Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
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 script of the tablets is pictographic and glyphic, not alphabetic, but thanks to Michael Ventris’ decipherment of the tablets in the 1950s we know that the language recorded is Greek. The script was lost in the disaster which followed so that when writing reappeared in Greece it was in the borrowed Phoenician alphabet. However, the continuity of the spoken language and hence of the Greek people can be deduced from the tablets, meaning that whatever the Linear B records reveal, they reveal about the early Greeks rather than another people-group which inhabited the land during the Bronze Age.
The tablets are purely administrative records kept by the palaces. The information they contain can be categorised as incomings (such as tax, tribute, and the return of borrowed animals), outgoings (such as rations and sacrificial offerings) and stock held, including not only textiles and livestock but also furniture and personnel. The picture which emerges from these records is of a strictly hierarchical administration based on a feudal system of land tenure and tribute, and featuring a surprising level of division of labour and specialisation.
Before looking in more detail at what the tablets reveal about the organisation of industrial production, it is useful to take note of the limitations of the Linear B tablets as a source. The tablets are damaged and often fragmentary. Many words and phrases are missing, making meanings hard to understand. Some words have yet to be deciphered, such as “ta” and “da” which appear on many of the lists of personnel such as Aa792 from Pylos:
“Twenty one Cnidian women, twelve girls, ten boys, one ta, one da.”
In addition, the entries are out of context. Many tablets have been lost which might have explained the contents of other tablets, and even the existence of more tablets would not overcome the problem that these records were only meant for the eyes of a small number of scribes and only referred to the preceding twelve months or so. In other words, the original readers would known immediately what the brief records referred to whereas modern readers do not.
The subject matter of the tablets is also limited. The production of some foodstuffs is covered but not others, for example pulses which archaeology tells us were an important part of the Mycenaean diet. Products are listed which we deduce were for export, but the tablets contain no details about imports or exports, only production. There is a further problem in that the period described by the tablets may not have been typical. The kingdoms were just about to fall, which is the reason that we have the tablets at all, and some of the entries show an awareness of a threat. We do not know what the Mycenaean kingdoms looked like during a “normal” period of their history.
However, despite these limitations and the caution which must be used to avoid reading too much into partial and equivocal evidence, the Linear B tablets do contain valuable information which cannot be provided by archaeology. They tell us things about the workforce of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the types of products produced and the system of production, and the organisation of labour entailed by these industries. The kingdoms had a redistributive economy, with resources being collected and distributed by the palace administration. The purpose of the tablets was to record the holdings of the palace, and distributions made, and also to check contributions made by villages and private citizens against contributions required. For example tablet Nn 831 from Pylos lists the linen still required by inhabitants of a certain village (“The cowherds: two of linen. Arojeu: one of linen. … The mayor: twenty four of linen.” etc.) while the Na series of tablets list the full amount which is to be supplied. Taxation this accurate and exacting would not have been possible over a whole kingdom without written records such as the tablets.
This feudal system with its requirements on each according to the land apportioned was administered from the palace by a hierarchy of both central and local officials. The amount of land they are listed as having (recorded in terms of the amount of grain it would yield) reveal something of this hierarchy in the absence of any kind of description. Tablet Er 01 from Pylos lists the holdings of certain officials thus:
The preserve of the king, seed at so much: 3,600l wheat.
The preserve of the military leader, seed at so much: 1,200l wheat.
The lands of the fief holders, so much seed: 3,600l wheat; and [there are] so many fief holders: three.
The names of these officials are conjectural but the existence of a large number of people holding official office is clear. An effective administration tied to a feudal system of land tenure allowed the Mycenaean kings to have very direct control of the production of foodstuffs (or at least those they wished to control the production of) and goods throughout their kingdoms.
It was not just land which was distributed with certain ensuing obligations. Livestock also seems to have been organised in this way. Halstead has argued convincingly from the evidence of the tablets that oxen were loaned to communities from the palace to improve the production of crops (which would benefit both the palace and the community), and fodder was even issued to keep them in good condition. He also suggests that shepherds would look after both private flocks and royal flocks, swapping female lambs for male so that the palace benefited from a higher number of wool-rich castrated rams while the private flocks benefited from a preponderance of female sheep which would produce lambs and milk. There is certainly evidence that shepherds were employed to tend to sheep which were not their own, their employment presumably being organised by the palace. At Pylos a man named Kerowo is required in Cn 131 to provide one hundred and thirty rams to the palace, while in another Pylos document (Ae134) a man of the same name is described as “Kerowo the shepherd at A-si-ja-ti-yap watching over the cattle of Thalamatos.” If this is the same man, which seems likely, then shepherds, not owners, were required to care for the sheep and provide the necessary tribute. This shows a clear division of labour.
This control of the methods of production and ability to demand raw materials from their citizens allowed the Mycenaean palaces to oversee a number of important industries. These activities can accurately be called industries because of the way in which they were organised on a large scale by the central authority. In many cases production itself was decentralised, taking place in locations more suited to the work, but thorough records were kept by the palace scribes allowing the whole process to be effectively controlled by the palace. Raw materials, carefully measured, were supplied to workers and a corresponding amount of finished product was required back from them, a system known as ta-ra-si-ja.
The textile industry was the most important industry in Pylos and Knossos, the Mycenaean kingdoms we know most about. The acquisition of wool from shepherds who looked after the royal flocks has been mentioned above, but this was not the only commodity which was secured by the palace. A large workforce was necessary to work the wool. The personnel lists of Pylos and Knossos record large numbers of women and children working as spinners, carders, weavers and so on. They are assigned rations by the palace for their subsistence. In Knossos they are identified in the records by the names of Cretan towns, presumably the towns in which they worked, but in Pylos these workers are identified by ethnic names from the eastern Aegean such as Lemnos and Cnidos. We know that slavery existed in the Mycenaean kingdoms because this is made explicit in other tablets (such as An 602). These facts together lead to the conclusion that the textile workforce was made up of women and children captured in pirate raids. They may have been trafficked through the eastern Aegean by slave traders and purchased by the Mycenaean kingdoms but the word “captives” which is used to describe some of the women implies that “the labour force was recruited in raids in which captive women and children were brought home and taught trades.” The provision of a workforce in this direct manner demonstrates both the importance of the textile industry to the palace, and the central role of the palace’s control and direction in the functioning of this industry.
It seems from the evidence of the tablets that more wool was produced than could have been consumed by the domestic economy, even with so many dependent workers to clothe. This is also the case with flax production. A relatively large amount of linen (made from flax) was demanded from each community within the kingdoms (see above). Demands were waived from certain people such as shipbuilders, who would need to use a good deal of linen for sails and ropes, and from bronze workers who perhaps did not have the time to produce linen because of their specialised trade, but the linen provided by other citizens would have produced a surplus. These facts strongly suggest that the purpose of the highly organised textile industry was largely to produce goods for export. Semitic loan words and a number of cargoes preserved by shipwreck demonstrate that the Mycenaean kingdoms had links with neighbouring civilisations in the Near East, and the evidence of the shipwrecks (on one of which Mycenaean Greeks were present), suggest an active trade, importing raw materials and exporting finished products such as cloth.
Another industry which was controlled by the palace under the system of ta-ra-si-ja was bronze working. This was a specialised and very important skill, not only to produce items for domestic use but also for the supply of weapons and armour to the king’s armed forces. There may have been as many as four hundred bronze smiths at Pylos. There are records in the tablets of amounts of bronze being supplied to the smiths and finished products also being carefully recorded to make sure that the valuable metal had all been used as directed. The work of the smiths was decentralised, like the textile workers, probably because of the need to be near abundant supplies of wood. Unlike the female and juvenile textile workers, however, smiths were not slaves. Smiths are recorded as being the fathers of a number of slave children born to female slaves:
“At Metopa: … one woman reaper, her mother a slave and her father a smith; three women reapers, their mother a slave and their father a smith”
This may be evidence of wealth, if they owned the female slaves, or that smiths were highly valued if the slaves were loaned or granted by the palace.
The different status of the bronze workers is reflected in the fact that they are not dependent on the palace for their food and that they own land. The amounts of bronze supplied by the palace to the smiths seems to be too small to have engaged all of their working time, so it can be deduced that as well as working for the palace, perhaps as a feudal obligation, the smiths would also produce goods for the rest of the population, and this is how they would make their living. Bronze was a high-status substance so bronze items were used for gifts to dignitaries. For instance, bronze vessels formed part of gifts taken to Egypt by Mycenaean envoys. It is reasonable to assume that bronze may also have been exported, and the raw materials imported. Money seems to have been unknown the Mycenaean world so the foreign exchange of goods would have been essential to the economy of the palace states.
A third industry which seems from the Linear B tablets to have been important to the Mycenaean kingdoms is the making of scented unguents, or perfumes. The workers in this industry held high status. It was a very skilled profession which made small quantities of product and required raw ingredients from a variety of sources. For this reason perfume making did not need to be decentralised but could instead be carried out in or near the palace itself. The olive oil, herbs and spices required could be imported or collected as tribute by the palace and supplied easily to the perfume makers. In the case of perfume making, the tablets show that the amount of product received is not carefully checked against the materials supplied, probably because it would be impossible to measure what quantity of aromatic herbs had been used in a perfume. This may also be a reason that people of high status were used in this industry, as theirs would be a position of trust. The close association of the perfume industry with the literate palace culture is demonstrated by the fact that stirrup jars (used for holding perfume) are almost the only items found with Linear B writing on them, apart from the Linear B tablets themselves. Perfume was often used as an offering to the gods, but we know from the evidence of shipwrecks, and from the wide distribution of Mycenaean pottery, that perfume made up a large part of the Mycenaean kingdoms’ exports. In such a centrally controlled system of government it seems very likely that all foreign trade was carried out at the behest of or under the close supervision of the palace, and this would be a good reason for keeping the perfume industry so close at hand.
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.