BMCR 2023.02.08

Les scribes de Pylos

, Les scribes de Pylos. Biblioteca di Pasiphae, 13. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2021. Pp. 232; 1 plate. ISBN 9788833152837 €450.00 (€225.00 paperback).

The volume under review, Les Scribes de Pylos (hereafter SdP) follows Les Archives du Roi Nestor: Corpus des Inscriptions en Linéaire B de Pylos (hereafter ARN), Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi’s two-volume corpus of the Pylos Linear B administrative documents with photographs, facsimile drawings and transliterations published in 2019–2020, which was reviewed for BMCR by Silvia Ferrara.[1] In SdP, Godart builds and elaborates upon ARN’s rich dataset with his own handmade facsimile drawings of representative sign variants and presents his revised identification and study of the Pylos ‘scribes’, the human agents who produced the inscriptions at the so-called Palace of Nestor, a monumental Late Bronze Age administrative/ ceremonial complex at Epano Englianos (Pylos) in western Messenia.

The identification of Pylian ‘scribes’ was an endeavor initiated by the late Emmett Bennett Jr. (1918–2011), who presented some provisional identifications in the late fifties.[2] Attributions were first laid out systematically in the second volume of Bennett’s and the late Jean-Pierre Olivier’s (1939-2020) edition of the transliterated Pylos documents  (hereafter PTT II).[3] In his doctoral dissertation, written under Bennett’s supervision, Thomas Palaima revised some of these attributions and used them to reconstruct Pylian administrative practice. Palaima’s work, revised and published as The Scribes of Pylos[4] (hereafter SoP), established the scholarly environment within which some of the analytical and methodological tools that we now take (almost) for granted in the study of Linear B documents were shaped: the integration of many criteria (besides sign forms) in identifying ‘scribes’ and an increasing awareness of the importance of the materiality and the archaeological context for the study of these documents as administrative instruments in a dynamic system of information flow and processing.[5]

The last few years have seen a proliferation of parallel editions of the Pylos documents. ARN and SdP must be consulted alongside the three other available sources in which attributions to scribes are provided: the advanced manuscript of the final publication of the tablets as Palace of Nestor volume IV available online (hereafter PN4),[6] and the editions of the transliterated tablets by Olivier and Maurizio Del Freo (hereafter PTT2e),[7] and José Melena with Richard Firth (hereafter PTT3, noting ARN/SdP attributions).[8] Melena’s painstaking work on the Pylos tablets at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, presented (with transliterations, but without the illustrations that were scheduled for the final publication) in detailed preliminary reports in the periodical Minos,[9] constitutes the progressive and in-progress core of all the aforementioned works. SdP draws on work conducted by Bennett, Olivier, Palaima and especially Melena, represented in SoP and PTT3 and still ongoing towards a complete PN4, which should replace the draft currently available.

SdP’s “Concordance Générale” (pp. 191-221) and Anna Judson’s online “Concordance to Pylos scribal attributions”[10] help us assess changes from SoP to SdP, but all figures presented here are based on the reviewer’s personal count from the book’s “Concordance”. SoP attributed 917 out of 987 documents published at that time with varying degrees of classificatory confidence to 26 ‘Hands’, 18 ‘Stylus groups’ and made certain attributions only to one of four palaeographic ‘Classes’. SdP attributes 865 out of the 1076 documents known so far to 38 identified scribes. This difference in numbers is the result of substantial changes of various types in comparison to SoP (see further below). Furthermore, despite the short time lapse between the publication of ARN and SdP, the latter introduces important revisions from ARN: scribe 615 is merged with 614, 633 with 623 (both changes affecting the Qa tablets), 659 is deleted and largely integrated with 634, and three new scribes (664-666) have been added. Proper discussions of each change cannot be accommodated in this review as they would each require a thorough treatment, especially for scribes identified on the basis of restricted material far below the ‘rule-of-thumb’ minimum of 30 signs considered critical in previous studies[11] (e.g., scribes 660-662, 664-666). A model for such future undertakings can be provided by the earlier fruitful debate over the identification of the same scribe at Knossos and Chania.[12]

One of the main departures from previous editions introduced in ARN (and maintained in SdP) is its re-numbering of the Pylian ‘scribes’ (601-691) in place of the PTT II/ SoP numbering (1-45, 91). The authors implemented this new scheme as a way of resolving the difficulty introduced by their identification of additional Pylian scribes (in ARN and SdP numbered 651-666). Within the PTT II/SoP numbering system these additional scribal hands would have to be separated from the original sequence so as not to overlap with the numbering of the ‘scribes’ identified at Mycenae (52-65). That said, the increase of identified scribes in SdP stems from the abolition, as in ARN and PTT2e, of the classificatory levels of Class and Stylus groups.[13] In dealing exclusively with the classificatory level of the ‘scribe’ (corresponding to ‘Hand’ in PTT II/SoP) and focusing on sign-forms (other criteria, such as document type and format, are cited on pp. 15-16 but are not extensively discussed in relation to the attributions), SdP attributions are more straightforward. One essential question, however, is whether Mycenaean epigraphy needs to maintain or suppress the caution and degrees of probability in attribution that Stylus groups and Classes were meant to capture.

The new ARN/SdP attributions have diverse origins. Out of 987 documents considered in both SoP and SdP, the vast majority (773 examples/78.32%) have their attributions renumbered as a result of the aforementioned renumbering of scribes with the dismissal of ‘Stylus groups’ (e.g. PY An 1, attributed to Stylus 1 of Hand 1 in SoP, is attributed to scribe 601 in SdP). Other attributions to Stylus groups or Classes only in SoP are now either attributed to scribes (111 ex./11.25%) or are unattributed (51 ex./4.97%). Especially with regard to the attribution of documents classified only as Stylus groups of specific Classes in SoP (64 ex./6.48%), the abolition of ‘Stylus groups’ produced ‘mass re-classificatory upgrades’, in some cases 1:1. For example, the four Pa tablets (S49-Ciii in SoP) are reclassified as scribe 656 (657 in the “Concordance”), the twelve Sh tablets with label Wa 732 (S733-Cii in SoP) are attributed to scribe 652 (653 in the “Concordance”), and the six nodules of S1331-Ci are designated as the work of scribe 665. It is interesting that alongside the confident identification of former Stylus groups as scribes in SdP, the composition of certain SoP groupings, even when ‘merged’ or reclassified/ relabeled, is entirely or largely maintained, despite the strong criticism against the Styli/Classes system (p. 11, citing Olivier[14]).

SdP leaves unattributed 48 documents classified only within a Class in SoP (48 ex./4.86%), but attributes to a specific scribe only 12 documents (1.22%) that were unattributed in SoP. Compared to SoP, SdP identified a second scribe on five more documents (one of which is Tn 316), raising the number of such collaborative documents in Pylos to 15.

The number of actual re-attributions (i.e., from one SoP ‘Hand’ to another SdP ‘scribe’) is low: we have 32 ex./3.24%, but this figure includes the attribution of the 25 Qa documents previously attributed to S1295-H15 and S1289-H33 from scribes 615 and 633 in ARN to scribes 614 and 623 in SdP. Even so, divergence from SoP is still notable. Certain of the aforementioned changes should generate extensive open discussion (e.g., the identification of two scribes on Tn 316 or the attribution of Jo 438 to the same scribe, 602, as most of the Jn tablets and the Ma taxation records).

The first two of the nine (not numbered[15]) chapters of SdP are concerned with the methodology of the identification of scribes (pp. 13-16, 17-19), commenting upon and revising points made by Bennett, Olivier and Palaima, as well as the previous classification in ARN. The next four chapters: i) list all attributions made in SdP according to scribes and series prefixes (pp. 21-34); ii) present 79 new attributions (pp. 35-42) with some changes/corrections from ARN (affecting e.g. Cn 595, Cn 719, Fr 1230, Un 616, Un 1193, Vn 851); iii) critically examine attributions in PTT2e (pp. 43-49); and iv) list unattributed documents (pp. 51-52).

Aspects of Pylian administrative organization are discussed separately (pp. 53-76), focusing on the distribution of the output of the scribes (but Pascal Darcque’s plan of the Pylos complex, reproduced after p. 189, has no scribes/documents plotted on it), their degree of ‘specialization’ and instances of scribal collaboration, all of which continue discussions in SoP. In the next chapter, focused on the scribes themselves (pp. 77-84), interesting questions are tackled: scribal education, the role of scribes as officials or mere record-keepers, the existence of a hierarchy among scribes, and the question of scribal mobility.

The last chapter (pp. 85-91) argues that the final destruction of the Pylos palace (what the current excavators have termed Horizon B) took place in the earlier part of Late Helladic (LH) IIIB; this proposal radically departs from the view of the excavators (original and current), who have provided evidence for a date in the LH IIIB/IIIC transition, recently revised as a very early phase of LH IIIC.[16] The idea is hardly new and the published arguments of Mervyn Popham, Patrick Thomas, as well as personal communication with Jean-Claude Poursat are cited in support. However, a revision of that kind requires independent detailed consideration of the most reliable (i.e. excluding the extensive preservation of heirlooms and stylistic conservatism) datable evidence, namely ceramic, and, just as importantly, pertinent contextual information from Englianos. Such analysis is not undertaken in SdP and the material discussed (pottery, seals, wall-paintings, ivories) is not illustrated. In this review, comment is reserved for the use of epigraphic evidence, where certain arguments are not as conclusive as purported: the absence of inscribed stirrup jars from Pylos (p. 89) can be rather suggestive of a date later than the LM/LH IIIA2-early IIIB floruit of the traffic of such vessels or simply suggest that SW Peloponnese was not part of this circuit; the attribution of tablets 632 and 635 from the ‘megaron’ to the same scribe 664 as tablet 994 (whose early date is likely, not certain; pp. 90-91) is neutralized if we accept Melena’s argument that the ‘megaron’ tablets are dissociated from the final destruction horizon.[17] As presented, the case for an early IIIB date appears tenuous at best.

The excellent drawings used throughout derive from ARN and call for special praise. Godart is the most experienced and capable specialized facsimile-draughtsman in the field of Aegean Bronze Age epigraphy, having, through the years, drawn by hand almost the entire corpus of this material. His skill is on display throughout this volume. His “tableaux des signes” (charts with drawings of representative variants of the signs as executed by each identified scribe: pp. 93-177) are technically superior to anything hitherto published. This current pinnacle of two-dimensional static illustration should be used alongside the eagerly anticipated enhanced 3D-images and integrated Reflectance Imaging Transformation illustrations for the entire Pylos corpus,[18] heralding a new era in Mycenaean/Aegean epigraphy.

The volume is a handsome production with few typos and errors (e.g., p. 17, n. 41: “Palaima 2008” should be “Palaima 1988”; p.195: the attribution of Eo 278 by Bennett-Palaima is given as S149-H21 instead of S149-H41; p. 215: the figure dash indicating the unattributed Xa 1337 is omitted in the blank “Scribe Godart” cell; the aforementioned divergent scribe numbers between pp. 21-34 and the “Concordance” in pp. 191-221). In terms of presentation, it would have been convenient to list all changes from ARN separately or mark them somehow in the “Concordance”, where ARN has (however justifiably) no separate column.

SdP aims at clarity and precision. On the one hand, this facilitates discussion enormously: agreements, reservations, criticisms as well as open disagreements are presented lucidly, and we are reminded that discussion on Pylian epigraphy must continue as an open – critical but not polemic – dialogue amidst the current polyphony. There is great potential in such a course. On the other hand, SdP gives little ‘shading’ between ‘black’ and ‘white’. This reviewer feels that the various levels of confidence in attributions, palaeographic associations between documents or groupings broader than the ‘scribe’ = single physical individual become indiscernible when any document is either attributed to a ‘scribe’ (about 20 SdP attributions are followed by question-marks, but the nature of the uncertainty is not elaborated) or not attributed at all. Either way, SdP offers an important opportunity to discuss openly many issues of method and interpretation in Mycenaean epigraphy.

A last comment must be made on the publisher’s excessive pricing, which is surprisingly high for a paperback volume without photographs, despite the excellent production and quality reproduction of drawings. This is unfortunate insofar as it might restrict accessibility to a work which, like the similarly priced ARN, must be read and discussed broadly.



[1] L. Godart, A. Sacconi, Les archives du roi Nestor. Corpus des inscriptions en linéaire B de Pylos, Pasiphae. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, see BMCR 2020.12.28.

[2] E.L. Bennett, Jr., “Tentative Identification of the Hands of the Scribes of the Pylos Tablets”. In P. Meriggi (ed.) Atti del 2° Colloquio internazionale di studi minoico-micenei, Pavia, 1-5.IX.1958 [= Athenaeum N.S. 36:4], Pavia 1958, pp. 328-333.

[3] E.L. Bennett, J.-P. Olivier, The Pylos Tablets Transcribed, Part II: Hands, Concordances, Indices, Rome: Edizione dell’Ateneo (1976).

[4] T.G. Palaima, The Scribes of Pylos, Roma: Edizione dell’Ateneo (1988).

[5] E.g., the pioneering 1984 symposium Pylos Comes Alive: Industry + Administration in a Mycenaean Palace, C.W. Shelmerdine, T.G. Palaima, eds., New York: Fordham University; T.G. Palaima, J.C. Wright, “Ins and Outs of the Archives Rooms at Pylos: Form and Function in a Mycenaean Palace,” AJA 89:2 (1985), 251-262.

[6] Uploaded by José Melena in as “DRAFT VERSION, NOT DEFINITIVE” (dated November 2013).

[7] J.-P. Olivier, M. Del Freo, The Pylos Tablets Transcribed, Deuxième edition, Padua: (2020). Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey; see BMCR 2022.12.05.

[8] J.L. Melena, with the collaboration of R.J. Firth, The Pylos Tablets, Third Edition in Transliteration, EHU Press (2021).

[9] A total of 734 joins or quasi-joins (cases of fragments that are argued to belong to the same document but do not join) have been published in nine detailed reports in consecutive Minos volumes between 27-28 (1992-1993) and 37-38 (2002-2003, publ. 2006) and regularly titled “joins and quasi-joins of fragments in the Linear B tablets from Pylos”, in each case preceded by the exact number of them. Full references to these reports are duly given in all aforementioned editions and SdP, pp. 223-224.

[10] (updated June 23, 2022).

[11] J-P. Olivier, Les Scribes de Cnossos: Essai de Classement des Archives d’un Palais Mycénien, Roma: Edizioni dell’Ateneo (1967), p. 40.

[12] J.-P. Olivier, “KN 115=KH 115. Un même scribe à Knossos et à la Canée au MR IIIB: du soupçon à la certitude”, BCH 117 (1993), 19-33, retracted in BCH 120 (1996), 823, following T.G. Palaima, “Ten Reasons Why KH 115 ≠ KN 115”, Minos 27-28 (1992-1993), 261-281.

[13] PTT II, pp. 7-9; SoP, pp. 30-31. Fierce criticism (endorsed in SdP) by J.-P. Olivier, “ΠΥΛΙΑΚΑ ΠΑΡΑΦΕΡΝΑΛΙΑ,” in P. Carlier, C. de Lamberterie, M. Egetmeyer, N. Guilleux, F. Rougemont, J. Zurbach (eds.), Études mycéniennes 2010: Actes du XIIIe colloque international sur les textes égéens, Sèvres, Paris, Nanterre, 20-23 septembre 2010, Pisa-Roma: Fabrizio Serra (2012), 107-121, at pp. 109-111.

[14] Supra n.13.

[15] Chapters are occasionally given Latin numbers in cross-references within the book (pp. 11, 74).

[16] S. Vitale, “The LH IIIB-LH IIIC Transition on the Mycenaean Mainland: Ceramic Phases and Terminology,” Hesperia 75:2 (2006), 177-204, at pp. 190-191; S. Vitale, S.R. Stocker, J.L. Davis, “The Destructions of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos and Its LH IIIA Predecessor as a Methodological Case Study,” in R. Jung and E. Kardamaki (eds.) Synchronizing the Destructions of the Mycenaean Palaces, Mykenische Studien 36, Wien 2022, pp. 121-148; J.L. Davis, S. Stocker, S. Vitale, J. Bennet, H. Brecoulaki, A. Judson, “The date of the final destruction of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos,” forthcoming in J. Bennet, A. Karnava and T. Meißner (eds.), KO-RO-NO-WE-SA. Proceedings of the 15th Mycenological Colloquium, September 2021.

[17] J.L. Melena, “24 joins and quasi-joins of fragments in the Linear B tablets from Pylos,” Minos 35-36 (2000-2001), 357-369, at pp. 366-368.

[18] D. Nakassis, K. Pluta, J. Hruby, “The Pylos Tablets Digital Project: Prehistoric Scripts in the 21st Century,” in C.L. Cooper (ed.), New Approaches to Ancient Material Culture in the Greek and Roman World: 21st-Century Methods and Classical Antiquity, Brill (2021), pp. 161-171.