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What do the Linear B tablets tell us about the organisation of industrial production in the Mycenaean kingdoms?

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The Mycenaean kingdoms, or palace states, are identified by the existence of palaces which were the seat of authority for their locality. These palaces have been discovered on the Greek mainland in Mycenae (from which the Mycenaean period takes its name), in Pylos, Thebes and Tiryns, and also in Knossos on the island of Crete. The palaces and the states they administered date from the period 1400BC to 1200BC, starting from the decline of Minoan power in Crete and ending with the disaster (probably invasion) which wiped out all the Mycenaean kingdoms and plunged Greece into a dark age for three hundred years.

There is a great deal of archaeological evidence from these five kingdoms which can reveal much about the agriculture, artwork and domestic life of the kingdoms, but by a lucky chance there is also documentary evidence in existence, despite the fact that the period is part of Greece's prehistory rather than the true historical period. This evidence takes the form of clay tablets, baked into permanence in the fires which destroyed the Mycenaean palaces. They date from the latter part of the Mycenaean period (c.1250 to 1200) and the subjects of each collection of tablets cover only about a year, for these were meant to be temporary records used in the administration of the palace and surrounding state. The largest numbers of tablets were found at Knossos and Pylos, with only a few dozen being discovered in the other palaces, but the similarity of the subject matter and methods of organisation which these records reveal means that we can draw some conclusions which apply to the Mycenean kingdoms as a whole.

The textile, bronze working and perfume industries were not the only occupations we know of in the palace states of Mycenaean Greece. Indeed, the tablets show a wide range of professions and of specialisation of labour. Tablet An 26 from Pylos lists numbers of cutlers, binders, potters, temple servants, wine pourers, goldsmiths, bow makers and tailors. There were also masons, carpenters and bakers, amongst others. This specialisation demonstrates a sophistication of which Homer, writing later about the period, had no conception. However, because they were the most closely tied to the palace, it is the industries of textile-making, bronze working and perfume making which demonstrate how industrial production was organised in this period. Using the system of ta-ra-si-ja (supplying materials and requiring corresponding amounts of finished product) the palace not only arranged and facilitated production of these goods, but carefully recorded them and, we can assume, organised the export of the goods in exchange for necessary materials, enriching the state.

Unfortunately, the limitations of the tablets mean that while we can see the outline, there is much we do not know about Mycenaean industry. How (free) workers were compensated, or whether their work was a feudal due attached to their land holding; on what basis trade was carried out, and with which states; and how the various industries and trades recorded by the palace scribes fitted into the everyday life of the people in the kingdom. It would be satisfying to know the answers to these questions, but the fortunate preservation of the Linear B tablets give us an insight we would never otherwise have had. Thanks to them we know that the Mycenaean kings were not the rough and simple people depicted by Homer. Nor are they merely possibilities, their existence only posited because of the discovery of ruined palaces. Instead, we know that these faceless kings ruled over sophisticated and organised states which played a part on the Mediterranean stage in the late Bronze Age.

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