Guest Post: A Mycenaean Chariot in the Knossos Armory by Richard Vallance

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch, a fresco on the upper level of the main hall of the Achilleion at Corfu, Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Taking a closer look at chariots as a natural follow-up to last week’s trek to the 6th Century BCE mountain village of Monteleone, Italy, this week we’ll cross time and seas to explore the 13th Century BCE Mycenaean Palace Armory of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete.

For our guide, we will rely on the fascinating talents and expertise of Richard Vallance Janke, the pioneering mastermind behind the excellent website, Minoan Linear A, Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae.

Reading Mycenaean Linear B quite fluently, Janke’s hugely popular blog posts are treasuries of translations, helpful illustrations, and fascinating notes on the challenges he surmounts in the process of translating cryptic inscriptions on sun-baked clay tablets, fragments, and other ancient archaeological artifacts.

In collaboration with the KORYVANTES Association of Historical Studies, Richard Janke and his research colleague Rita Roberts are spearheading the Linear B & The Iliad project to disseminate knowledge and promote interest in Greek Linear dialects.

The following guest post showcases a very rare glimpse into the detailed records of a Mycenaean Palace Armory at Knossos, as well as Janke’s clever intuition and exceptional methodology:


Linear B tablet 04-39 N u 10 from the Knossos “Armoury” illustrating the SSYLS ZE & MO

Linear B tablet 04-39 N u 10 from the Knossos “Armoury” illustrating

Linear B tablet k 04-39 N u 10 from Knossos wheel ZE MO

While the translation of this tablet is relatively straightforward,
there are a few points worthwhile mentioning. The first is that the
supersyllabogram MO, appearing for the first time on this tablet, 
is the first syllable of the Linear B word – mono - , meaning – one, 
single (i.e. spare). 

Secondly, since the tablet is right-truncated, we do not know how 
many spare wheels (MO) the scribe has inventoried, but my bet is 
that there is a spare wheel for each set of wheels on axle. 

Given that there are 3 sets of wheels on axle, that would mean that 
there would be 3 spare wheels. 

Lastly, and significantly, there is absolutely no mention of a 
chariot on this tablet (nor is there on well over a dozen other 
tablets), leading me to the all but inescapable conclusion that 
a considerable number of chariots were fully assembled without 
their wheels, the wheels being separately manufactured. But why? 

There are three discreet sets of tablets discussing the construction 
of chariots and their wheels (on axle):

(a) The first set of tablets inventory fully assembled chariots with 
their wheels on axle and their spare wheel (if present);
(b) The second is comprised of tablets for fully assembled chariots 
without their wheels on axle and;
(c) The third details the construction of wheels on axle, usually 
along with spare wheels, with no mention of chariots. 

Now this third set of tablets raises the inescapable question: 

why do so many tablets refer to the construction of wheels 
(both wheels on axle and spares), with no mention whatsoever of the 
chariots for which they are destined?

The most plausible explanation for these discrepancies is that the 
privileged functionary who has ordered his chariot does not want it 
delivered with its wheels already on axle [set (b) above], because he 
wishes to have the wheels separately manufactured according to his own 

We can be reasonably certain that VOPs such as the 
wanax (King) or the rawaketa (Commander-in-Chief) were the only 
supernumeraries who could possibly afford to have chariot wheels 
manufactured to their exacting specifications. 

Here you see a composite of four different styles of Mycenaean chariot 

composite of 4 Mycenaean chariots

Such highly placed aristocrats would probably have been terribly 
fussy about the style and decoration of the wheels they wanted 
mounted. So the wheels on axle would have been manufactured 
separately from the chariots, which neatly explains why numerous 
tablets speak of wheel construction alone, while others refer to 
chariots without their wheels attached destined for the same elite 

In fact, these two types of tablets appear to run in tandem with each 
other, there being one tablet referring to the chariot fully assembled 
without wheels on axle and a corresponding one detailing the 
manufacture of the wheels on axle (and most of the time of the spare 
wheel), but with no mention of the chariot itself. 

The difficulty is which Knossos tablet dealing with a particular fully 
assembled chariot without wheels is to be paired with which 
corresponding tablet describing the manufacture of wheels on axle 
(and most often a spare wheel to boot)? 

That is a question we shall never know the answer to, but the 
plausibility of this method of dual(or paired) construction of 
chariots without wheels in tandem with the separate manufacture 
of wheels makes sense.
Two helmeted warriors and chariot on a Mycenaean fresco from Pylos, ca. 1350 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two helmeted warriors and a chariot on a Mycenaean fresco from Pylos, ca. 1350 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The following is an excerpt from another of Janke’s posts on the same topic of Mycenaean chariots as translated from Linear B tablets from Knossos:

Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean) as a guide to Mycenaean chariot construction and design

Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean) as a guide to Mycenaean 
chariot construction and design

KN 894 An1910_211_o.jpg wheel ZE

(...)A convincing practicable working vocabulary of Knossos tablet 
KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean):

While much of the vocabulary on this tablet is relatively 
straightforward, a good deal is not. 

How then was I to devise an approach to its translation which could 
conceivably meet Mycenaean standards in around 1400-1200 BCE? 

I had little or no reference point to start from. The natural thing to 
do was to run a search on Google images to determine whether or not 
the results would, as it were, measure up to Mycenaean standards. 

Unfortunately, some of the most convincing images I downloaded 
were in several particulars at odds with one another, especially 
in the depiction of wheel construction. That actually came as no 

So what was I to do? 

I had to choose one or two images of chariots which appeared to me at 
least to be accurate renditions of actual Mycenaean chariot design. 
But how could I do that without being arbitrary in my choice of images 
determining terminology? 

Again a tough call. Yet there was a way through this apparent 
impasse. Faced with the decision of having to choose between 
twenty-first century illustrations of Mycenaean chariot design - 
these being the most often at odds with one another - and ancient 
depictions on frescoes, kraters and vases, I chose the latter route 
as my starting point. 

But here again I was faced with images which appeared to conflict 
on specific points of chariot construction. 

The depictions of Mycenaean chariots appearing on frescoes, kraters 
and vases unfortunately did not mirror one another as accurately as I 
had first supposed they would. 

Still, this should come as no real surprise to anyone familiar with 
the design of military vehicles ancient or modern. Take the modern tank for instance. 
The designs of American, British, German and Russian tanks in 
the Second World War were substantially different. And even 
within the military of Britain, America and Germany, there were 
different types of tanks serving particular uses dependent on 
specific terrain. 

So it stands to reason that there were at least some observable 
variations in Mycenaean chariot design, let alone of the construction 
of any chariots in any ancient civilization, be it Mesopotamia, Egypt, 
Greece throughout its long history, or Rome, among others.

So faced with the choice of narrowing down alternative likenesses, 
I finally opted for one fresco which provided the most detail. I 
refer to the fresco from Tiryns (ca 1200 BCE) depicting two female 

This fresco would go a long way to resolving issues related in 
particular to the manufacture and design of wheels, which are the 
major sticking point in translating the vocabulary for Mycenaean 

Turning now to my translation, I sincerely hope I have been able to 
resolve most of these difficulties, at least to my own satisfaction 
if to not to that of others, although here again a word of caution 
to the wise. My translation is merely my own visual interpretation 
of what is in front of me on this fresco from Tiryns. 

Try as we might, there is simply no escaping the fact that we, in the 
twenty-first century, are bound to impose our own preconceptions on 
ancient images, whatever they depict. As historiography has it, and I 
cite directly from Wikipedia:      

Questions regarding historicity concern not just the issue of 
"what really happened," but also the issue of how modern observers 
can come to know "what really happened."[6] This second issue is 
closely tied to historical research practices and methodologies for 
analyzing the reliability of primary sources and other evidence. 
Because various methodologies categorize historicity differently, 
it's not possible to reduce historicity to a single structure to be 
represented. Some methodologies (for example historicism), can make 
historicity subject to constructions of history based on submerged 
value commitments. 

wikipedia historicity
The sticking point is those pesky “submerged value commitments”. 

To illustrate even further, allow me to cite another source, 
Approaching History: Bias:

approaching history

The problem for methodology is unconscious bias: the importing of 
assumptions and expectations, or the asking of one question rather 
than another, by someone who is trying to act in good faith with 
the past. 

Yet the problem inherent to any modern approach is that it is simply 
impossible for any historian or historical linguist today to avoid 
imposing not only his or her own innate unconscious preconceived 
values but also the values of his own national, social background 
and civilization, let alone those of the entire age in which he or 
she lives. 

“Now” is the twenty-first century and “then” was any particular 
civilization with its own social, national and political 
values set against the diverse values of other civilizations 
contemporaneous with it, regardless of historical era.

If all this seems painfully obvious to the professional historian or 
linguist, it is more than likely not be to the non-specialist or lay 
reader, which is why I have taken the trouble to address the issue in 
the first place.  

How then can any historian or historical linguist in the twenty-first 
century possibly and indeed realistically be expected to place him— 
or herself in the sandals, so to speak, of any contemporaneous Bronze 
Age Minoan, Mycenaean, Egyptian, Assyrian or oriental civilizations 
such as China, and so on, without unconsciously imposing the entire 
baggage of his— or -her own civilization, Occidental, Oriental or 
otherwise? It simply cannot be done.

However, not to despair. 

Focusing our magnifying glass on the shadowy mists of history, we can 
only see through a glass darkly. But that is no reason to give up. 

Otherwise, there would be no way of interpreting history and no 
historiography to speak of. So we might as well let sleeping dogs lie, 
and get on with the task before us, which in this case is the intricate
art of translation of an object particular not only to its own 
civilization, remote as it is, but specifically to the military sector 
of that society, being in this case, the Mycenaean.

So the question now is, what can we read out of the Tiryns fresco 
with respect to Mycenaean chariot construction and design, without 
reading too much of our own unconscious personal, social and 
civilized biases into it? 

As precarious and as fraught with problems as our endeavour is, let us 
simply sail on ahead and see how far our little voyage can take us 
towards at least a credible translation of the Tiryns chariot with its 
lovely belles at the reins, with the proviso that this fresco depicts 
only one variation on the design of Mycenaean chariots, itself at odds 
on some points with other depictions on other frescoes. 

Here you see the fresco with my explanatory notes on the chariot parts:


as related to the text and context of the facsimile of the original 
tablet in Linear B, Linear B Latinized and archaic Greek, here:

Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 original text Latinized and in archaic Greek

This is followed by my meticulous notes on the construction and 
design of the various parts of the Mycenaean chariot as illustrated 

Notes on Knossos tablet 894 N v 01 Wheel ZE

and by The Geometry of chariot parts in Mycenaean Linear B, to drive 
home my interpretations of both 
– amota - = - (on) axle – and 

– temidweta - = the circumference or the rim of the wheel, referencing 
the – radius – in the second syllable of – temidweta - ,

i.e. - dweta - , where radius = 1/2 (second syllable) of – temidweta – 
and is thus equivalent to one spoke, as illustrated here:

The only other historian of Linear B who has grasped the full 
significance of the supersyllabogram (SSYL) is Salimbeti, 

The Greek Age of Bronze chariots

whose site is the one and only on the entire Internet which explores 
the construction and design of bronze age chariots in great detail.
I strongly urge you to read his entire study in order to clarify the 
full import of my translation of – temidweta – as the rim of the 

The only problem remaining with my translation is whether or not the 
word – temidweta – describes the rim on the side of the wheel or the 
rim on its outer surface directly contacting the ground. 

The difficulty with the latter translation is whether or not elm wood 
is of sufficient tensile strength to withstand the beating the tire 
rim had to endure over time (at least a month or two at minimum) on 
the rough terrain, often littered with stones and rocks, over which 
Mycenaean chariots must surely have had to negotiate.  

As for the meaning of the supersyllabogram (SSYL)TE oncharged directly 
onto the top of the ideogram for wheel, it cannot mean anything other 
than – temidweta -, in other words the circumference, being the wheel 
rim, further clarified here:

wheel rim illustration

Hence my translation here:

Translation of Knossos tablet KN 984 N v 01 Wheel ZE

Note that I have translated the unknown word 

**** – kidapa – as – ash (wood). 

My reasons for this are twofold. 

First of all, the hardwood ash has excellent tensile strength and 
shock resistance, where toughness and resiliency against impact are 
important factors. 

Secondly, it just so happens that ash is predominant in Homer’s 
Iliad as a vital component in the construction of warships and of 
weapons, especially spears. 

So there is a real likelihood that in fact – kidapa – means ash, 
which L.R. Palmer also maintains. 

Like many so-called unknown words found in Mycenaean Greek texts, this 
word may well be Minoan. Based on the assumption that many of these 
so-called unknown words may be Minoan, we can establish a kicking-off 
point for possible translations of these putative Minoan words. 

Such translations should be rigorously checked against the vocabulary 
of the extant corpus of Minoan Linear A, as found in John G. Younger’s 
database, here:

Linear A texts in transciption

I did just that and came up empty-handed. But that does not at all 
imply that the word is not Minoan, given that the extant lexicon of 
Linear A words is so limited, being as it is incomplete.

While all of this might seem a little overwhelming at first sight, 
once we have taken duly into account the most convincing translation 
of each and every one of the words on this tablet in its textual and 
real-world context, I believe we can attain such a translation, 
however constrained we are by our our twenty-first century unconscious 

As for conscious assumptions, they simply will not do. 

In conclusion, Knossos tablet KN 894 N v 01 (Ashmolean) serves as 
exemplary a guide to Mycenaean chariot construction and design as 
any other substantive intact Linear B tablet in the same vein from 

It is my intention to carry my observations and my conclusions on the 
vocabulary of Mycenaean chariot construction and design much further 
in an article I shall be publishing on sometime in 2016. 

In it I shall conduct a thorough-going cross-comparative analysis of 
the chariot terminology on this tablet with that of several other 
tablets dealing specifically with chariots. 

This cross-comparative study is to result in a comprehensive lexicon 
of the vocabulary of Mycenaean chariot construction and design, fully 
taking into account Chris Tselentis’ Linear B Lexicon and L.R. 
Palmer’s extremely comprehensive Glossary of military terms relative 
to chariot construction and design on pp. 403-466 in his classic 
foundational masterpiece, The Interpretation of Mycenaean Texts.

So stay posted.


Recent Update (2/10/2017):

Richard Vallance Janke’s article, “Lexicon of the Terminology for Chariot Construction in Mycenaean Linear B” is to be published in LANX: Journal of the Scuola di Specializzazione in Archeoligia of the University of Milan


–Top Image Title and Credit:

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch, a fresco on the upper level of the main hall of the Achilleion at Corfu, Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch, a fresco painted on the upper level of the main hall of the Achilleion at Corfu, Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Mycenaean Chariot in the Knossos Armory by Richard Vallance

  1. Such an excellent post, Kathleen…
    I have visited Richard´s blog. It is fascinating!.
    I have always wondered how Linear A has mostly dissapeared whilst Linear B remains decipherable …. (on a site note, my next post on Hermes as God of Writing will briefly mention Linear A, B & the Phoenician Alphabet in Ancient Greece, so it seems we are in the same wavelenght 😉 )
    I liked the post very much… The part in which Richard explains how he managed to decipher the tablets using as a parameter the fresco from Tiryns (ca 1200 BCE) depicting two female charioteers.
    I am amazed at how he could figure out issues concerning manufacture and design of wheels, (major sticking point in translating the vocabulary for Mycenaean chariots).
    In this sense, the illustration with numbers he attached is very revealing.
    Although I don´t know greek, I can see how the Decryption processes might work…
    Absolutely mesmerizing ! kudos for this post! Love & best wishes! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much, Aquileana! I agree, it’s not just that the process of translation itself is interesting, but the great thing about Richard’s posts is that he allows us into his intuitive and creative processes as well. It really all comes together for me, especially since the content of the tablets pulls us even deeper into a world that is filled with such an appealing mix of beauty and machismo… so incredibly fascinating!
      I’m looking forward to your post on Hermes as a god of writing – quite helpful and complementary to his role as a god that delivers messages!

      Much love and best wishes to you too — happy weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Richard’s posts about the Linear B and now Linear A, are always meticulous and thorough. He has worked so hard with the translations while still having the time to teach me the Mycenaean Linear B script writings for the past three years. It is a fascinating subject and very rewarding to think I can go into a Museum and read the Linear B writings on the clay tablets. I am so pleased you have him on your blog as a guest.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Rita, I’ve been following your stories of your progress under Richard’s mentorship and I’m sure it’s quite rewarding, indeed! You are a setting a very appealing example for me… I wonder if my future holds a linear language…?! You probably look back over the past three years and see a beautiful vista. How about the next 3? Best wishes ahead for a beautiful journey!


  3. […] Linear B  is generally seen as a more simplified and less pictorial version of the earlier scripts . It is also far more cursive in its shape. The script consists of about 87 symbols, which each represent a syllable, as well as some ideograms which represent an entire word or idea. It seems that the Myceneans used writing not to keep historical records but strictly as a device to register the flow of goods and produce into the palaces from a complex, highly centralized economy featuring regional networks of collection and distribution. [To see examples of  decipherments of Linear A and Linear B Minoans tablets, please visit this guest post at “The Shield of Achilles”]. […]


  4. We have our mag wheels for cars, I wonder about cast bronze options vs wood for Minoan and Mycenaen chariots. Or composite wheels using various materials including leather. Time will tell. Thanks.


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