BMCR 2022.12.05

The Pylos tablets transcribed, second edition

, , The Pylos tablets transcribed, second edition. Padova:, 2020. Pp. xix, 381. ISBN 9788833592053. €34.90.

The Linear B tablets from Pylos, inscribed on clay in the late Bronze Age and accidentally preserved by the burning of ‘Nestor’s’ palace, are of immense importance for our understanding of Bronze Age Greece.[1] Excavated from 1939 to the 1960s, they were published as drawings before the excavations were even completed,[2] and as transcriptions soon afterwards.[3] For nearly half a century corrigenda and addenda accumulated in the scholarly literature, making the corpora harder and harder to use, and then in 2020 a new version of the complete Pylos tablets integrating those corrigenda and addenda appeared at last.

Or rather, in 2020 two new versions appeared, sharing a high percentage of their content and thereby attesting to a collaboration dissolved at an advanced stage. And since they were products of a protracted revision process during which many collaborators came, went, feuded, suffered, and died, both were immediately accused of incorporating others’ work without permission or acknowledgement.[4] Scholars outside the conflict have therefore been unsure which, if either, of the new corpora they may safely use and cite, a sad situation for such important texts. But in this reviewer’s judgement, the volume reviewed here can and should be used freely: the vast majority of its contents comes from published sources correctly acknowledged, and if any of the rest ought to bear more acknowledgement than it does, the oversight is probably neither deliberate nor the fault of anyone now alive. The scholarly community owes a debt of gratitude to everyone involved in the production of this valuable resource, including those whose names do not appear on the title page, as well as sympathy for what they have suffered in the course of giving it to us.

The book under review epitomises its complex history by having title and subtitle in different languages. Although ultimately derived from the original Pylos Tablets Transcribed whose English title it retains, it is also based on substantial quantities of subsequent research in a variety of other languages, and the language of the volume’s framework (introduction, apparatuses, endmatter) is now that of the subtitle, French. The bulk of the contents is of course in transliterated Linear B, as in the first edition, but the changes to those contents are profound, at least as suggested by collation of a sample of text, the Jn series.[5] Most significant are the joins between different fragments: the 20 tablets that make up the Jn series in this edition have been reconstructed from 34 pieces with excavation numbers (only 29 of which were part of the Jn series in the original Pylos Tablets Transcribed; the others were put into different sections of that edition), plus more than 100 unnumbered fragments. Of course, most of these joins are not new; they have been made and published in the intervening decades. Nevertheless it is an enormous improvement to have them all incorporated into a single up-to-date corpus.

Joins are not the only changes since the original edition; some previously unintelligible material has been read, and some readings and supplements have changed. As a result, it is rare for a tablet to have exactly the same text here as in the original Pylos Tablets Transcribed, even if it is unaffected by the joins. The Jn series contains nine such unaffected tablets (most of which were already intact or close to intact in the first edition), only two of which present exactly the same text in both editions. Most changes to the other seven are minor, involving the addition or subtraction of sublinear dots indicating uncertain readings, but six tablets also have more substantial alterations: three tablets in which signs and/or numerals have changed, in one of which a supplement has also changed; one in which an erased entry, previously unread, has now been read; and two in which the original writer’s punctuation has changed. In the Jn tablets, therefore, 75% of the texts in this edition have substantive changes from the previous edition (i.e., changes that go beyond punctuation and the addition/subtraction of dots) and only 10% are exactly the same. It follows that the original edition is no longer usable: any text found in it has a significant likelihood of not representing current thinking.

This corpus’ main competition, however, is not the original edition but the other new Pylos corpus, edited by Godart and Sacconi.[6] The main difference between the two corpora is that while this one provides only transcriptions and is very affordable, Godart and Sacconi also include photographs and drawings in two lavish volumes priced at nearly €1,000. The transcriptions are nearly identical in the two versions; for example in the Jn tablets[7] all joins are exactly the same in both new corpora, as are most of the other changes. Thirteen of the twenty Jn tablets present identical texts, and four differ only in punctuation or in the addition/subtraction of sublinear dots. The others are Jn 658.11, where this edition has the numeral 1 and Godart and Sacconi the numeral 3; Jn 410.5, where a sign is absent from this edition and read (dotted) by Godart and Sacconi; and Jn 832.6, where two signs left undeciphered in this edition have been read (dotted) by Godart and Sacconi. In general the differences between the two new corpora concern points on which scholars might reasonably disagree, though on the basis of the photographs in Godart and Sacconi I would often (not always) be inclined to prefer the readings there. Therefore this corpus effectively duplicates the most useful part of Godart and Sacconi’s corpus and makes it available for a tiny fraction of the price.

In addition to transcribing the text, each entry in this corpus also identifies the tablet’s scribe, precise find spot at Pylos, and dimensions, as well as providing a brief apparatus indicating palaeographic features (stray marks, over-writing, erasures, etc.), references to significant editions since the original Pylos Tablets Transcribed, and some notes on disputed readings (though many such readings are not flagged in the apparatus). In the first edition this type of information was separated from the texts themselves and given in a set of notes following the texts of each series; moving it next to the texts makes it harder to overlook but also results in a more cluttered and intimidating presentation. The information provided is usually identical to that given in Godart and Sacconi’s corpus (which also locates it next to the texts), and the French wording is usually identical as well. One notable difference, however, is the numbers used to identify the scribes of individual tablets: this edition uses the conventional numeration, starting with 1, while Godart and Sacconi use a new set of numbers, starting with 601. Some tablets are also attributed to different scribes in the two editions.

In addition to c. 300 pages of transcriptions, this corpus also includes c. 100 pages of other material, which is more distinct from that in Godart and Sacconi. After the transcriptions, a 50-page concordance in tabular form lists the tablets in numerical order (the main text is ordered by letters indicating series, as usual for Pylos) with basic data including joins, scribe, find spot(s), and respects in which those data are here different from their presentation in selected earlier scholarship—but not, of course, specifying differences from Godart and Sacconi. A list of joins and reclassifications of tablets since the first edition follows; as this information is also given in the concordance, the purpose of the separate list must be mainly to credit the people who made those joins, who are here identified. Then there is a list of tablets by series, with the scribes who contributed to each series. Next comes a list of scribes with the tablets attributed to each, plans of the Pylos palace indicating the find spots, and charts of the primary form taken by each syllabogram and ideogram at Pylos.

The volume begins with a brief introduction focussing on how to use the corpus; this explains what information appears where, where that information comes from, what the relationship to the first edition is, and all the brackets, symbols, and conventions used in the transcriptions and notes. The explanations of these matters are thorough and well organised, making the corpus accessible even to those with no previous experience of reading transcriptions of documentary texts, but there is no introduction to the tablets themselves, their significance, or the types of information they contain. Godart and Sacconi provide a longer and more detailed introduction, but that is not unproblematic either: it presents some idiosyncratic views, particularly in redating the tablets.[8]

Many kinds of information are not provided in this corpus. There are no translations, commentaries, or references to works that provide those or to studies of the tablets. The ruthlessly concise bibliography (restricted almost entirely to first editions and publications of joins) omits dictionaries and grammars of Mycenaean Greek, as well as nearly all the key works on what the tablets actually say.[9] Some readers will probably regret the inclusion of so much information on scribes and find spots at the expense of (at least references to discussions of) meaning, but others will no doubt prefer the kind of information that is here – and in any case readers have no choice, since Godart and Sacconi make largely the same decisions about which information to include.

Overall, this work is of tremendous benefit to Linear B scholars, providing accurate transcriptions that supersede earlier editions. Although not always exactly the same as those in Godart and Sacconi’s edition, the texts in this one are definitely good enough to work with and represent an enormous improvement over the first edition of Pylos Tablets Transcribed.



[1] I am not associated with any parties to the controversy described herein and was unaware of it when offering to do this review. Aiming at a balanced understanding, I then contacted individuals on both sides and am grateful both to them and to everyone else who took time to explain matters to me.

[2] E. L. Bennett (1955) The Pylos Tablets: texts of the inscriptions found 19391954 (Princeton).

[3] E. L. Bennett and J.-P. Olivier (1973–6) The Pylos Tablets Transcribed (Rome).

[4] See e.g. J. L. Melena and R. J. Firth (2021), The Pylos Tablets (Veleia series maior 14), pp. xi–xii. A reply to these accusations is expected from M. Del Freo in a piece entitled “Rapport 2016–2021 sur les textes en écriture hiéroglyphique crétoise, en linéaire A et en linéaire B”, to appear in Ko-ro-no-we-sa: Proceedings of the 15th Colloquium on Aegean Studies (Athens 2021). The corpus not under review here has faced additional challenges to its authors’ right to publish those materials, but those challenges do not pertain to this corpus. For further background see P. Carlier et al. (2012) Études Mycéniennes 2010: Actes du XIIIe colloque international sur les textes Égéens (Pisa), especially pp. 79–106 (L. Godart, ‘Du nouveau à l’horizon du linéaire B’) and 107–21 (J.-P. Olivier, ‘Πυλιακὰ Παραφερνάλια’).

[5] The Jn tablet series consists of about 300 lines of text and occupies pp. 159–71 of this edition and pp. 164–82 of the original edition.

[6] L. Godart and A. Sacconi (2019–20) Les Archives du roi Nestor: corpus des inscriptions en linéaire B de Pylos (Pisa/Rome). Reviewed in BMCR 2020.12.28. Another possible competitor is Melena and Firth’s 2021 edition (see n. 4 above); owing to space limits that cannot be compared in detail here, but readers without French may wish to note that it is in English.

[7] In vol. 2 pp. 10–35 of Godart and Sacconi.

[8] See J. Weilhartner’s review (2020), Archaeologia Austriaca 104: 328–32.

[9] E.g. F. Aura Jorro (1985–93) Diccionario micenico (Madrid); A. Bartoněk (2003) Handbuch des mykenischen Griechisch (Heidelberg); Y. Duhoux and A. Morpurgo Davies (eds) (2008–14) A Companion to Linear B: Mycenaean texts and their world (Louvain).