The hunt for the
For half a century clay tablets inscribed with the mysterious script of Minoan Crete remained undeciphered. The breakthrough was the work of a gifted amateur linguist, with a passion for Ancient Greece. His discovery sent shock waves through the academic community.
Classical legend tells of King Minos, who dominated the Aegean with his powerful navy and ruled his domain from a palace on Crete. The intriguing story of Linear B, an enigmatic script from Minoan Crete, began in 1900 when the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans set out to bring the world of King Minos to light with his ambitious excavation of the magnificent Cretan palace of Knossos.
During the excavations, Evans came across a series of clay tablets marked with curious lines, the like of which had not been seen before. His digs at other ancient sites on Crete also unearthed tablets with
(The symbols on clay tablets found in Crete and Mycenaean Greece were finally deciphered by Michael Ventris. The tablets, written in an archaic form of Greek, recorded economic transactions, distributions of rations and palace resources)
the same linear script. He soon realised that the tablets contained two superficially similar, but actually quite different, writing systems. The older, somewhat more ungainly script was classified with the letter A, while the newer script used the letter B.
(The palace of Knossos was built c.1700 BC. Arranged around a courtyard, it was four storeys high, with a sophisticated drainage and water supply system. A basement room had pillars decorated with the design of the double-axe, or labyrs, a sacred emblem in Crete. In Greek mythology, the palace of King Minos is described as the 'labyrinth', or house of the double-axe)
A MESSAGE FROM THE PAST
For decades Evans sought to realise his dream: not merely to excavate the palace of King Minos at Knossos, but also to reconstruct it. In 1935 Evans released 120 tablets for public inspection and study, causing a ripple of excitement through the academic community. Scholars soon adopted the designation Linear B for the script. The name denoted the fact that the script, in contrast to the pictograms used in hieroglyphic script, was made up of lines that served as characters.
Specialists and amateurs alike threw themselves eagerly into the exciting business of deciphering the script. Some of the theories put forward concerning the roots of Linear A and Linear B bordered on the eccentric. The discovery of further tablets inscribed with Linear b on the Greek
("All manner of muddle-headed eccentrics from the fringes of archaeology"
Michael Ventris on some of his fellow researchers)
mainland was a further impetus to scholarship.The new tablets were found at the palaces of Pylos and Mycenae in the Peloponnese. These sites had been leading centres for the warlike Mycenaean civilisation, which was at its height between 1400 and 1200 BC. The epic poems of Homer, written much later in 800 BC, incorporate oral history and traditions about the heroic Mycenaean age, including the Trojan war, when mainland Greece was ruled by King Agamemnon.
But how did all this fit together? Both Linear A and Linear B were discovered on Crete, which had a leading political and commercial role in the eastern Mediterranean between 2000 and 1450 BC. In mainland Greece, evidence of the use of Linear B came from a later period. It was possible that the tablets unearthed at Mycenae may have been imported from Crete. Was the language on the tablets in fact that of Crete's ancient Minoan civilisation?
THE HUNT FOR CLUES
Arthur Evans attempted to decipher Linear B, but with no success. Frustrated experts on the trail of the Linear B script hoped in vain for a sensational find of the kind that the early researchers into hieroglyphics had enjoyed.
A spectacular case was associated with Napoleon Bonaparte's 1798 Egyptian campaign. The French emperor set out to conquer Egypt with a force of more than 30,000 troops. During the expedition, a soldier made a sensational discovery near the town of Rosetta. He found a tablet inscribed with three different types of script. The tablet, which became known as the Rosetta Stone, was carved in 196 BC. It presented the same text in three different versions: hieroglyphs, demotic (the script of the common Egyptian people) and finally in Greek.
The Greek script could be easily read and understood and so researchers used the Greek text to unravel the secrets of Ancient Egyptian script. In 1822, after years of study, the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion succeeded in deciphering it. To this day, the Rosetta Stone remains one of the most important documents in the history of ancient languages.
A MOMENTOUS LECTURE
All attempts to reveal the secret of Linear A were unsuccessful. Even now, no-one knows how the language works. The fact that we have a far better understanding of Linear B is largely thanks to the ingenuity of Michael Ventris, an amateur linguist who had trained as an architect. Even so, he did have an extraordinary aptitude for languages. By the time he started school, he spoke French and German and at the age of six he taught himself Polish. By seven, he was studying a book about hieroglyphics. In 1936, at the age of 14, Ventris went to see an exhibit of Minoan artefacts in London. There, he heard Arthur Evans give an impromptu lecture. The talk inspired him to become a linguistic detective and he devoted all his spare time to studying texts from Crete and ancient Greece. When he was just 18, he felt confident enough to publish a paper that was an introduction to Minoan script, although he later came to realise that he was still on the wrong track.
During the Second World War, Ventris served as a navigator in the RAF, still carrying copies of Linear B texts around in his knapsack. When the war ended, he immersed himself eagerly in his obsession once again. Yet there were still no clues or help available to enable him to decipher the script. Ventris's tenacity, astonishing patience, and ultimately his courage in freeing himself from established ways of thinking finally enabled him to come to his ground-breaking conclusions.
The American linguist Alice Kober had been able to ascertain that certain combinations of symbols were repeated time and again on the tablets. In addition, these groups of symbols often had different endings, indicating that the tablets were written using an inflected language. Using this insight, Ventris was soon in a position to develop his so-called 'grid' of syllables, which organised the sounds into a systematic structure and allowed him to assign the status of vowels or consonants to individual characters. He was finally able to identify a total of 91 symbols for syllables, 160 symbols that formed words in their own right, and several symbols denoting numbers.
But what could the words mean? Perhaps, Ventris speculated, they were place names. So, as an experiment, he inserted a few geographical concepts such as 'Knossos', or the names of other ancient Cretan settlements. This strategy appeared to work well. As he studied the script more closely, he made a surprising discovery. He came to the conclusion that the language behind Linear B was neither Etruscan nor Minoan, as he had first supposed, but rather a very early form of Greek.
(Many experts rejected the findings of Ventris, the 'amateur' researcher. But they were confounded by the discovery of an unusually clear tablet. Within the Linear B text were clear pictures of pots and jars, which the newly deciphered accompanying text described in detail. Ventris's findings were vindicated, and from that point his work began to be accepted by the academic establishment)
This finding had major historical implications. Up to that point, other experts had been convinced that the oldest written examples of Ancient Greek had been produced 500 years later than the script on the tablets.
THE MYSTERY OF KNOSSOS
In 1952, Ventris finally cracked the secret behind Linear B. He did not dare to go public with the announcement on his own. Instead, he told the renowned language scholar John Chadwick of his discovery. The following year, they jointly published their findings - 'Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean Archives' in the well-known specialist publication The Journal of Hellenic Studies. The 19-page paper created a furore in the academic world. Many researchers took exception to the apparently cavalier way in which Ventris had established the Greek provenance of the texts. Some commentators were also disappointed by the mundane content of his discoveries: the tablets contained unspectacular inventories of household goods or were balance-sheets kept by ancient bookkeepers.
The young architect was deluged with comments and questions by other researchers - ranging from furious rejection to enthusiastic agreement and breathless astonishment. But tragically, Ventris had little time to respond to his critics; aged just 34, he was killed in a car crash on September 6, 1956. Many other studies have been conducted on the subject since Ventris's breakthrough discovery, but today there are few scholars who would quibble with Michael Ventris's reputation as the 'Decipherer of Linear B'.
Other mysterious writing systems
Trie Vinca script
The oldest known writing system in the world is the Vinca script. The Vinca civilisation (c.5300-3500 BC) was based mainly in the Balkans, but also occurred in Hungary and Romania. The script has around 200 characters, which, have yet to be fully deciphered.
The Indus Valley script
The script of the Indus civilisations was used for short inscriptions, such as those used on seals. It has been found all along the Indus Valley in Pakistan, but mainly in Harappa, one of the centres of the Indus civilisation. The script dates to c.2500-2000 BC.
The Discus of Phaestos
Found on Crete, this artefact, dating from c.1700 BC, is inscribed with hieroglyph-like symbols. Scholars think that it is a religious text. It has still not been deciphered.