The Decipherment of Linear B: OL Zh 1

· Linear B Decipherments

The Kafkania pebble

Kafkania pebble.A

Kafkania pebble, side α

Kafkania pebble.B

Kafkania pebble, side B

Approx. 2.0″ (4.9 cm) long x 1.5″ (4.08 cm.) wide x .6″ (1.62 cm.) thick

Two sides, eight signs and one “erroneous” sign

Since its discovery on April 1, 1994 (April Fool’s Day), at Kafkania, north of Olympia in West Peloponnese, this galet “pebble” has engendered great controversy about its authenticity. The “Kafkania pebble” was embedded in a wall seam of a late, middle-Helladic (MH) building that was burned in the 17th century BCE  [Palaima 2003:373] .  The discoverers stated that it drew attention because it was out of place in wall construction and because it resembled an artefact that had been discovered earlier [Palaima 2003:376-7].  Despite this plausible explanation, scholars focus on the date of the artefact’s discovery as evidence of an April Fool’s joke.  I regard this coincidence as a delicious cosmic joke and the artefact as authentic.   If the dating of the context is accurate, the pebble’s transcription predates the earliest known LinB transcription by two or more centuries [Palaima 2003:373, 378].  However, another factor should be considered when assigning a date: the shape of AB *012 SO is a simpler version of the standardized sign used in LinB and is identical to the LinC letter, /xe/, of the common syllabary.

As for provenience, the pebble has been identified as Spartan basalt (Lapis lacedaemonius), which occurs in a unique deposit south of both Sparta and Krokeai (modern Krokees), where it lies in large blocks on the soil [Younger 2001]; cf. qo-ro-ka and ko-ro-qe[ [TH Ft 219].  Approximately 135 road miles separate Kafkania and Krokees, which is approximately 14 road miles from the ocean.  The Kafkania pebble is described as being dark green-gray and as having  “a lighter, sandy-colored core” [Palaima 2003:373].  Cf. ko-ro-ki-ja > κροκία(ς) (krokias)  “saffron-colored” as it pertains to pu-ro  ko-ro-ki-ja > πυρό(ς) κροκία(ς) (puros krokias) “saffron-colored wheat” [PY Ab 372].

Despite its hardness, the decorative Spartan basalt was widely used in antiquity in architecture and pottery [“Krokees”].

Note that, despite his rendering of a-so-di, Louis Godart transcribes a-so-na, which is popularly reinforced in subsequent analysis.  Also, in his initial rendering of qo-ro-ka, Godart extends the stem of /ro/ below the scratch on the stone, which compels a reading of AB *016 QA (QPA).  The rendering is corrected (above) to allow a reading of AB *002 RO [Palaima 2003:374-5].

Convention assigns the image and the accompanying a-so-di qo-ro-ka to side A and qa-jo to side B, but my translation compels me to switch the order (see notes).

α.1  qa-jo
β.1  a-so-di
β.2  qo-ro-ka

  1. a-so-di | ἀσώδη(ς) (asodes) | muddy, slimy
  2. qpa-jo | καίω (kaio) | to burn, to kindle, to set afire; to be aflame with passion
  3. qpa-jo | χάϊο(ς) (khaios) | genuine, true; good
  4. qo-ro-ka | κρόκη (kroke) | a rolled or rounded stone; a pebble on the seashore

α.1  καίω
β.1  ἀσώδη
β.2  κρόκη

α.1  Aflame with passion!
β.1  muddy
β.2  pebble

Notes:  I believe that this pebble was inscribed by two hands, as suggested by Palaima [2003:376]; the signs on side A are less precise than those on side B.  The first scribe expresses his burning “passion” with a drawing of a radiant double-axe and a descriptive word.  Perhaps this image represents his best understanding of χάϊος  (khaios), that which is “true and good”.   This pebble may have been an offering in a sanctuary: such rounded pebbles are said to have had “a major role in the peak sanctuaries of Middle Minoan [MM] Crete” [“Renfrew” @51 mins.].  The second scribe, perhaps centuries later,  finds the inscribed pebble and effectually states “Come down from Mt. Olympus; it’s just a ‘muddy pebble’!”  He may also have been the person who placed it in the wall seam.  One may ask whether the wall was part of a sanctuary or whether the pebble was carried from another sanctuary to the findspot.  In another quadrant at a lower level, a broken figurine was also found [Palaima 2003:377].  Renfrew also speaks at length about similar broken figurines in possible ceremonial contexts.

It is worth noting that a reading of a-so-na, rather than of a-so-di, is nevertheless plausible in context: a-so-na qo-ro-ka > ἥσσονε(s)  κρόκη (essones kroke)”inferior pebble”.  Moreover, a-so-na is attested in both LinB [PY An 129] and LinC [ICS 194];  also, cf. alt. ka-jo [KN Da 1451+].

Certainly, these transcriptions by ordinary citizens belie the notion, as does KN Wm 8499,  that LinB was the exclusive domain of palace scribes for administrative purposes.

Finally, I believe the “erroneous” sign on side B to be a false start by the second scribe; since he was unable to erase the mark, it serves as a red herring to ensure job security for modern philologists.  However, I may be wrong, and we may yet determine its true significance.

Hapaxi > a-so-di


  1. Krokees.  Ret. on 23 Feb 2016.
  2. Palaima, Thomas G.  2003.  OL Zh 1: Quousque Tandem?  Minos.  Vol. 37-38, pp. 378-385.
  3. Renfrew, Colin. 2009.  Keros: Rethinking the Cycladic Early Bronze Age .  Penn Museum
  4. Younger, J.G. 2001. The Spectacle-Eyes Group: An Assessment of Its Iconography, Techniques, and Style. Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel, 6th supplement. ed. by Walter Müller. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag.


Comments RSS
  1. Yuri Nikolai Martinez Laskowski

    Citing the date of its discovery is, indeed, a silly reason for considering this stone a hoax. However, Palaima gives us many other reasons why it is probably not a real artifact, and I feel as though your article should have mentioned them. April Fool’s Day seems small in comparison to these glaring issues, such as the boustrophedon writing or the support itself (a pebble). As Palaima concludes, I hope to be proven wrong one day!

    • Yuri, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I have reread Palaima with your criticisms in mind, but I’m disinclined to change my interpretation. Like Palaima, I disagree with the boustrophedon reading, primarily in light of a translation of qo-ro-ka > κρόκη “a rolled or rounded stone; a pebble on the seashore”, which supports the “support”, as you may say.

      I also take issue with philologists who ignore prima facie translations of LB words. If scholars hope to have an accurate understanding of the pre-Classical Greeks, rather than assuming that every obscure word is a given name (see p. 381), they should crack open the Greek lexicon now and then.

      Moreover, it has been entirely too convenient to relegate every anomalous inscription to the forgery heap rather than, perhaps, to say “There’s not enough information to conclude one way or the other. Let’s keep an open mind, because this inscription may offer, for subsequent finds, the needed bridge in our understanding.”

      With every inscription added to the forgery heap, philologists sacrifice an opportunity to broaden historical context. I have no desire to reinforce this tendency because it can only result in dead-ended thinking.

  2. Richard Vallance Janke: Independant Scholar, Linear B and Homeric Greek.

    The Kafkania Pebble cannot be Linear B, as it dates from 1700 BCE! Be careful what you wish for!

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