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?
- Identifying the Teresh of The Sea Peoples
- The Curious Phaistos Disc – Ancient Mystery or Clever Hoax?
- In Search of the Origins of the Philistines – Part 2
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.
- Homer: From Oral Tradition to Canon
- Origins of the Mysterious Minoans Unraveled by Scientists
- Mycenae, the Ancient city founded by Perseus
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.
Famous Minoan fresco from palace of Knossos, currently in Herakleion museum ( Public Domain )
A Key to the History of Minoa
Scholars of ancient languages have ascertained that while Linear B and Linear A share some symbols, Linear B is the predecessor of the ancient Greek language (Attic Greek, etc.) which eventually evolved into the modern language of the present. The translatability of Linear B has allowed scholars to make some headway in decoding the Minoan languages (due to the similarities), yet not enough so to translate Linear A. In fact, current scholarship has examined Linear A as more likely an Anatolian language (note: Anatolia is modern day Turkey), Phoenician (modern day North Africa), or even of Iranian descent. There is agreement that Linear A is likely Indo-European; the question plaguing archaeologists and linguists is from where it might have developed. As the Minoans overlapped with the Hittite Empire, the New Kingdom of Egypt and various Trojan political systems, any of these theories could hold the key to the roots of the Minoan language. And whichever key is true will finally unlock the secrets of the Minoan culture and, as important, the Minoan perspective of the downfall of their empire.
Top image: Clay Tablet inscribed with Linear B script dated 1450-1375 BC, Knossos ( CC BY 2.0 ))
By Ryan Stone
Anderson, Emily S.K. 2016. Seals, Crafts and Community in Bronze Age Crete . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chadwick, John. 1967. The Decipherment of Linear B . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Drews, Robert. 1995. The End of the Bronze Age : Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BCE. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Higgins, Reynold. 1997. Minoan and Mycenaean Art . Thames & Hudson.
Marangozis, John. 2006. An introduction to Minoan Linear A. LINCOM Europa.
Palmer, Leonard Robert. 1958. "Luvian and Linear A". Transactions of the Philological Society . 57.1. pp. 75–100
Palmer, Leonard Robert. 1962. Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean prehistory in the light of the Linear B tablets. Alfred A. Knopf.
Shelmerdine, Cynthia W. (ed) 2008. The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.