Introduction | Arthur Evans | Archive | Collection | Digital Knossos

Digital Linear B Tablets from Knossos


A Linear B tablet from Knossos recording precious metal vessels in the shape of bull's heads and cups, around 1375-1350 BC.


Detail from a Linear B tablet from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children, around 1375-1350 BC.

'For a long time, I thought that Etruscan might have formed the clue we were looking for, but during the last few weeks, I have suddenly come to the conclusion that the Knossos and Pylos tablets must, after all, be written in Greek a difficult and archaic Greek, seeing that it is 500 years older than Homer, and written in a rather abbreviated form, but Greek nevertheless.' Michael Ventris (1922-1956)

The 1st of July 2012 marked the 60th anniversary of Michael Ventris's announcement on BBC's third programme of the decipherment of Linear B one of the three Aegean Bronze Age scripts first identified and described in detail by Sir Arthur Evans more than a hundred years ago. In order to commemorate this great achievement we decided to photograph the Ashmolean's Knossos Linear B tablets using one of the most advanced imaging techniques presently known the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). This technology was first used in the Ashmolean Museum in 2010 as part of a collaborative pilot project between the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton (see Piquette, Dahl and Green, The Ashmolean no. 62). Back then, this image capture method was tested on a number of inscribed artefacts, including ivory, bone and wooden funerary labels from the Nile Valley, cuneiform tablets, and a Mandaic lead tablet.

The goal of RTI-technology is to escape the limitations of traditional photography by creating a computer model of the artefact with a dynamic light source virtually simulating the different light conditions that a researcher is normally only able to obtain when consulting the original artefact and turning it under a fixed light source. This is achieved by capturing multiple images of the objects with different light sources. A computer program is then used to create a model calculating all possible lighting positions. In order to reduce any ambient light pollution the object is put in a Plexiglas dome. A camera is mounted directly above looking downwards into the dome through a hole. On the dome's inner side 76 LEDs are placed to guarantee all possible lighting angles. The dome is operated by a Linux-based software that takes a sequence of 76 images at a resolution of 24.5 megapixels (Nikon D3X). The specific software (RTIBuilder) joins all lighting angles into one large PTM-file (Polynomial Texture Mapping). Through a freeware program (PTMviewer) one can then view and study the objects in unparalleled detail. PTM was first developed in 2000 by Hewlett-Packard laboratories and has since been adopted with great success for numerous cultural heritage applications ranging from lithics, numismatics and paintings to inscribed artefacts, including the Vindolanda tablets and the Antikythera mechanism (in the latter case alongside XRay tomography).

Given the promising results of the initial work with RTI-technology, we invited back to the Museum the Oxford RTI team, Dr Jacob Dahl, Klaus Wagensonner and Nicholas Reid, before their start late in summer 2012 on the full capture of the Ashmolean's outstanding collections of cuneiform tablets as part of the Mellon-funded project Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (cdli.ucla.edu). The main aim was to apply and explore the applicability of this imaging technology to Linear B tablets from Sir Arthur Evans's excavations at the Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete. These tablets, which were accidentally baked in the conflagration that destroyed the palace around 1375-1350 BC, form the largest corpus of Bronze Age Aegean inscriptions anywhere in the world outside Greece.

Despite their small number (around 40 documents from a total of more than 4000 examples discovered by Evans at Knossos), the Ashmolean's collection is representative and forms an excellent resource for teaching. They range from records dealing with agriculture, the textile industry, and taxation to lists of people (specialised workers and dependent labour), arms and armour and precious metal vessels. Although Linear B tablets limit themselves exclusively to bureaucracy and bookkeeping, they give a voice to people living and working at that time, something simply impossible before Ventris's decipherment.

A project is currently in preparation by Dr Dimitri Nakassis and Dr Kevin Pluta, of the Universities of Toronto and Austin at Texas respectively, and in collaboration with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens to digitize the Linear B documents from the Palace of Nestor at Pylos using RTI and 3D-scanning technologies.

Although it is still early to fully appreciate the results of this approach, the application of RTI-technology to the Linear B tablets appears to be very promising especially in relation to gaining a better understanding of the tools and techniques used by the ancient scribes to write these documents. Combined with three-dimensional scanning in the future, RTI-technology can enhance further the production of more detailed and accurate drawings that could potentially alter our knowledge of this, fragmentary and limited, record of Late Bronze Age administration.

We hope that the Ashmolean's digital collection of Linear B tablets will strengthen the need for the full digitization of the extant corpus of Linear B tablets for the creation of a digital library of Linear B documents a library that will literally allow us to read these documents in a completely different light.

Go to Gallery of Linear B Tablets


A Linear B tablet from Knossos recording precious metal vessels in the shape of bull's heads and cups, around 1375-1350 BC.


Detail from a Linear B tablet from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children, around 1375-1350 BC.