In the footsteps of the people of Minos

Published on August 23, 2017

This summer, we meet some of UCL’s human sciences PhD students.

Ophélie Mouthuy, a PhD student in archaeology, is in Crete working on two excavation sites: at Sissi with the Belgian School of Athens and at Anavlochos with the French School of Athens. She spoke to us from Crete about her thesis, for which she is studying one of the largest collections of Knossos Palace Linear B tablets.

A Linear B tablet.

Tell us about your thesis.

My research focuses on the end of the Cretan Bronze Age, which was the pivotal period that followed the destruction of the Minoan palaces and that preceded Cretan Iron Age society. During this period, between 1450 and 1350 BC, the public administration, based in the Knossos Palace, changed its writing system. Instead of Linear A, an undeciphered script that doubtlessly reflected the Cretan language, accountants started using Linear B, a syllabic script that reflected a relatively primitive form of Greek called Mycenaean.

This change has been interpreted as evidence of Mycenaean occupation of Crete from the continent. Mycenaeans would have established a new hierarchical political system. To maintain control over their territories, they would have created a bureaucracy capable of tracking from its base in the palace revenue and imported and exported goods, using a writing system, Linear B, invented in theory by the continental Mycenaean chancellery.

This is where the tablets come in…

The only evidence we have of Linear B is written in clay, mainly tablets. Palace scribes would have systematically recorded accounting transactions on unfired clay tablets, before reporting the final balance sheet, at the end of every administrative cycle, on finer but more perishable materials. So the clay tablets were intended to be destroyed at the end of each administrative cycle. They were preserved by getting fired when the palaces burnt down.

What do the tablets tell us?

The tablets are a crucial, albeit incomplete, primary source for understanding the implementation and functioning of Cretan palatial administration.

Studying the tablets allows us to document many aspects of Cretan society that have been poorly or not at all illuminated by archaeological sources: religious life, names of gods and organisation of worship, political geography and territory administered by the palace, social and political structure, the palace’s role in the economy, etc.

Dating the tablets is crucial to determining the period of history they record. Establishing their chronology would help improve our understanding of the development of the Cretan administrative system during its 200-year existence.

Tablet data will be just as fundamental to the widely debated understanding of the architectural phases of the buildings and frescoes, and the evolution of funeral practices or rituals.

Their chronology isn’t established?

The tablets’ exact chronology is problematic. In the 1990s, a multidisciplinary study of a palace tablet storeroom (the Room of Char tablets) led to the hypothesis that the palace suffered damage on multiple occasions between 1400 and 1200 BC. Damage affected different parts of the palace, which would have buried different tablet storerooms. In other words, one could conceive of the existence of a succession of storerooms in different areas of the palace, with tablets cooked by fires in the wake of palace destruction and to which corresponded distinct periods of Linear B administration. While the hypothesis of the diachronic aspect of the Knossos tablets is widely recognised and accepted, the chronology of the palace storerooms remains unestablished.

Why are you concentrating on the storeroom near the north entrance?

It’s the only palace collection, owing to its concentration and location, that can be compared with the central archives room of the Pylos Palace on the continent. The goal is to place this collection in the evolution of Knossian administrative operations and, more broadly, of continental Mycenaean palaces.

Interview: Quentin Colette (L'Avenir Brabant wallon)

Analysing 504 tablets

Ophélie Mouthuy must analyse 504 tablets found in the storeroom near the north entrance of the Knossos Palace. She takes an interdisciplinary approach.

The first approach is archaeological. As Ms Mouthuy explains, this means ‘sifting through archaeological documentation and taking another look at the excavation notebooks of Arthur Evans [the Englishman who discovered the Knossos Palace] in order to grasp the archaeological context of the tablets and their storage location in the Knossos Palace.’

The next approaches are pinacological and epigraphic. ‘Pinacological [pinax means ‘tablet’] analysis concerns the tablets’ physical state.’ Shape, texture, manufacture, colour, etc., will be studied in detail. ‘Epigraphic analysis addresses the organisation of information, that is, graphic variations, scribal particularities and text layout. These two approaches reveal certain characteristics of the storeroom and its differences from other Knossian storerooms.’

A palaeographical approach entails an attempt to identify different scribes.

The final approaches are linguistic and textual. Linguistic analysis, ‘which is quite often neglected in the study of tablets, can contribute to the recognition of cleavages among the tablets.’ Textual analysis ‘focuses on tablet content: what does it tell us about the administration’s interests?’



Describing her background, Ms Mouthuy says, ‘Wanting to broaden my knowledge, and hoping to increase my chances of breaking into the field, which are very limited, I began studying classical philology with the intention of studying archaeology at a later stage. After five years of classical philology, I earned a complementary master’s in archaeology and a teaching degree at the same time. For the next two years I was a substitute school teacher, then received an FNRS grant to write a thesis as a member of AEGIS [Africa-Europe Group for Interdisciplinary Studies]. I’m completing the second year of my thesis.’

Why a thesis? ‘It was always in the back of my mind. Well, except after my dissertation when I said, “Never again.” But I’ve always appreciated the learning process. I find it very stimulating.’

And after the thesis? ‘It’s difficult to see the future. It would be ideal to continue in research and do a postdoc. But such opportunities are limited and job prospects even dimmer owing to overqualification…At worst, I still have to return to teaching, and yet the survival of Latin and Greek in schools is apparently no longer assured with the new Pacte d’excellence [the French Community of Belgium ‘Pact for Excellence in Teaching’], but that’s another question!’

Photo: Ophélie Mouthuy at the Sissi excavation, site of another Minoan palace (credit: Ophélie Mouthuy).