Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.45

Barbara A. Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos.   New York; London:  Routledge, 2014.  Pp. viii, 380.  ISBN 9780415725156.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by Dimitri Nakassis, University of Toronto (


Linear B tablets, sometimes derided as mere laundry lists, are in fact a rich source for economic and social history. Although the latter has often been overshadowed by the former, in fact the most commonly attested words in Mycenaean Greek are personal names. The tablets thus include a wealth of information about the relationships of individuals and groups to the palatial authority. In this much-awaited book based on her 2004 dissertation, Olsen has done us a great favor by synthesizing the evidence for some 2000 women, for a comprehensive study of the role of women in the Mycenaean world has long been a lacuna in the scholarly literature.

Olsen’s study falls into eight parts. An introductory chapter sets the stage and outlines the objectives of the book: to locate Mycenaean women, understand why they appear in the tablets, and assess the role that gender played in the polities of Pylos and Knossos, specifically addressing the question “is the treatment of women in the economic records from Pylos and Knossos the same?” (16). The second chapter lays out criteria for identifying women in the tablets and sketches the contexts in which women appear in the tablets. Evidence for low-status female workers at Pylos are treated in detail in Chapter Three. Olsen sorts the evidence by professional designation and location, and reviews the thorny issue of the status of these women, concluding that they were probably slaves. Chapter Four reviews the evidence for women as holders of property at Pylos. In some cases the women are allocated material in the texts, while in other cases they are involved in operations that suggest their control over goods and labor. Olsen shows that nearly all of the women who appear in these texts are probably or certainly religious officials and reasonably concludes that at Pylos, “only the institution of religion could trump gender” (154).

From Pylos, Olsen moves to Knossos. The production and property of Knossian women is the subject of Chapter Five. As with the Pylian data, Olsen moves systematically and in detail through the various groups of workers, and shows that in contrast to Pylos, all of the female producers at Knossos whose duties are identifiable concern themselves with textiles. She argues that, in contrast to the Pylian workers, Knossian women were largely corvée laborers. With respect to higher-status women, again the Knossian pattern seems different from the Pylian one: there is no evidence that religion plays an important role in regulating women’s access to economic activity monitored by the palace, as it does at Pylos.

Two more chapters compare the situations of the women at Pylos and Knossos: first in respect to land tenure (Chapter Six) and then in respect to religious office (Chapter Seven). The first of these chapters shows that at Pylos, women have severely restricted access to land. Although the Knossian evidence is extremely sparse, Olsen nevertheless argues that the land-holding system there was “significantly less circumscribed along gender lines” (227). Chapter Seven demonstrates clear differences between the two polities: at Pylos, religion lent authority to women and did not significantly differentiate between male and female officials, whereas at Knossos, religion has a negligible effect on gender hierarchies.

Olsen’s chief conclusions are two: first, that there are significant and qualitative differences between the statuses of women in Linear B texts at Pylos and those at Knossos, both when it comes to low-status workers and higher-status officials. There was no single Mycenaean system of gender. Second, Olsen suggests that regional variation can be attributed to cultural and historical differences. Specifically, she argues that the Knossian evidence may shed light on previous “Minoan” gender regimes, in contrast to the mainland “Mycenaean” pattern evidenced at Pylos.

Olsen’s first conclusion is convincing: she shows forcefully how different the gender regimes at Pylos and Knossos are. Especially important is her demonstration that most women at Pylos appearing in prominent roles are religious officials, whereas at Knossos religion seems not to have been a significant factor in this respect. Olsen’s work is therefore a salutary reminder of the heterogeneity of the Mycenaean world, a heterogeneity that is often concealed by the Pylocentric view of most work on Mycenaean society, including my own. I am somewhat less convinced by the second conclusion, for two reasons. First, Olsen speaks of “mainland institutions” (259) structuring gender but does so by conflating Pylos with the Greek mainland. In fact we have no idea whether gender structures at Pylos were comparable to those at other mainland centers like Mycenae or Thebes. Second, Olsen assumes the traditional narrative of “Mycenaean” mainlanders invading and occupying “Minoan” Knossos, such that it is possible for her to conclude that mainland gender structures had not penetrated very deeply into Knossian society, yet this is now a controversial position. Many now prefer to understand the “Mycenaeanization” of Crete in terms of local changes to Knossian elite identities rather than through the traditional cultural-historical narrative of intrusive mainlanders.1

Returning to the first conclusion: there are some problems with Olsen’s interpretations of individual tablets and Mycenaean terminology that affect the validity of her conclusion as stated in its strongest form. For instance, Olsen concludes that Pylian women did not own private land whereas Knossian women did (257). The first claim is based on the observation that plots of land designated as ki-ti-me-na at Pylos are never said to be “from” (pa-ro) a woman. What ki-ti-me-na means is controversial and uncertain, however. Olsen follows Ventris and Chadwick’s suggestion from the first edition of Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956) that ki-ti-me-na plots are privately held, in contrast to communal ke-ke-me-na plots associated with the dāmos. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, however, research into these documents demonstrated that both terms referred to land associated with the dāmos.2 Unfortunately this literature does not appear in Olsen’s discussion or bibliography. The second claim, that non-sacerdotal “Knossian women were attested to as owning their own land” (257), is based on two words, both hapax, recorded against plots of land in the Uf series: pe-ri-je-ja and ]ka-wi-ja. Olsen interprets both as certainly feminine personal names on purely formal grounds (unfortunately these tablets are extremely lacunose and fragmentary, so that contextual grounds are simply absent). While the former is probably the name of a woman (although it has also been interpreted as a man’s name), the latter may not be a personal name at all; furthermore, if it is a personal name, it is more likely to be not feminine but masculine: Kalwiās (cf. Καλλίας).3 We are thus left with a single probable example of a Knossian woman holding land, but there is no reason to believe that she actually owns the land. Other claims about the economic power of Knossian women are also on shaky ground.4

It also seems to me that the evidence for women in positions of economic prominence at Pylos is downplayed. Olsen concludes that at Pylos religion was “the sole locus where ideologies of economic restriction and subordination were superseded” (255, emphasis mine) and that all female laborers recorded at Pylos belong to collective workgroups (254). Both claims are debatable. With respect to the first claim, there is the example of a Pylian woman who, although she is never identified as a religious official, controls significant holdings. This woman, named Kessandrā (ke-sa-da-ra), is allocated extremely large quantities of grain and figs in two texts, presumably in her capacity, attested in a third text, as a labor supervisor of high standing.5 With respect to the second claim, there is the evidence of PY Ub 1318, a tablet normally interpreted as a record of allocations of hides to named leather-workers, male and female, who are tasked with producing finished leather goods. 6 Thus, although Olsen is correct to point to the differences between women at Pylos and at Knossos, Linear B specialists will find much to disagree with in the details of her argumentation.

In conclusion, this book is a valuable examination of an important and understudied issue. Although rich in technical detail, its topic and argument will doubtless appeal to a broad audience of Aegean prehistorians and ancient historians. The project is an important one, and Olsen does an good job pulling together all of the textual evidence, demonstrating how differently Pylian and Knossian women appear in the Linear B tablets, and relating these differences to social practices. We need more studies like these: studies that use the rich Mycenaean textual evidence to contribute to broader debates in Greek history and prehistory.


1.   See, e.g., Jan Driessen and Charlotte Longohr, “Rallying around a Minoan Past. The Legitimation of Power at Knossos during the Late Bronze Age,” in M.L. Galaty and W.A. Parkinson (eds), Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces: New Interpretations of an Old Idea (Los Angeles 2007), 178-189.
2.   Especially J.T. Killen, “The Rôle of the State in Wheat and Olive Production in Mycenaean Crete,” Aevum 72 (1998), 19-23. The complex history of this issue is summarized in S. Lupack, The Role of the Religious Sector in the Economy of Late Bronze Age Mycenaean Greece (Oxford 2008), 57-85.
3.   F. Aura Jorro, Diccionario Micénico (1985, 1993) s.vv. ]ka-wi-ja, pe-ri-je-ja. Olsen (correctly) does not include ]ka-wi-ja in her list of Knossian names identifiable as female by form (Table 2.4, p. 41). Possibly ]ka-wi-ja is actually a toponym, since the Uf tablets written by Hand “124” normally list a toponym immediately prior to the DA ideogram; one possible supplementation would be a-]ka-wi-ja (cf. a-ka-wi-ja-de, KN C 914.B). I owe this observation to Michael Lane.
4.   Olsen claims that Knossian women “were also attested as having massive amounts of food-stuffs, slaves, raw and finished textile products, and luxury goods such as gold and bronze vessels” (257), yet I cannot find any textual evidence that slaves and luxury goods are controlled by women at Knossos. Olsen’s useful table 2.8 (53-54), entitled “Women’s holdings at Knossos,” records “slave woman” for KN Ga 713 (now re-classified as KN Gg 713), but the slave is the woman herself, and she seems to belong to *ma-ri-ne-u, which is either the name of a male deity or of a man. I can find no evidence for women holding luxury goods in the Knossos tablets, unless reference is again meant for KN Gg 713, but this text records an amphora of honey; the material from which the amphora is made is however unspecified. It is true that a large quantity of foodstuffs are allocated to women at Knossos (in a single text, KN E 777), but in this case the allocation represents monthly rations to a group of women.
5.   Olsen discusses ke-sa-da-ra (149-150) and cites my own discussion of this woman (D. Nakassis, “Labor Mobilization in Mycenaean Pylos,” in Étudies mycéniennes 2010. Actes du XIIIe colloque international sur les textes égéens (Biblioteca di Pasiphae 10), ed. P. Carlier, C. De Lamberterie, M. Egetmeyer, N. Guilleux, F. Rougemont and J. Zurbach [Pisa-Rome 2012] 269-283), where I suggest that she belonged to a group of high-ranking administrators. Olsen on the other hand suggests that she was “a local rations supervisor,” which seems to me to underestimate severely her administrative importance, considering that she commands quantities of grain comparable to high-ranking administrators like qa-ra2.
6.   See, e.g., A. Bernabé and E.R. Luján, “Mycenaean Technology,” in A Companion to Linear B: Mycenaean Greek Texts and their World. Volume I, ed. Y. Duhoux and A. Morpurgo Davies (Louvain-la-Neuve 2008), 201-233. Olsen’s discussion of this tablet (150-153) is heterodox and a little confusing; she seems to think, for reasons that are unclear to me, that the women are not producers but recipients of leather goods being prepared for them.

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