How Scholars Finally Deciphered Linear B, the Oldest Preserved Form of Ancient Greek Writing

In the ear­ly 1900s, British archae­ol­o­gist Sir Arthur Evans unearthed almost 3,000 tablets on the island of Crete, inscribed with a lan­guage he had nev­er seen before. The dis­cov­ery began a decades-long race to read the lan­guage of Europe’s old­est civ­i­liza­tion. And the final deci­pher­ing of the script, which Evans called Lin­ear B, end­ed up over­turn­ing an accept­ed his­to­ry of ancient Greek ori­gins as we learn in the TED-Ed video above script­ed by clas­sics pro­fes­sor Susan Lupack.

The tablets, found among the ruins of the ancient city of Knos­sos, belonged to a peo­ple who thrived 3,000–4,000 years ago, and whom Evans named the Minoans after the myth­i­cal king Minos, keep­er of the Mino­taur. Evans spent a good part of thir­ty years try­ing to deci­pher Lin­ear B with no suc­cess, keep­ing most of the tablets locked away. He did, how­ev­er, find two keys that allowed future researchers to trans­late the ancient lan­guage.

One of those schol­ars, Alice Kober, became inter­est­ed in the Minoan script while an under­grad­u­ate at Hunter Col­lege in New York. By the time she earned her doc­tor­ate, she had “devot­ed her­self to the deci­pher­ment of the pho­net­ic signs,” notes Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. “To do so, she stud­ied archae­ol­o­gy in New Mex­i­co and at the ASCSA, acquaint­ing her­self with the scripts of as many ancient lan­guages and cul­tures as she could.”

Schol­ars around the world spec­u­lat­ed about Lin­ear B. “Was it the lost lan­guage of the Etr­uscans?” they asked. “Or an ear­ly form of Basque?” Kober her­self spent two decades try­ing to decode the script. Like Evans, she died before she could com­plete her work, but she came clos­er than any­one had before. Mean­while, archi­tect Michael Ven­tris became obsessed with Lin­ear B, even work­ing on it while he served in World War II.

Build­ing on Kober’s meth­ods and new tablets exca­vat­ed at a Greek site, Pylos, he was able to iso­late the names of ancient places. From these geo­graph­i­cal ref­er­ences, Ven­tris “unrav­eled Lin­ear B, with each word reveal­ing more clear­ly” that the lan­guage it rep­re­sent­ed was not Minoan, but Greek. It is, in fact, “the old­est pre­served form of writ­ten Greek that we know of,” the Ancient His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­dia explains, like­ly “devised in Knoss­es (Crete), some­where around 1450 BCE when the Myce­naeans took con­trol of Knoss­es, and spread from here to Main­land Greece.”

It had pre­vi­ous­ly been assumed that the oppo­site occurred, that the Minoans had invad­ed Greece. This was Evans sup­po­si­tion, but Ven­tris’ dis­cov­ery showed, “whether by peace­ful annex­a­tion or armed inva­sion… the Minoan cul­ture was replaced, both in Crete and in main­land Greece, by the Myce­nean culture”—Greeks from the main­land who adopt­ed the Minoan script to write in Greek.

This means that the ancient Minoan lan­guage Evans hoped to find still remains a mys­tery, locked away in the labyrinth of anoth­er ancient script, called Lin­ear A. When this pri­mal lin­guis­tic ances­tor is final­ly deci­phered, it will prob­a­bly not be through decades of painstak­ing efforts by ded­i­cat­ed schol­ars, but through the sin­gu­lar break­through of a machine lan­guage.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Did Etr­uscan Sound Like? An Ani­mat­ed Video Pro­nounces the Ancient Lan­guage That We Still Don’t Ful­ly Under­stand

Hear What the Lan­guage Spo­ken by Our Ances­tors 6,000 Years Ago Might Have Sound­ed Like: A Recon­struc­tion of the Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean Lan­guage

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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