When Arthur Evans started digging at Knossos on Crete in 1900, a major aim was to find inscriptions and prove that the ancient Cretans had been literate. He was rewarded almost immediately by the discovery of slabs of baked clay, some rectangular, some leaf-shaped, bearing two types of inscription of hitherto unknown form. The earlier, Linear A, represented the language of the Minoans, who had built the great palace at Knossos. The later, Linear B, represented a subsequent intrusion of Mycenaeans from the mainland. Over 4,000 Linear B tablets were eventually recovered from Knossos. More than 1,000 were also found at Pylos in the Peloponnese, and smaller numbers have been recovered at Thebes, Mycenae, Tiryns, and Chania. But throughout the 40 years of Evans’ work at Knossos, the inscriptions could not be read.
The Linear B Tablets deciphered
What was the language of the tablets, and what did they say? The central problem was the absence of a readable parallel text – like that on the Rosetta Stone, which carries the same information in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek, such that the (unknown) Egyptian could be deciphered using the (known) Greek. Linear B had to be deciphered using nothing but the evidence of its own form. It was a brilliant young scholar, architect (and former wartime bomber navigator) called Michael Ventris who cracked the code – though with vital contributions from several other scholars, including close collaborator John Chadwick. First, he realised Linear A and Linear B were similar scripts but different languages. Second, he analysed statistically the placing and frequency of different symbols within individual words in order to build up an understanding of grammatical structure. Third, in a speculative leap, he substituted Greek sounds for Linear B symbols. At this point, the result might have been a ‘dislocated jumble’ – if Linear B was not Greek. Instead, the result was readable text: the tablets were a mass of official documents from palace archives – but written in Greek.
The Linear B Tablets interpreted
From archaeological context, Linear B was known to be the writing of the Mycenaeans. But before 1952 no-one knew who the Mycenaeans were. Archaeology had revealed a rich Late Bronze Age culture of c.1600-1100 BC, but the language and ethnicity of its creators remained uncertain. Many scholars still doubted the Mycenaeans were Greek, and viewed Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as wholly mythological. The decipherment of Linear B settled this argument forever, proving the Mycenaeans were Greek, and rooting Homer’s epics in an ancient folk tradition that recalled real events centuries before. Tragically, Michael Ventris, the man who made this critical discovery, was almost immediately killed in a car crash.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 34. Click here to subscribe