Anna Morpurgo Davies (professor emeritus of comparative philology, Oxford)

Posted April 14th, 2011 at 8:38 am.

Mabel Lang’s contribution to Linear B  studies was impressive.  In 1961, when I was in America for the first time as a Junior Fellow of the Center for Hellenic Studies, I asked whether I could go and see her in Bryn Mawr. I had worked and was working on Mycenaean and I felt I could not miss the chance to see her. For me she was up there on a pedestal together with the grandees of Mycenology: John Chadwick, Emmett Bennett and Michel Lejeune. She was extremely kind to a perfectly unknown 24 year old graduate: she put me up, she was unbelievably sympathetic because I had the most horrible cold and could barely speak (apart from the fact that I hardly knew English), she gave me some off-prints and precious information about the new texts that she was editing. After that there were other occasions to meet  and she made a point of keeping me up-to-date with her Mycenaean publications. Her editions of the newly found texts at Pylos were authoritative and from the very start, as I learned later, she was considered one of the (few) reliable Mycenaean epigraphists. Apart from the editions she did not publish more than ten papers in the field, but looking back at one or two articles I am struck by the way in which she was ahead of her times. In that period we all thought that in order to interpret Mycenaean we had to be linguistically proficient and try to understand what was linguistically possible and what not. Of course she did it too, but e.g. in Cn Flocks (1966), an article which is still regularly quoted today, one sees that she is moving towards a new way of interpreting the texts: arranging them in sets, looking at the numbers and the ideograms even more than at the words, and trying to make sense of each set in terms of why it was written and in what context. This is of course how the current work of interpretation operates. In addition in Mabel’s work there is much clear argumentation and no words wasted. She stopped attending Mycenaean colloquia a long time ago, but if she could attend one nowadays she would be much more at home there than those of us who came to Mycenaean because of our linguistic interests. Her last three Linear B articles (1987, 1988, 1990), two of which are dedicated to her long standing friends and colleagues, John Chadwick and Emmett Bennett, concentrate on Pylos and the geography of Pylos. Again this last subject is ahead of its times; studies of that nature have become important more recently and the 1988 paper gives the impression to the reader of sheer intelligence. Perhaps it is worth quoting the start of the first article and the start and the end of the second because they are so perfectly Mabel Lang and once again point to a type of work which is strikingly modern.

Lang 1987: 333.  “Just as monophthalmic vision produces a two-dimensional image, and it takes two eyes to give the illusion of depth, so various aspects of Pylian life may appear more three-dimensional when seen through both poetry and pictures or both pictures and inventories.”

Lang 1988: 185. “Does it seem reasonable that there are, for example, 68 places […] that record or are concerned with men, women and children of various sorts, but have nothing to do with, or are of no account with regard to, livestock or agricultural produce, land ownership, taxes and tribute, or metals and military equipment?”

Ibid. 212 “In the final analysis, there is no real proof for the connections and locations, but evidence, however slippery and partial, cannot be ignored.”

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