Text #9363"Linear B", in .
Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested form of Greek. The script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries. The oldest Mycenaean writing dates to about 1450 BC. It is descended from the older Linear A, an undeciphered earlier script used for writing the Minoan language, as is the later Cypriot syllabary, which also recorded Greek. Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean civilization during the Bronze Age Collapse. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, provides no evidence of the use of writing. It is also the only one of the three “Linears” (the third being Linear C, aka Cypro-Minoan 1) to be deciphered, by English architect and self-taught linguist, Michael Ventris.
Linear B consists of around 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs. These ideograms or “signifying” signs symbolize objects or commodities. They have no phonetic value and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence.
The application of Linear B appears to have been confined to administrative contexts. In all the thousands of clay tablets, a relatively small number of different “hands” have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete). From this fact, it could be thought that the script was used by only a guild of professional scribes who served the central palaces. Once the palaces were destroyed, the script disappeared.
Inscriptions in Linear B have been found on tablets and vases or other objects; they are catalogued and classified by, inter alia, the location of the excavation they were found in.
Another 170 inscriptions in Linear B have been found on various vessels, for a total of some 6,058 known inscriptions.
If it is genuine, the Kafkania pebble, dated to the 17th century BC, would be the oldest known Mycenean inscription, and hence the earliest preserved testimony of the Greek language. Besides that, an inscribed clay tablet was found in Iklaina dating to between 1450 and 1350 B.C.
It is claimed that a Linear B inscription is attested on an amber bead found as far at Bernstorf, in Germany.
The Knossos archive was dated by Arthur Evans to the destruction by conflagration of about 1400 BC, which would have baked and preserved the clay tablets. He dated this event to the LM II period. This view stood until Carl Blegen excavated the site of ancient Pylos in 1939 and uncovered tablets inscribed in Linear B. They were fired in the conflagration that destroyed Pylos about 1200 BC, at the end of LHIIIB. With the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris in 1952, serious questions about Evans’ date began to be considered. Most notably, Blegen said that the inscribed stirrup jars, which are oil flasks with stirrup-shaped handles, imported from Crete around 1200 were of the same type as those dated by Evans to the destruction of 1400. Blegen found a number of similarities between 1200 BC Pylos and 1400 BC Knossos and suggested the Knossian evidence be reexamined, as he was sure of the 1200 Pylian date.
The examination uncovered a number of difficulties. The Knossos tablets had been found at various locations in the palace. Evans had not kept exact records. Recourse was had to the day books of Evans’ assistant, Duncan Mackenzie, who had conducted the day-to-day excavations. There were discrepancies between the notes in the day books and Evans’ excavation reports. Moreover, the two men had disagreed over the location and strata of the tablets. The results of the reinvestigation were eventually published by Palmer and Boardman, On the Knossos Tablets. It contains two works, Leonard Robert Palmer’s The Find-Places of the Knossos Tablets and John Boardman’s The Date of the Knossos Tablets, representing Blegen’s and Evans’ views respectively. Consequently, the dispute was known for a time as “the Palmer-Boardman dispute”. There has been no generally accepted resolution to it yet.
The major cities and palaces used Linear B for records of disbursements of goods. Wool, sheep, and grain were some common items, often given to groups of religious people and to groups of “men watching the coastline.”
The tablets were kept in groups in baskets on shelves, judging by impressions left in the clay from the weaving of the baskets. When the buildings they were housed in were destroyed by fires, many of the tablets were fired.
Michael Ventris and John Chadwick performed the bulk of their decipherment of Linear B between 1951 and 1953. At first, Ventris chose his own numbering system, and agreed with Evans’ hypothesis that Linear B was not Greek; however he later switched back to Bennett’s system. His decipherment, however, would not have been possible without 180,000 cards with notations, created by Kober over several years. While Ventris ultimately made the final connections, Kober’s body of work was an integral part of the final solution.
Based on Kober’s work, and after making some assumptions, Ventris was able to deduce the pronunciation of the syllables. Some Linear B tablets had been discovered on the Greek mainland, and there was reason to believe that some of the chains of symbols he had encountered on the Cretan tablets were names. Noting that certain names appeared only in the Cretan texts, he made the guess that those names applied to cities on the island. This proved to be correct. Armed with the symbols he could decipher from this, Ventris soon unlocked much text and determined that the underlying language of Linear B was in fact Greek, in direct contradiction to the general scientific views of the times, and to Ventris’ own hunch that it would turn out to be Etruscan.
Ventris’ discovery was of some significance, because it demonstrated a Greek-speaking Minoan-Mycenaean culture on Crete, and presented Greek in writing some 600 years earlier than what was thought at the time.
In 1935, the British School at Athens was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with an exhibition at Burlington House, London. Among the speakers was Sir Arthur Evans, then in his eighty-fourth year, and the teenager Michael Ventris was present in the audience. John Chadwick, a student of historical Greek, helped Ventris decipher the text and discover the vocabulary and grammar of Mycenaean Greek.