In 1900 the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) discovered a
large number of clay tablets inscribed with mysterious symbols at Knossos
on Crete. Believing he had discovered the palace of King Minos, together with
the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Evans dubed the inscriptions and the language
they represented as ‘Minoan’.
Evans spent the rest of his life trying to decipher the inscriptions, with
only limited success. He realised that the inscriptions represented three
different writing systems: a ‘hieroglyphic’ script, Linear A
and Linear B.
The hieroglphic script appears only on seal stones and has yet to be
deciphered. Linear A, also undeciphered, is thought to have evolved from
the hieroglyphic script, and Linear B probably evolved from Linear A,
though the relationship between the two scripts is unclear.
Evans figured out that short lines in Linear B texts were word dividers.
He also deciphered the counting system and a number of pictograms, which
led him to believe that the script was mainly pictographic. Evans also
discovered a number of parallels between the Cypriot script,
which had been deciphered, and Linear B. This indicated that the language
represented by Linear B was an ancient form of Greek, but he wasn’t
prepared to accept this, being convinced that Linear B was used to write
Minoan, a language unrelated to Greek.
In 1939, a large number of clay tablets inscribed with Linear B writing
were found at Pylos on the Greek mainland, much to the surprise of Evans,
who thought Linear B was used only on Crete.
Michael Ventris (1922-56) was the person who eventually deciphered
Linear B in 1953. His interest was sparked in 1936 on a school trip
to an exhibition about the Minoan world organised by Arthur Evans. For
the next 17 years, Ventris struggled to understand Linear B. At first
he was sceptical that the language of Linear B was Greek, even though
many of the deciphered words resembled an archaic form of Greek. Later,
with the help of John Chadwick, an expert on early Greek, he showed
beyond reasonable doubt the Linear B did indeed represent Greek.
Linear B was used between about 1500 and 1200 BC to write a form of
Greek known as Mycenaean, named after Mycenae, where Agamemnon is said
to have ruled. It . The Linear B inscriptions, most of which were accounting
records listing materials and goods, are the earliest known examples of
Linear B syllabary
Linear B logograms
These logograms stand for whole words and mainly represent items that
were traded. As Linear B was used mainly for recording transactions,
this is not surprising. Some of the logograms resemble the things the
represent, so could be called pictograms. Not all the logograms have
Linear B inscriptions from Knossos
ALPHABETUM – a Unicode font
specifically designed for ancient scripts, including classical
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Old & Middle English, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Old Nordic, Ogham,
Kharosthi, Glagolitic, Old Cyrillic, Phoenician, Avestan, Ugaritic,
Linear B, Anatolian scripts, Coptic, Cypriot, Brahmi, Old Persian cuneiform: