Making Ends Meet outside the Palace:
The Informal Economy at Mycenae

Lynne A. Kvapil (University of Cincinnati)

This paper uses the Linear B tablets as well as archaeological evidence from Mycenae to demonstrate the existence of an informal Mycenaean economy and to suggest a picture of life outside the palace.  Informal economy can most simply be defined as the opposite of the formal or dominant economy, that is, the officially recognized state economy.  Characteristics of informal economy include the use of small-scale farming, part-time labor, and periodic markets.  Such economic strategies are often used by people living in rural areas as an alternative to dependence upon the state for their livelihood.

In the past, scholars have viewed Mycenaean economy from the top down, focusing primarily on the nature and extent of the palatial redistributive economy.  Scholarship tends to dwell on palatial bureaucracy or its relationship with elites who have left an indelible stamp upon the archaeological record.  In addition, the primary evidence for Mycenaean redistributive economy comes from the Linear B archives of Pylos and Knossos.  Evidence from other sites, such as Mycenae, has been largely read through the lens of Pylos and Knossos.  For this reason, Mycenae has been forced into an economic mold at the expense of its distinctive evidence and singular situation.  In addition, analysis of the Mycenaean economy is often begun from the point of view of the central authority of a domineering palace that tightly controlled land use.  I argue that the Linear B tablets that were found in the residences of elites outside the palace contain evidence for an alternate rural economy that functioned alongside the state economy and was carried out by non-elites.  Non-elite participation in an informal economy was a way to maintain some independence from palatial control and remain self-sufficient while resisting the dominance of palatial power.

 By re-reading the evidence from Mycenae with a view to discovering how economy was carried out without palatial involvement, we can begin to discover the multiple strategies that non-elite Mycenaeans used to make ends meet. By extension it is possible to broaden our view of Mycenaean society to include the often invisible inhabitants of rural Mycenae.

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