Before presenting the data, I should acknowledge its arbitrary nature. I pass over the ‘Archanes Script’ (but see Flouda, this volume, Whittaker, this volume) and broader prepalatial seal use, which could well represent the beginnings of writing and administration on Crete (Schoep 1999a: 268). Making sense of seal use throughout the Bronze Age is rather tricky; at times, it could arguably be considered a form of writing, particularly those seals bearing Cretan Hieroglyphic (hereafter CH) signs, while at others, seal use is better viewed as writing’s “quasi-complementary, quasi-supplementary and quasi-independent partner” (Palaima 1990: 83). While my focus is on those material supports which bear writing, it is necessary, as will become clear, to include in the discussion those sealing shapes which do not. I leave to the side more marginal, less well-understood, writing practices such as potters’ and masons’ marks.
The CH corpus comprises around 200 clay documents, 136 seals and 16 miscellaneous items (incised and painted pots, and an incised stone block, e.g. Figure 1). These are distributed widely across central and north-eastern Crete (Figure 4 shows the key sites mentioned throughout), with seal impressions and a prism-shaped stamp seal found on Samothrace and Kythera respectively (Lebessi et al. 1995: 63; Olivier and Godart 1996: 20–21, 22; Tsipopoulou and Hallager 1996: 165). The four key deposits are: Quartier Mu, Malia (an elite residential complex); the Dépôt Hiéroglyphique, Palace of Malia; the Hieroglyphic Deposit, Knossos; and Petras (all palatial buildings). The clay documents comprise crescents (all terms are defined below), noduli, flat-based sealings, cones, medallions, labels, three- and four-sided bars, and tablets (Olivier and Godart 1996: 10–11; Younger 1996–1997: 396). There are also substantial numbers of direct object sealings, which show seal impressions but no incised writing (Krzyszkowska 2005: 99). One should note that, throughout the Bronze Age, while seals come in a huge range of shapes and materials, impressions are almost always made by stamping the seal on the clay, not rolling it. CH is used in the First Palace Period, Middle Minoan II, at Quartier Mu and Petras, and into the early Second Palace Period, Middle Minoan III, at Knossos and Malia Palaces (Olivier and Godart 1996: 27–28; Schoep 2001a: 157–158).
There are around 1370 Linear A (LA) clay documents (Schoep 2002a: 38; e.g. Figure 2). There are some 300 tablets, together with a few three- or four-sided bars, and a single ‘label’ comprised of a flat, oblong piece of clay, pierced at its pointed end (Hallager 1996: 33, 37; Schoep 2002a: 16, 20–21). The sealings can be classified as noduli, flat-based nodules, roundels, and single-hole and two-hole hanging nodules (Hallager 1996: 35–37). Direct object sealings are restricted to the First Palace Period (Krzyszkowska 2005: 155). LA is also incised, engraved or painted on a range of other supports, including stone vessels, gold and silver pins and a ring, walls, pots and a terracotta figurine; these objects are found in religious and domestic contexts, and their distribution is mainly concentrated in central Crete (Schoep 2002a: 13–14). LA is used during the First Palace Period at Phaistos; this use proliferates during the Second Palace Period, Middle Minoan III to Late Minoan IB, when it is widely distributed across Crete and on Thera, Melos and Kea (Karnava 2008: 418; Schoep 2002a: 17–19, 21).
There are over 5000 inscribed clay documents in the Linear B (LB) corpus (e.g. Figure 3), the most numerous of which are tablets. The only LB sealing type which can bear an inscription is the gable-shaped hanging nodule, and there is also a very small number of clay ‘labels’ (Krzyszkowska 2005: 280). Sealing types without inscriptions are irregular hanging nodules, combination sealings, direct object sealings, stoppers and noduli (Krzyszkowska 2005: 280). The principal deposits are the palatial sites of Knossos and Chania on Crete, and Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns and Pylos in mainland Greece; the Room of the Chariot Tablets, Knossos, is probably the earliest use of LB, in Late Minoan IIIA1, with the documents from Chania, Thebes and Mycenae dating from Late Minoan / Helladic IIIA2–late into IIIB1–late, and those from Tiryns, Midea and Pylos coming from Late Helladic IIIB / C (Driessen 2008: 76; Shelmerdine and Bennet 2008: 292).
There are also nearly 180 examples of Inscribed Stirrup Jars (ISJs), a type of large coarse-ware storage or transport jar on which an LB inscription is painted before firing, dated to roughly Late Minoan/Helladic IIIB (van Alfen 2008: 235, 238). They are found at several mainland sites, although ceramic analysis indicates that most originated from the Chania region in Western Crete (van Alfen 2008: 235). Finally, LB written on non-administrative objects is extremely rare (Palaima 1987a: 502).