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