Night at the Museum (Well, day actually)

To fulfill my commitment to the University of Cincinnati Linear B project begun last summer, I spent three weeks at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.  I used AMEC’s portable X-Ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometer to determine the chemical make-up of the clays from which the Linear B tablets and sealings were fashioned.  While there, I worked with Dr. Dimitri Nakassis, who is the project director, and Dr. Joann Gulizio, who determined the fabric type of each tablet.

Before I began at the museum, I spent the last week of the excavation season at the Iklaina Archaeological Project (IKAP) near Pylos, in the Peloponnese.  My purpose there was to take pXRF readings on sherds that had previously been analyzed by ICP-MS.  These analyses will be compared in an effort to determine the accuracy of pXRF technology and its feasibility in making quick and accurate non-destructive assays.  Analyzing a sherd is shown below:


While working at the lab, based in Pylos, I also analyzed figurines and building materials discovered at Iklaina.  I toured the Iklaina site (below) while the President of Greece visited.  Dr. Michael Cosmopoulos is the director of the project.


I also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Sharon Stocker at the museum in Hora.  She had lithic samples that she needed to make determinations of as to whether they were chert or obsidian.  This required two days, but with the correct settings and calibration, the analyses were made.

The Palace of Nestor site has been closed for two years while the cover was replaced.  The site was opened just in time for me to tour it before leaving for Athens.  The Archives Complex rooms where most of the tablets were found are shown in the photo:



I was very fortunate to have Dr. Cynthia Shelmerdine as my tour guide.

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is home to the tablets and sealings that were recovered during the excavations at the Palace site near Pylos.  During the three-week project at the museum, I analyzed over 500 of the remaining tablets that were not analyzed last summer.  In addition, I analyzed another hundred or so with a different calibration that checks heavier elements.  The following photos show samples of the page-shaped and leaf-shaped tablets and the sealings.

We were visited in the museum basement by the Minister of Culture, who was very interested in the scientific methods we were using.  In this photo, Dr. Nakassis is explaining our equipment to a museum official and to the Minister.


As interesting as the work was, not all was work.  I took the opportunity to visit the island of Hydra, below:


Billy Wilemon

Archaeology MA student


Pylos Linear B Tablets

Pylos, a small seaside town on the western coast of The Peloponnese in western Greece, is close to the Palace of Nestor. The Mycenaean palace was destroyed by fire in approximately 1200 BCE. This destruction permanently preserved a large number of clay tablets and sealings. The writing on the tablets is Linear B.

There are three primary types of administrative documents found at the palace: the page-shaped tablets, the leaf-shaped tablets, and the sealings. Sealings are the lowest level of recorded administration. The leaf-shaped tablets generally have one line of writing (one entry). The information on the leaf-shaped tablets is combined with information from others of similar content onto page-shaped tablets.



Two rooms at the palace named the Archives Complex contained the majority of the tablets. This is where information of the material wealth of the kingdom was stored. Scribes, or more accurately literate high-level officials, have been labeled by their handwriting.

After taking a Directed Individual Study learning portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (pXRF) operation, it was time to put that knowledge to use. I spent almost three weeks working in the Archaeological Museum in Athens analyzing the tablets and sealings. The chemical analyses generated by the pXRF will be compared in an effort to identify similar groups of tablets and sealings.


There are a number of questions that these analyses may help us answer:

  • Did the sealings travel with material goods, or were they manufactured at the palace as materials arrived?
  • When inscribed sealings are related to tablets, do they use the same or different clays?
  • Does one scribe use more than one clay for sealings and tablets, or are the clays the same?
  • Do the tablet manufacturers use different clays, and can it be determined if these manufacturers are at the palace or located in a remote area?

These questions, and others, can help us understand the controls on material wealth headed to the palace, how the tablet-writers interacted with goods entering the palace, how information made its way to the official record, etc. It is expected that clay sourcing can answer many questions that are as of yet unanswerable.

The other members of the team working on the tablets and sealings were Dr. Kevin Pluta and Dr. Joann Gulizio of the University of Texas, and Dr. James Newhard of the College of Charleston. Each morning we were escorted into the basement work area. A museum security person stayed with us until the end of the workday when we were escorted out to the front door of the museum. A conservator unlocked a steel door into a storeroom, unlocked a cabinet, and brought us trays of tablets or sealings for us to work on. When we were through with each tray, our security person called for the conservator to replace that tray and bring us another. These are very precious artifacts, and we treated them as such.

4From left: Dr. Gulizio, Dr. Pluta, Dr. Newhard, Billy Wilemon

5No visit to Athens would be complete without a photo of the Parthenon!

In addition, I was able to visit The Peloponnese and see the ruins at Mycenae and Tiryns:

6 At the Lion Gate of Mycenae


The Palace of Nestor at Pylos was closed, because a new cover was being built. However, I was able to visit the museum nearby. Mycenaean tholos tombs were accessible only by driving through an olive grove.

On my way to Athens, I was able to spend 10 days in Israel at the Kibbutz Ruhama working with Dr. Jimmy Hardin and his group. This project involved drone photography and surveys looking for Neolithic sites.

8No project is complete without Maroon Friday. L-R: Ryan King, Billy Wilemon, Dr. Jimmy Hardin, Dylan Karges, Lydia Buckner

Billy Wilemon

Archaeology Graduate Student