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Bellerophon Talets from the Mycenaean World? A Tale of Seven Bronze Hinges*

  • Ione Mylonas Shear (a1)

In the sixth book of the Iliad Glaukos relates the story of his grandfather, Bellerophon, who had been sent from Ephyre on the Greek mainland to Lycia carrying with him a folded tablet bearing on it baneful signs.

The single reference to this type of tablet in the early preserved literature suggests that such tablets were rare although they must have been recognizable to the audience at the time they were originally incorporated into the epic tradition.

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1 Il. 6.168-9. English translation by A.T. Murray (Loeb edition).

2 Cf. discussion and bibliography cited by J.P. Crielaard, ‘Homer, History and Archaeology. Some Remarks on the Date of the Homeric World’, in J.P. Crielaard (ed.), Homeric Questions. Essays in Philology, Ancient History and Archaeology, Including the Papers of a Conference Organized by the Netherlands Institute at Athens (15 May 1993) (Amsterdam 1995) 213-4.

3 Bass, G.F., ‘A Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun (Kas): 1984 campaign’, AJA 90 (1986) 269–96; Oldest Known Shipwreck Reveals Splendors of the Bronze Age’, National Geographic 172 (1987) 692733; Bass, G.F. and Pulak, C., ‘The Late Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun: 1986’, AJA 91 (1987) 321; Bass, G.F., Pulak, C., Collon, D. and Weinstein, J., ‘The Late Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun: 1986 Campaign’, AJA 93 (1989) 129; Bass, G.F., ‘A Bronze-Age Writing-Diptych from the Sea off Lycia’, Kadmos 29 (1990) 169.

4 Ford, A., Homer. The Poetry of the Past (Ithaca & London 1992) 13, 137-8; Powell, B.B., Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge 1991) 199200; Bellamy, R., ‘Bellerophon's Tablet’, CJ 84 (1988-1989) 289307; Heubeck, A., ‘Schrift’, ArchHom 3 (1979) X, 10. Although the opinions of Bellamy and especially Heubeck are often cited to support this concept, it should be noted that both scholars published their conclusions before the Uluburun tablet had been found. Nevertheless their interpretation continues to be accepted and casually repeated by scholars of Greek literature; cf. for example Knox, B., Introduction to The Odyssey, Homer, trans. Fagles, B. (New York 1996) 20.

5 Payton, R., ‘The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set’, Anatolian Studies 41 (1991) 99106; Warnock, P. and Pendleton, M., “The Wood of the Ulu Burun Diptych’, Anatolian Studies 41 (1991) 107–11; Pendleton, M. and Wamock, P., ‘Scanning Electron Microscopy Analysis of the Ulu Burun Diptych’, Institute of Nautical Archaeology Newsletter 17:1 (1990) 2627.

6 Payton (n.5) 103.

7 Symington, D., ‘Late Bronze Age Writing-Boards and their Uses. Textual Evidence from Anatolia and Syria’, Anatolian Studies 41 (1991) 111–23.

8 I am indebted to George Bass for this information which he conveyed to me in a letter written on October 6, 1996.

9 This room was later labeled Room No. 8 or, as it is better known in modern scholarship, the Archives Room; Blegen, C.W. and Rawson, M., The Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Western Messenia, vol I: The buildings and their contents (Princeton 1966), hereafter Pylos I, 6, 95100.

10 Blegen, C.W. and Kourouniotis, K., ‘Excavations of Pylos, 1939’, AJA 43 (1939) 569; Pylos I (n.9) 98, fig. 274.1 (objects slightly enlarged in photograph). The hinges were originally stored in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Inventory No. 7755. After the museum was built in Chora, along with many of the other finds from Pylos the hinges were returned and they are now on display in the Chora Museum, Inventory No. 2774.

11 Evans, A.J., The Palace of Minos at Knossos (London 1921-1935) hereafter PM, IV, 668.

12 This sketch was published by Boardman, J., The Date of the Knossos Tablets (Oxford 1963) 21–3, fig. 5.

13 Pylos I (n.9) 97; cf. also PM (n. 11) IV, 597.

14 Cf. PM (n.11) IV, 836, where it is noted that in the excavations on Crete bronze hinges were found only with this one deposit of tablets. After the publication of Evans’ work, two groups of small bronze hinges with Linear A tablets were found in the palace at Zakros; Platon, N., Zakros. The Discovery of a Lost Palace of Ancient Crete (New York 1971) 148, 151, 159; Platon, N. and Brice, W.C., Inscribed Tablets and Pithos in Linear A System from Zakros (Athens 1971) 26–7, 32-5; Hallager, E., The Minoan Roundel and Other Sealed Documents in the Neopalatial Linear A Administration in Aegaeum 14 (1996) 1,75-7. Following Evans’ original suggestion, Platon once again associated the bronze hinges with wooden boxes which possibly contained Linear A tablets. If Evans’ interpretation of the bronze hinges found with the Linear B tablets is questioned, then Platon's explanation of the bronze hinges found with the earlier tablets also needs to be re-examined.

15 Illustrated in Pylos I (n.9) fig. 274.1, upper right. Object in lower right of the illustration does not belong with the hinges. At the time this photograph was taken, the hinges along with other objects had been mounted for purposes of display and it was not possible for us to rearrange the fragments before photographing them.

16 Illustrated in Pylos I (n.9) fig. 274.1, on right, bottom and center rows.

17 Illustrated in Pytos I (n.9) fig. 274.1, center, left.

18 Illustrated in Pylos I (n.9) fig. 274.1, top row, center.

19 Illustrated in Pylos I (n.9) fig. 274.1, middle row, center. The sixth fragment is thicker than the seventh fragment and thus presumably these two fragments do not belong together. The fifth and sixth fragments, on the other hand, because of their fragmentary state of preservation, could have, but did not necessarily come from the same hinge.

20 Illustrated in Pylos I (n.9) fig. 274.1, top, left.

21 This piece is not illustrated in Pylos I (n.9) fig. 274.1. It is displayed with the bronze fragment attached to the background, the carbonized wood face up.

22 The Linear B tablets, of course, vary greatly in size. The largest one found at Knossos was reported to be 0.267 m. by 0.155 m.; Evans, A.J., Scripta Minoa I (Oxford 1909) 48. The larger tablets from Pylos have a height of 0.05 to 0.12 m. or more and the length of 0.07 to 0.25 m.; the smaller tablets have a height of 0.01 m. to 0.05 m. and a length of 0.10 to 0.25 m.; Bennett, E.L. Jr, The Pylos Tablets, Texts of the Inscriptions Found 1939-1954, with introduction by Blegen, C.W. (Princeton 1955) viii–ix.

23 A row of six hinges of the size found at Pylos placed 0.003 m. apart would create a single long hinge of c. 0.081 m. which is similar though slightly smaller than the total length of the hinge on the tablet from Uluburun.

24 The association of bronze hinges with wooden tablets in the Mycenaean period suggests that the bronze hinges found at Zakros (n.14) should also be interpreted as being part of similar wooden tablets of an earlier period. Platon (n.14, Inscribed Tablets, 26) originally suggested that the twelve hinges found in the archives room at Zakros came from four boxes, the three larger ones from a larger box and the remaining nine from three smaller boxes, with each box employing three hinges. A wooden lid fastened by three hinges necessitates the use of two hinges on one side and a single hinge on the other. This type of fastening would have been so unstable when the lid was open with its weight resting on the hinge, that it is difficult to understand why bronze hinges were used. Since the tablets at Zakros were stored in groups held together by a sealed band, the process of sealing them into groups would have automatically held the top of a wooden box in place without the addition of hinges. The hinges, however, must have served some purpose and it is interesting that their shape is similar to those of Knossos and Pylos. If they represent the precursors of the wooden tablets of the later period then the division of twelve hinges into groups of three at Zakros suggests that each tablet was held together by three hinges. In contrast to open wooden lids on boxes, the tablets, when open and laid flat on a horizontal surface, would have exerted little, if any, pressure on the hinge, hence their small size. The constant opening and closing of the wooden tablet, however, would have served to loosen the hinges from the wooden leaves and it may be for this reason that multiple hinges were introduced in the later, more developed tablets of the Linear B period.

25 Burkert, W., ‘Oriental Myth and Literature in the Iliad’, Hägg, R. (ed.), The Greek Renaissance of the Eighth Century BC. Tradition and Innovation. Proceedings of the Second International Symposium at the Swedish Institute in Athens, 1-5 June, 1981 (Stockholm 1983) 51–6; Heubeck (n.4) 134, and Powell (n.4) 199-200, argued that this tale must have come from the east. Mycenaean contacts with the east have been well documented; cf. for example the many words associated with textiles which came from that part of the world; Barber, E.J.W., Prehistoric Textiles, the Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean (Princeton 1991). Since the existing wooden tablet was found on a ship which had entered Aegean harbours, as indicated by the cargo on the ship, the knowledge of such tablets could have reached the people of Crete and the mainland during the course of this trade. With this knowledge, tales concerning their use would also have been known and the possibility that some of these tales were adopted into the oral tradition of the Greek Bronze Age becomes a likely sequel.

* George Bass and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University supplied the illustrations of the wooden tablet from Uluburun published with this article. The bronze hinges from Pylos, now in the Chora Museum, were examined and photographed with the kind permission and helpful assistance of the Prehistoric and Classical Ephoria of Antiquities in Olympia and the guards of the Chora Museum. My thanks are extended to all who made these illustrations possible.

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