Reading Between the Lines: Decrypting the Scripts of the Minoans and Mycenaeans
Pick up a book in a language you have never learned. Read the first couple pages. See if you can understand any aspect of the culture between its covers. It is difficult, isn't it? It remains so until you learn to crack the code.
But what happens when you cannot crack the code? What happens when there is no frame of reference by which you can understand this new, unlearned language? What happens when the book in your hand goes unread and its contents are forgotten?
The Transition from Linear A to Linear B
Such is the case with Linear A, an ancient script dating back to the Bronze Age—to the time before Paris supposedly stole Helen from Troy, to a time when the gods of ancient Greece walked among men. The culture of the writers of Linear A remains highly mysterious because little of the language has yet been deciphered. Enter Linear B, a cousin language introduced by those who demolished the people who wrote in Linear A. What is then seen is one side of a very enigmatic tale. Both Linear A and Linear B are valuable to any scholarship relating to the Bronze Age, a period where trade was at a height, palatial communities and kingdoms reigned supreme, and warfare (as far as scholars can tell) was at an all-time low. So, what do we know of the many examples of each of the texts that have been found?
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Linear A, The Unfathomable Minoan Text
Linear A stems from the island of Crete, located in the Mediterranean, and part of modern day Greece. However, during Crete's heyday in the Bronze Age, it was independent of the mainland and home to the Minoans, an ancient group of people known for their seafaring ways, peaceful rather than turbulent imagery and, most significantly, affiliation with bull-horned religious sites.
Advanced for their time, the Minoans created the first form of writing, called simply "Cretan Hieroglyphics", which later was adjusted to create a second written language, the more stylized and formal Linear A. Unfortunately, this is where the comparison of these two writing systems ends—with the relationship to the Minoans—as Minoan written history remains shrouded in mystery, as the writing systems have not yet been deciphered.
Linear B, The Mycenaean Counterpart
Yet Linear A appears even more puzzling when compared to Linear B, the script of the Mycenaeans. Accused of destroying the Minoan civilization in brutal battles, the Mycenaeans appear in the history of ancient Greece after the Minoans disappear, and before the great collapse of the eastern empires in the 8 th century BC. This collapse is more commonly referred to as the Greek Dark Ages. In previous years, Linear A was considered the official script of the Minoans palaces, and it is likely Linear B served the same purpose in Mycenae.
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Based on archaeological and art historical similarities between the two cultures, it is not without merit to assume the Mycenaeans were influenced by the culture they ransacked and conquered. As Linear A ceases to be utilized by 1450 BC—the same time the Mycenaeans overwhelmed the Minoans—it is possible the Mycenaeans borrowed from their language to create their own literature, though the Mycenaeans chose a syllabic path rather than a symbolic one.
What the Scripts Might Say
Both Linear A and Linear B are valuable to classical scholarship as they form the backbone of pre-Greek language and literature. Much of what has been deciphered of Linear B references trade and economics which has allowed scholars to determine the extent of Mycenaean trade and thus their ability to control the oceanic trade routes. As it has also been hypothesized that the Mycenaeans literally displaced the Minoans (due to art historical from the Minoans, and art historical and literary evidence from the Egyptians), it appears that the Mycenaeans eventually controlled as much as the Minoans once had of the ancient economic waterways. Deciphering Linear A will not only provide valuable insight into Minoan culture, but also into the ways in which the Mycenaeans stole, borrowed or assimilated Minoan traditions and government into their own culture.