Women in the Mycenaean economy

Authored by: Cynthia W. Shelmerdine

Women in Antiquity

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138808362
eBook ISBN: 9781315621425
Adobe ISBN: 9781317219910


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It is a truism that in many societies throughout history women have little visibility and little power. They motivate men but they do not act alongside them; they are property, not property holders; they can be found at home, not out in the world. Only the exceptions make an indelible mark in the historical record. Mycenaean society was as patriarchal as any, but women are not quite invisible. Our best source of evidence for their economic status is the Linear B tablets from various palatial centers. These provide valuable information about the status, occupations, and property holdings of certain groups and individuals, but they do not necessarily describe a representative cross-section of society, let alone female society. They are palatial records, and focus on those with whom the palatial administrators engaged in transactions of various kinds. Thus they are principally concerned with certain types of people: elite officials, menial work groups, individual craftsmen and craftswomen involved in palatial production, and holders of land or other property allocated by the center. This list excludes the silent majority of ordinary people who made up Mycenaean society, and who lived and died without provoking comment in the archival record. The population of the Mycenaean state of Pylos, for example, is estimated to have been about 50,000 people (Whitelaw 2001: 63–64), but only 4,100 are referred to in the tablets (Nakassis 2013: 16) and of these just 900 are women (Olsen 2014: 236). The Knossos and Pylos archives combined make reference to 5,000 men and 2,000 women (Olsen 2014: 49, 61); data from other sites do not change this proportion. Within these limitations, though, we can draw some useful conclusions about the women who do figure in the archives of Knossos, Pylos, and to a lesser extent Mycenae and Thebes.

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