: 4 tablets.
  • another 170 inscriptions in Linear B were found on vessels.

The publication of the Thebes tablets (L. Godart and A. Sacconi, 2002) was long anticipated, and their actual content was rather disappointing compared to what had been hinted at by the editors in the previous years.

If it is genuine, the Kafkania pebble, dated to the 17th century BC, would be the oldest known Mycenean inscription, and hence the earliest preserved testimony of the Greek language.


The main archives for Linear B are associated with these stages of Late Minoan and Helladic pottery:

LM II (1425-1390 BC):

  • Knossos, Room of the Chariot Tablets.

LM IIIA2 (1370-1340 BC) or IIIB (1340-1190 BC):

  • Knossos, main archive.


  • Chania, tablet Sq 1, 6659, KH 3 (possibly Linear B).

LH/LM IIIB1 end:

  • Chania, tablets Ar 3, Gq 5, X 6.
  • Mycenae, tablets from Oil Merchant group of houses.
  • Thebes, Ug tablets and Wu sealings.

LH IIIB2, end:

  • Mycenae, tablets from the Citadel.
  • Tiryns, all tablets.
  • Thebes, Of tablets and new Pelopidou Street deposit.
  • Pylos, all but five tablets.


The Knossos archive was dated by Sir Arthur Evans to the destruction by conflagration at about 1400 BC (which baked and preserved the clay tablets), in the Late Minoan II (LM II) period. Evans made a career of excavating the Knossos site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and creating the concept of Minoan civilization, which he believed was historically accurate.

This view stood until Carl Blegen excavated the site of ancient Pylos in 1939 and uncovered tablets inscribed in Linear B, one of the two scripts discovered at Knossos and named by Evans. Those tablets were fired in the conflagration that destroyed Pylos about 1200 BC, at the end of Late Helladic IIIB (LHIIIB). With the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris in 1952, serious questions about Evans' date began to be considered. Most notably, Blegen said that the inscribed stirrup jars (an oil flask with stirrup-shaped handles) imported from Crete around 1200 were of the same type as those dated by Evans to the destruction of 1400. Blegen found a number of similarities between 1200 BC Pylos and 1400 BC Knossos and suggested the Knossian evidence be reexamined, as he was sure of the 1200 Pylian date.

The examination uncovered a number of difficulties. The Knossos tablets had been found at various locations in the palace and Evans had not kept exact records. Recourse was had to the day books of Evans' assistant, Duncan MacKenzie, who had conducted the day-to-day excavations. There were discrepancies between the notes in the day books and Evans' excavation reports. Worse, the two men had quarreled over the location and strata of the tablets, MacKenzie had called Evans a liar, and Evans had not only sacked him but made sure he did not excavate anywhere else.

The results of the reinvestigation were eventually published in a definitive work:Palmer, L.R.; John Boardman (1963). On the Knossos Tablets. Clarendon Press. It consists of two works, Leonard Palmer's The Find-Places of the Knossos Tablets and John Boardman's The Date of the Knossos Tablets. In this book Palmer plays the role, so to speak, of prosecuting attorney and Boardman of defending attorney; consequently, the dispute was known for a time as "the Palmer-Boardman dispute".

Like questions concerning the veracity of Heinrich Schliemann, the controversy soon escalated beyond the evidence, which set the world of classical scholarship looking for a way to resolve the question once and for all, a still unfulfilled hope. There appeared to be no "smoking gun" of Evans' mendacity; that is, he could in his excavation reports have simply been generalizing to resolve contradictions in the data. Moreover Blegen's arguments depended more on a preponderance of evidence rather than any single incontrovertable proof. No such incontrovertible proof has ever been found.

The real issue is whether sufficient reason exists to question Evans, since there is as much evidence for 1400 as there is for 1200. Without a solid reason to doubt Evans, the community of classical scholars tends to support a date of 1400 by default; that is, LM IIIA:2. As for LH IIIB, it likely begins in the 1310s or 1300s BC, after Mursilis II's sack of Miletus; it ends around 1200 BC.

The colours of the scholars can be identified by the dates they give for the tablets. This article utilizes an outline developed by Cynthia Shelmerdine, who is in the Boardman camp. While stating two possibilities for the main archive of Knossian tablets, she accepts a 1400 date for the Room of the Chariot Tablets. There still might have been two conflagrations and tablet firings, one in 1200 and one in 1400. As an example of a scholar who is in the Palmer camp, seeRutter, Jeremy B. Lesson 25: The Linear B Tablets and Mycenaean Social, Political, and Economic Organization. Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean. (2000). Retrieved on 2008-03-28.. Rutter relies on a similarity of scribal hand between one of the Chania tablets and the Knossos tablets and dates all the tablets from 1350-1300 to 1200 BC.

Nearly every scholar presents their view as the generally accepted view or the one most proved by recent evidence. Regardless of how they may present their perceptions, the issue is very much open and the search for evidence continues.


The major cities and palaces used Linear B for records of disbursements of goods. Wool, sheep, and grain were some common items, often given to groups of religious people and also to groups of "men watching the coastline."

The tablets were kept in groups in baskets on shelves, judging by impressions left in the clay from the weaving of the baskets. When the buildings in which they were housed were destroyed by fires, many of the tablets were then fired.


The first clay tablet at Knossos was discovered by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans on March 31, 1900 and on April 6 he discovered a significant hoard of tablets (measuring 5x10 inches).

The convention for numbering the symbols still in use today was first devised by US Professor Emmett Bennett, who, by 1950, had deciphered the metrical system. He was also an early proponent of the idea that Linear A and B represented different languages.

About the same time, Alice Kober studied Linear B and managed to construct grids, linking symbols that seemed to have a strong grammatical relationship. Kober noticed that a number of Linear B words had common roots and suffixes. This led her to believe that Linear B represented an inflected language, with nouns changing their endings depending on their case. However, some characters in the middle of the words seemed to correspond with neither a root nor a suffix. Because this effect was found in other, known languages, Kober surmised that the odd characters were bridging syllables, with the beginning of the syllable belonging to the root and the end belonging to the suffix. This was a reasonable assumption, since Linear B had far too many characters to be considered alphabetic and far too few characters to be logographic; therefore, each character should represent a syllable.

Using the knowledge that certain characters shared the same beginning or ending sounds, Kober built a table similar to the one above; her untimely death at age 43 in 1950 prevented her from possibly taking the final step or see others do it, namely to link the characters to actual phonetics.

Michael Ventris and John Chadwick performed the bulk of their decipherment of Linear B between 1951 and 1953. At first, Ventris chose his own numbering system, and agreed with Evans' hypothesis that Linear B was not Greek; however he later switched back to Bennett's system.

Based on Kober's work, and after making some inspired assumptions, Ventris was able to deduce the pronunciation of the syllables. To the amazement of Ventris himself, the deciphering of Linear B proved that it was a written form of Greek, in direct contradiction to the general scientific views of the times. Chadwick, an expert in historical Greek, helped Ventris decipher the text and rebuild the vocabulary and grammar of Mycenaean Greek.

Ventris' discovery was of immense significance, because it demonstrated a Greek-speaking Minoan-Mycenaean culture on Crete, and presented Greek in writing some 600 years earlier than what was thought at the time.


Linear B is assigned Unicode range 10000–1007F for syllabograms and 10080–100FF for ideograms.


Further reading

See also

External links

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