Discovery and deciphiering of the Crete inscriptions ‘Liner B’

The palace of Knossos in Crete was excavated by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. The excavation also ‘discovered a large number of clay tablets inscribed with mysterious symbols’ (Ager, 2013) and Evans ‘dubbed the inscriptions and the language they represented as “Minoan”’ (ibid) because he believed that ‘he had discovered the palace of King Minos, together with the Minotaur’s labyrinth’ (ibid), told in the Greek mythology. Later, Evans categorised the inscriptions in three different languages; a hieroglyphic script, linear scripts A and B. This blog entry would like to examine how one of these mysterious scripts was deciphered, focusing on three scholars’ contributions basically in chronological order; Sir Arthur Evans, Alice Kober and Michael Ventris. Through looking at the process of deciphering of Linear B, it will also try to explain why the language was a form of ancient Greek.

Sir Arthur Evans was born in 1851, in Nash Mills, England. He was ‘the son of the famous prehistorian Sir John Evans’ (Ashmolean Museum, 2012), and was ‘educated at Harrow School, Brasenose College, the University of Oxford’ (http://archpropplan.auckland.ac.nz/virtualtour/knossos/22more.htm) in between 1870 and 1874. He ‘travelled across Europe for many years’ (Ashmolean Museum, 2012) before he was ‘appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum’ (ibid) in 1884. His work in the Museum did not prevent him from further travelling and ‘from 1893 onwards his interests shifted to Greece and especially Crete’ (ibid). This shift seems to be triggered by his interest in languages as well for ‘Evans visited Crete for the first time in 1894 in order to study and decipher the unknown script that could be made out on seal stones, he also purchased about quarter of the site. A year later he published the results in Cretan Pictographs and Pre-Phoenician Script (http://archpropplan.auckland.ac.nz/virtualtour/knossos/22more.htm).

Political situation also backed up his further researches and enabled him to conduct a massive excavation at Knossos ‘when the island had been declared an independent State’ (ibid) in 1900. The excavation at the site continued until 1931. As for the excavation, it is said that ‘it proved necessary to preserve and restore the monuments that were being uncovered’ (ibid) from the early stage, but the method of restoration Evans took ‘has received much criticism since it introduced materials foreign to Minoan architecture’ (ibid). As for deciphering of the discovered inscriptions, Evans made a certain achievement in his life time:

‘He realised that the inscriptions represented three different writing systems: a ‘hieroglyphic’ script, Linear A and Linear B.

The hieroglphic script appears only on seal stones and has yet to be deciphered. Linear A, also undeciphered, is thought to have evolved from the hieroglyphic script, and Linear B probably evolved from Linear A, though the relationship between the two scripts is unclear.

Evans figured out that short lines in Linear B texts were word dividers. He also deciphered the counting system and a number of pictograms, which led him to believe that the script was mainly pictographic. Evans also discovered a number of parallels between the Cypriot script, which had been deciphered, and Linear B. This indicated that the language represented by Linear B was an ancient form of Greek, but he wasn’t prepared to accept this, being convinced that Linear B was used to write Minoan, a language unrelated to Greek.

In 1939, a large number of clay tablets inscribed with Linear B writing were found at Pylos on the Greek mainland, much to the surprise of Evans, who thought Linear B was used only on Crete’ (Ager, 2013)’.

With the hindsight that has been available after the deciphering of Linear B, now the puzzlement Evans faced can be explained as following: ‘Linear B was used between about 1500 and 1200 BC to write a form of Greek known as Mycenaean, named after Mycenae, where Agamemnon is said to have ruled’ (ibid). It is said that Mycenaean ‘adapted the Linear A alphabet to allow them to write down their own language, and that the language spoken in Crete at least by the rulers and their officials after 1450 BC was Greek, lending further credence to the theory that the island was conquered by the Mycenaeans’ (BBC h2g2, 2002). In the meantime, Linear A was used by the previous rules of Crete, who built the palace of Knossos but ‘all attempts to decipher the Linear A texts have failed’ (ibid) because nobody knows the language in its spoken form. Sir Arthur Evans died in 1941 at the age of 90, before Linear B was deciphered. Evans ‘is constantly admired for his intuition, his creative imagination and his profound scholarship. It is to him that we owe the discovery of the marvellous Minoan Civilisation, which until his time was only dimly reflected in Greek Mythology’ (http://archpropplan.auckland.ac.nz/virtualtour/knossos/22more.htm).

After the death of Evans, his ambition for deciphering the clay tablet scripts was left to surviving scholars, experts and individual researchers. Among them was an American female classicist, Miss Alice Kober. According to Margalit Fox, an author on Linear B, Kober ‘was an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in New York where she taught Latin and Greek classes all day’ (Gallafent, 2013). She ‘lived with her widowed mother, and there is no record in her papers of a social or romantic life of any kind. Instead, for almost two decades (in 1930s and 40s), Alice Kober devoted herself to trying to crack this mysterious Bronze Age script’ (ibid). Through her ‘hours and hours of unseen labour’, Fox adds, ‘She turned herself into the world’s leading expert on Linear B’ (ibid). On top of Latin and Greek, she also learned Egyptian. Akkadian. Sumerian, and Sanskrit – partly due to the academic climate on Linear B where, ‘Greek had been ruled out by scholars at the time’ (ibid) – but she also rigorously refused ‘to speculate on what the language was, or what the sounds of the symbols might be’ (ibid). Instead, she established her own methods and poured her efforts described as following:

‘… she set out to record the frequency of every symbol in the tablets, both in general, and then in every position within a word.

She also recorded the frequency of every character in juxtaposition to that of every other character.

It was a mammoth task, performed without the aid of computers. In addition, during the years surrounding World War II, writing materials were hard to come by.

Kober recorded her detailed analysis on index cards, which she made from the backs of old greetings cards, library checkout slips, and the inside covers of examination books.

By hand, she painstakingly cut more than 180,000 tiny index cards, using cigarette cartons as her filing system’ (ibid).

As a result of her hard work, she ‘spotted groups of symbols that appeared throughout the inscriptions – groups that would start the same, but end in consistently different ways. That was the breakthrough. Kober now knew that Linear B was an inflected language, with word endings that shifted according to use’ (ibid). Despite her marvellous achievement and the fact that she was ‘on the verge of deciphering Linear B’ (ibid), misfortune fell on her before she could complete the work. Alice Kober ‘fell ill, suddenly, and died soon after. The cause of her death is not known for sure, but it may well have been a form of cancer. It was 1950, and she was 43’ (ibid). At the point, where Kober ‘had correctly deciphered around one third of the Linear B characters’ (ibid), the mission was left for the third person – Michael Ventris.

Michael Ventris’s early careers can be summarised as following: he ‘was born on 12 July 1922 to an Indian Army officer and the daughter of a wealthy Polish landowner. He was educated on the continent and at Stowe School in England. He spoke several languages at an early age and showed a precocious interest in ancient scripts, having bought a book on Egyptian Hieroglyphs when he was seven.

His interest in Linear B began in 1936 when he went with a school group to an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the British School at Athens. Sir Arthur Evans, then 85 years old, happened to be present in the gallery and showed the boys his finds from Knossos, including the Linear B documents. His teacher remembers Ventris asking: “Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, Sir?” Thus began a life-long fascination with “the Minoan problem”.

Ventris wrote to Evans — who kindly wrote back — and soon published his first article on the subject, when he was just 18 years old. This came out in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1940. The same year, Ventris began a course at the Architectural Association School in Bedford Square to embark on his chosen profession as an architect’ (University of Cambridge, 2007).

During the WWII, Ventris ‘served as a navigator’ (ibid) while Sir Arthur Evans died ‘just in time to be spared news of the occupation of Crete’ in 1941. But Ventris ‘never forgot the Aegean scripts problem’ (ibid) and after the death of Evans, he ‘corresponded thereafter with Sir John Myres, who had been entrusted by Evans with the publication of Scripta Minoa II, the Linear B tablets of Knossos’ (ibid).

After the war, it still took Ventris a few more years to settle things back on track. He was further mobilised to Germany due to this excellence in 1946, and after that he had to concentrate for his architect degree, which he finished in 1948. Through these years, Ventris visited John Myres in Oxford twice and in both occasions he had to decline the invitation for helping publication of Scripta Minoa II due to his busyness. Interestingly, Ventris had an opportunity to meet Alice Kober, who was brought in by Myres, in the second occasion on August 1948. Though this was the sole opportunity for Ventris and Kober to see each other, it is said that the meeting ‘was not a great success, and… It has been said that Ventris withdrew because, as an amateur, he was intimidated by academia’ (ibid) while it would be worth adding that ‘many academics themselves found Kober and Myres rather formidable!’ (ibid) Furthermore, other factors that made this meeting unsuccessful are allegedly pointed out as it follows: there was a crucial ‘disagreement over how the tablets should be classified’ (ibid) between Ventris and others and in this, ‘he was justified’ (ibid) when ‘a new set of transcriptions were later prepared by himself, (John) Chadwick and (Emmett) Bennett’ (ibid). As for compatibility between Ventris and Kober, some argues that ‘each underestimated the other deeply… She underestimated him because he was an amateur, and he underestimated her because she was a woman’ (Gallafent, 2013).

Following the circulation of his “Mid-Century Report” on Linear B in 1950, he ‘gave up his architectural job to work full-time on Linear B’ (University of Cambridge, 2007). In his attempt for deciphering, Ventris ‘wondered about the repeated groups of symbols identified by Kober as evidence of inflection’ (Gallafent, 2013). Then he began to work – in his words, ‘rather like doing a crossword puzzle on which the positions of the black squares haven’t been printed for you’ (University of Cambridge, 2007) – assuming the characters as a syllabic system and focused on finding some place names because these are ‘exactly the kinds of thing you’d expect to crop up all the time, especially on official palace documents. And place names often don’t change much, even after centuries’ (Gallafent, 2013). By February 1952, ‘he wrote to Myres about the Knossos place names’ (University of Cambridge, 2007) he had deciphered in the script and by May, ‘he felt the code was “breaking” and that, to his astonishment, the Linear B documents were, after all, written in Greek’ (ibid). Then, Ventris was invited to talk about Myre’s publication on the BBC Third Programme and he ‘took the opportunity to announce the decipherment and it was broadcast to the world on 1 July 1952’ (ibid). The broadcast enabled Ventris to collaborate with John Chadwick, a professional philologist – especially an expert on early Greek – who heard the programme, and they worked together closely for deciphering the script for a next few y ears.

As a result, it turned out that Linear B was ‘a form of ancient Greek, which had been taken to Crete by invaders from the mainland. The Greeks themselves did not develop an alphabet until centuries later, but at Knossos their language was written down for the first time, using an ancient script indigenous to the island’ (Gallafent, 2013). It would be worth to mention that ‘In a lecture after he had cracked Linear B…Ventris did however give substantial credit to Kober for her contribution – but this acknowledgement went largely unnoticed’ (ibid). Some argue that ‘Ventris would never have been able to crack the code, had it not been for an American classicist, Alice Kober’ (ibid) whilst others ‘question whether Kober would have had the creative spark to jump the final hurdle’ (ibid). Long before answering to this question, Michael Ventris ‘died in a tragic car accident on 6 September 1956’ (University of Cambridge, 2007), while he was ‘At the height of his fame and just weeks before the publication of his great joint work with Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek’ (ibid). The accident ‘has never been fully explained (and) some believe it may have been suicide’ (Gallafent, 2013).

Thus, this blog entry looked at how the Minoan scripts were discovered at the palace of Knossos in Crete, excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900 and how he dubbed the inscriptions with legendary King Minos in his mind. It also saw it was Evans, who differentiated the scripts in three languages and one of them was called Linear B. After the death of Evans, it was Alice Kober, who made a significant progress on deciphering Linear B due to her hard work through the 1930s and 40s. Despite the war time hardship, she established her own method for analysing the characters and achieved to correctly decipher around one third of the Linear B characters, nonetheless, she fell ill and suddenly died in 1950 before she could crack the code. The end of the WWII enabled Michael Ventris, who was originally inspired by Sir Arthur Evans during a school trip, to work full-time on deciphering of Linear B and when he finally managed it, in 1952, it was revealed that the language written in Linear B was a form of ancient Greek, which had been spoken by Mycenaean, who ruled Crete from around 1450 B. C. after the decline of indigenous people, who had built the Palace of Knossos and developed their writing system, Linear A.

Reference:

Ager, Simon (2013), Linear B, Omniglot – the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages (electronically accessed 09/07/2013)http://www.omniglot.com/writing/linearb.htm

Ashmolean Museum (2012), Sir Arthur Evans, The Sir Arthur Evans Archive, the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (electronically accessed 11/07/2013)
http://sirarthurevans.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/biography/

BBC h2g2 (2002), The Menoan Civilisation of Crete (electronically accessed 10/07/2013)http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A765146

Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge (2007), Life of Ventris, The Faculty – Research Groups and Societies – Mycenaean Epigraphy Group – Decipherment (electronically accessed 17/07/2013)http://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/faculty/research_groups_and_societies/mycenaean_epigraphy/decipherment/life_of_ventris/

Gallafent, Alex (2013), Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B, BBC News – Magazine (last updated 05/06/2013, electronically accessed 16/07/2013)http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22782620

Maguire, Daryl (year unstated), Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) (electronically accessed 24/07/2013)
http://archpropplan.auckland.ac.nz/virtualtour/knossos/22more.htm

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