Numbers and Ideograms

Year Eight Latinists classes were very lucky to have been able to welcome Dr Philomen Probert to their lessons this week. Philomen is a lecturer at the Department of Linguistics and Classics at the University of Oxford, and she visited the groups to show how Linear B worked and what it was used for. She brought a range of different examples of Linear B tablets – some of which were from Knossos, in Crete, and some of which were from other sites such as Mycenae on mainland Greece.


She talked about how the tablets themselves, made out of clay, had retained two different sorts of fingerprints on them. Very small ones which suggested that young children helped make the tablets themselves, and then adult fingerprints, for the people who inscribed them with the Linear B script, numbers and ideograms. The tablets were not meant to last for a long time, but the ones we still have thousands of years later were preserved because fires at the palaces broke out and baked them.

She explained that Linear B expressed the language of the early Greeks, but that because it was a simple kind of syllabic script, it didn’t work very well at expressing Greek, and so some words were adapted. Examples were herbs such ku-mi-no (for ‘cumin’) and ko-ri-ja-da-na (for ‘coriander’). We looked at tablets that contained ideograms for various things such as donkeys, rams, ewes, and pigs, and numbers. The classes were very good at guessing and adding up the numbering system, and also guessing some of the ideograms! The tablets also often contained some Linear B script which showed the owner of the items listed, and also the place where the items were.


You can explore more of these tablets here.

Finally, everyone was given some clay and they then made their own Linear B tablet with their names!

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