Unlocking the Secrets of Karpathia the Keybearer

This week marks 65 years since Michael Ventris announced his decipherment of Linear B, so it seems like a good opportunity to write about something from the tablets that I’ve long been curious about.


The Linear B documents from Mycenaean Greece are notoriously laconic, mostly consisting of accounts and administrative records. Among these, even the slightest glimpse of personal character or hint of drama is enough to make a tablet stand out. My absolute favourite is Ep704, from the palace of Pylos. This tablet is mainly a record of land-allocations to temple personnel at Sphagianes, but the last line throws up some intriguing questions.

Karpathia the Keybearer holds two communal (plots); although she is obliged to work these two, she does not work them.

From Karpathia’s name we might guess that she is either an immigrant or captured foreigner herself, or descended from people who had come from the island of Karpathos. I’ve always liked to imagine her as a rebellious outsider, leading some sort of strike against the oppressive work requirements of the palace and the temple. This is the version of her that I included in my Bronze Age board game, Ancient Horror. Unrealistically romanticised, probably, but it shows how the smallest things can capture the imagination.

But for now, I’m not interested in what Karpathia did, or where she came from. Instead, I’m curious about her title:

ka-ra-wi-po-ro – klawiphoros – key-bearer

This also occurs in some other tablets from Pylos, always as a cult office. It’s been suggested that these were high-ranking priests and priestesses who held the keys to temples. But this was the Late Bronze Age around 1200 BC. That’s remarkably early for locks and keys. What form did these take in this period?

We usually think of locking in the Bronze Age being achieved through bolts, ropes and sealing-practices. This is well illustrated by the undisturbed tomb of Tutankhamun.


Nevertheless, Sumerian and Akkadian texts preserve a wide range of technical vocabulary relating to locking mechanisms and excavations at the Neo-Assyrian city of Khorsabad found archaeological evidence for the use of what is known as an ‘Egyptian’ lock, in which a hollow bolt up to a metre in length is held in place by vertical pins. The key is inserted inside the bolt and raises the pins, allowing the bolt and key to be slid back together.


Khorsabad dates to the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC, which is several centuries after the Late Bronze Age. Fortunately, the Akkadian terminology for the elements of the lock can be traced back much further, however, and closer to the Aegean. The bolt seems to have been known as the sikkuru, a word which also appears at thirteenth-century Ugarit on the Syrian coast, among other places (RS 20.146). Ugarit doesn’t seem to have direct trade-links to the Greek mainland, but they did trade with Crete, and also with Cyprus, both of which served as intermediaries for trade onward into the Mycenaean world, so it’s perfectly plausible that lock technology of this kind could have found its way from Mesopotamia to Pylos, via Ugarit or some other route in the East Mediterranean trade network.

But where does Egypt fit into this? Could the ‘Egyptian’ lock have come to Greece from there? The link between this kind of lock and ancient Egypt seems to have come from the Frenchman Vivant Denon, part of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century. On visiting Karnak, he describes seeing depictions of locks very similar to contemporary examples used in the region:

I also noticed the representation of a temple gate, with two folding doors, shut by exactly the same kind of wooden bolts that are at present made use of. […]  The image I give of an absolutely modern lock can stand in as a drawing of the ancient one, as I did not notice any difference.

Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt by Vivant Denon, translated by Arthur Aikin


Despite Denon’s keenness to see a through-line from contemporary Egyptian locks to ancient Egypt, Egyptian reliefs don’t seem to unambiguously depict locks with keys. Rather, they are bolts that could be sealed, like the doors of Tutankhamun’s tomb above. In fact, the first attestation of the ‘Egyptian’ lock in Egypt is as late as the Roman period.

So even around 1200 BC, it’s possible that Karpathia the Keybearer may well have had a key in the modern sense, fitting a lock based on technology probably imported from the Near East and ultimately Mesopotamia.

Edited to add:

Since I posted this there’s been a bit of Twitter discussion about it. In particular, the Linear B scholar @e_pe_me_ri (sorry, I don’t know their real name) suggested that in Homer, klawis is usually a bar, rather than a key. So Karpathia would be a ‘lock-bearer’ or ‘bar-bearer’ rather than a keybearer. I certainly defer to the knowledge of those more specialist in the Aegean and in Homer than me, though I don’t think we can rule out that Near Eastern key-locks made their way west to the Mediterranean. If they had, high-status buildings like temples are where we would expect to find them. Ultimately, though, the evidence is inconclusive and I do take the point that my original post may have read a bit too cut-and-dried. I do stand by the thought that Near Eastern-style locks and keys are a distinct possibility, but it’s by no means the only one.


Further Reading

Potts, D. 1990 – ‘Locky [sic] and key in Ancient Mesopotamia’. Mesopotamia 25, 185-192

‘Rethinking the Origin of the Lock’


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