Cracking Linear A and insights into Minoan culture

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TWH – One hundred and twenty years ago, the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans uncovered long-buried evidence of not one, but two distinct scripts during his excavation of the ancient palace of Knossos on the island of Crete.

Clay tablet with Linear A inscribed – Image credit: Olaf Tausch –  CC BY 3.0

The modern world has long sought to decipher the mysterious incised clay tablets bearing Linear A, and recent work by Dr. Ester Salgarella of St. John’s College at Cambridge has brought us one step closer to understanding Linear B’s precursor, and how the two are related—and how they remain very far apart.

The two writing systems of Linear A and Linear B were first rediscovered in 1886. While excavations by Sir Arthur Evans helped to reveal much about the nature of the writing systems and how they were used, deciphering them was a different matter. For decades, linguists, archaeologists, mathematicians, and people simply interested in the mystery studied both Linear A and B.

Finally, building upon the groundbreaking work of classicist Alice Kober, Michael Ventris was able to decipher Linear B in the early 1950s. After Alice Kober figured out that the symbols represented not individual letters, but syllables, Ventris was able to compare the clay tablets from multiple sites to determine that certain words were in fact place names. He was able to determine that Linear B was based on a phonetic Greek dialect.

Initially hopeful that Linear A would soon be cracked, scholars and linguists soon realized that applying the same translation of syllable-to-symbol from Linear B to Linear A produced an unintelligible mess. Linear B is a writing system based on the Mycenaean Greek language, but Linear A, most scholars agree, is not. Just what the ancient language encoded in Linear A’s symbols is remains a mystery to this day.

While Dr. Salgarella’s work is important and will be helpful in the continuing quest to decipher Linear A, it isn’t a translation—that isn’t likely to happen yet for some time.

Despite intensive study, linguists and Linear A enthusiasts just do not have enough material, explains Laura Perry, author of several books on modern Minoan Paganism, as well as The Minoan Tarot. She continued, “we would need at least twice as much material as we have now to complete an accurate decipherment.”

A sample of Linear B script, the earliest Greek writing, 1450 BC, and an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A script. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. It is a script made up of 90 syllabic signs, ideograms and numbers, a form earlier than that used for the Homeric poems. These clay tablets were fortuitously preserved when they were baked in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos fire 250 years later. Image credit:  Sharon Mollerus – originally posted to Flickr as How Cool Is Writing? – CC BY 2.0

Finds of the fired clay tablets bearing Linear B inscriptions are far more prolific. While archaeologists have uncovered over 5,000 Linear B inscriptions, Linear A finds lag far behind—only about 1,400 so far—and many are also very brief.

The use of Linear A decidedly predates Linear B in the archaeological record. Finds of Linear A date from around 1800-1450 BCE. Linear B dates from around 1450 BCE until the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms during the late Bronze Age, around 1200 BCE. There is a short gap in the archaeological record between Linear A and Linear B. The symbols of Linear A transitioned to Linear B with mostly minor changes, and in both cases appears to have been a system of documenting administrative and professional tasks, including counting livestock and describing other forms of trade.

Most of Linear B has been decoded and the implication is that at least the professional class were utilizing the Greek language in administrative tasks. There are several theories as to the underlying language encoded in the Linear A symbols with attempts to tie it to Anatolian, Phoenician, or Tyrrhenian language groups, but pinning down even the larger language group continues to prove elusive. Dr. Salgarella has created an online resource called SigLA—“The Signs of Linear A: A Paleographic Database” to make it easier to quickly compare the two scripts.

Over 130 years later, scholars are still arguing about how many signs even make up Linear A, says Laura Perry, and how many of those are actually core signs.

“The number of Linear A symbols is disputed, because in many cases we can’t tell whether differences in individual signs are due to variations in handwriting or actual sign differences. But it’s likely we’ll end up with at least 100 signs after all is said and done.”

Because the signs for many numbers, several place names, and a few logograms—signs which stand alone and represent a commodity, like ‘wine’—have been determined, there are tantalizing clues for some of the clay items. Other signs, such as those for personal names, seem to be closely related phonetically between Linear A and B.

Much of the workaround Linear A is open access and available online to anyone, including the database of Dr. Salgarella, as well as the transcription work done by Dr. John Younger and many others, in the hopes that having many people from various backgrounds working on the problem will lead to a faster solution. Dr. Salgarella has admitted that assuming that signs have similar sounds in both Linear A and B is possibly problematic, but so far, her work in this area bears out and could be a significant move towards a positive language identification.

Minoan inscriptions in Linear A script. Phaistos, 1850-1450 BC. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Image credit: Zde – CC BY-SA 4.0

For her part, Laura Perry hopes for a big find. “I’m holding out hope that some lucky archaeologist will turn up a large cache of Linear A tablets and move us forward significantly toward the amount of text we need,” she mused.

While excavations on Crete as well as on the Greek mainland are ongoing and occasionally turn up an additional tablet or two, Laura Perry’s hoped-for “large cache” would speed up the work. In the meantime, scholars and enthusiasts around the world await each small archaeological contribution to the still mysterious Minoan language.

Special thanks to Laura Perry for discussing this recent find, and helping to illuminate Dr. Salgarella’s discovery in the larger context of the scholarship surrounding Linear A.