Word Odyssey - Deciphering the Ancient Script Known as Linear B—Part I


Suppose that you stumbled upon ancient scripts—at least, you are pretty sure that it is writing because the characters are laid out in rows, like modern writing, but the characters are completely unknown to you or anyone else. Archaeologists have given a name to the very sophisticated civilization that left the scripts, but they have no idea what language they spoke or what cultures might have succeeded this civilization. How would you go about figuring out what the scripts said? Could you?

That was the challenge that faced scholars when, on the island of Crete, Sir Arthur Evans found around 2,000 clay tablets, dated to 15th century B.C., filled with mysterious characters.

The story begins with a rich German financier, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was convinced that the people, places and stories in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were not just poetic myths, but real. So he set out to find Troy, the legendary capital of the Trojans and the site of the Trojan war with the Greeks. Schliemann began excavating in Turkey near the Aegean Sea. In 1873, he found a cache of spectacular golden treasures that he quickly claimed had belonged to Priam, Homer’s Trojan King, and thus declared the site to be ancient Troy. Buoyed by this “discovery” (archaeologists later determined that the civilization that Schliemann had called Troy dated about a thousand years before the Troy of The Iliad, which was located on a layer far above the one excavated by Schliemann), Schliemann turned his attention to finding Mycenae, the kingdom of Agamemnon, who played an outsized role in Homer’s tales as the brother-in-law of Helen of Troy. In 1876, Schliemann’s excavations on the Greek mainland uncovered an enormous ancient civilization. Schliemann dubbed a bronze mask the “Mask of Agamemnon” and determined the site was Mycenae.

Enter British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. After investigating Mycenae, Evans was troubled that no written material had been found. How, Evans wondered, could such a magnificent, extensive civilization have been founded and maintained without writing? A handful of inscriptions had been discovered on vessels that Evans thought might have been hieroglyphic writing, but that was all. Wandering around Athens, Evans saw numerous small stone tablets in antiquities shops that bore similar inscriptions. The dealers told Evans that the tablets came from Crete. Evans headed for Crete.

On Crete, Evans took over excavations on the hilltop of Knossos, which was widely thought to contain the Palace of Minos, another Homeric character, where Daedalus was supposed to have constructed the famous labyrinth. In 1900, a mere seven days after excavations had begun, Evans found what he had been looking for. Within a lavish palace that covered six acres, workmen discovered dozens and dozens of small clay tablets with what appeared to be writing on them—eventually, around 2,000 in all. Evans had gotten lucky. The destruction of the civilization had been accompanied by a colossal fire. This had “fired” the clay tablets, which otherwise would have been ruined by moisture over the thousands of years before Evans came upon them.

Evans actually found three different kinds of writing. The oldest was a hieroglyphic script dating from 2000 to 1650 B.C. The second, called Linear A—“linear” not just because the characters were arrayed horizontally, but because the characters were drawn as lines—succeeded the hieroglyphic script in time. The third, dated from around 1450 B.C., was called Linear B, with many characters in common with Linear A, but distinctly different. However, the number of hieroglyphic and Linear A tablets were so few that Evans didn’t think they could possibly be deciphered, so he turned his focus to the much more numerous Linear B tablets.

How to decipher Linear B? There wasn’t a lot to work with. For starters, no one knew what language was spoken in this Minoan culture—Homer hadn’t thought to put that clue into his epics. Evans himself had ruled out Greek, since it was widely thought at the time that Grecian civilization hadn’t arisen until long after the Minoan fall. Nor did Linear B appear to be related to any other known writing. Nor did anyone have any idea as to whether the Minoan culture found on Crete had popped up anywhere else, which might have provided some clues.

For perspective, imagine dropping The Great Gatsby into ancient Egypt. Having never seen English, the alphabetic symbols would look like gibberish to the Egyptians. They wouldn’t know the sound values of a, b or c, and wouldn’t know that these letters are related to A, B and C. They wouldn’t know the grammatical rules—the order of words, for example. They probably wouldn’t even know whether Gatsby was supposed to be read left to right, right to left, or wound around from right to left in one line, left to right in the next, like the way you plow a field—as some languages in fact do. Frustrated, the Egyptians might toss Gatsby to the crocodiles.

Even written languages about which much more is known have remain undeciphered. For example, Etruscan, the language of the people that gave rise to the Roman Republic, was written using a Greek-derived alphabet, yet it remains undeciphered. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was deciphered, but only because one of Napoleon’s soldiers stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone—a decree by King Ptolemy V that was written in the known language of Greek as well as the hieroglyphs and a third pre-Coptic script, which allowed for a translation. But there was no Rosetta Stone for Etruscan—nor for Linear B.

Incredibly, however, through heroic efforts of some brilliant, obsessed scholars, Linear B eventually was deciphered. How? Look for next week’s Word Odyssey.

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