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Ancient Scripts

Ancient Languages


Among other things, the coming of Mycenaean Greeks from Mainland Greece to Crete was accompanied by the adaptation of Minoan script to the Hellenic language. Mycenaean Linear B, which was also a syllabic script, was recorded on clay tablets at Knossos (ko-no-so), c.1400 B.C.. It was deciphered by the English architect Michael Ventris in 1952. The language of the tablets is Mycenaean Greek; they refer to the rulers of Knossos (Anax), to warriors and chariots, to olive oil and aromatic oils, honey, wine and large numbers of sheep.

Extensive references are made to the tax records of Knossos, thus indicating a highly organized bureaucracy. There is also information concerning offerings to the Pantheon, to Zeus and to other divinities. The Linear B Script fell into disuse following the destruction of Knossos, though its survival has been attested at Chania (ku-do-ni-ja) and in Mycenaean Greece.


During the period from 1700 to 1450 B.C. the syllabic script of Linear A was widely used. Because Minoan Linear A developed into Mycenaean Linear B, it is possible to “read” though not to fully “understand” the contents of the Minoan inscriptions, which record various products (wine, cereals, figs), animals, personnel, as well as offerings at religious sites (peak sanctuaries).

Minoan inscriptions have also been found beyond Crete, in the Peloponnese, on Thera, Milos, Kea, Kythera and Samothraki, at Troy, at Miletus in Asia Minor and in Palestine-Israel, thus demonstrating the extent of Minoan trade and international relations. The Minoan inscriptions are now approximately 2000 in number. “Cretan Hieroglyphic” and Linear A inscriptions of the Second Palace Period are now beginning to inform us about Minoan administration, society, commerce and religion.


The oldest example of writing from Europe is on a seal-stone found at Archanes, 10 km. from Knossos. The symbols in this first script are encountered as early as the Pre-Palatial period, mainly on seal-stones. The idea for the “Cretan Hieroglyphic” Script probably came from the neighbouring literate people of Egypt, although the script, like Mycenaean Linear B and Minoan Linear A, was also syllabic in nature.

Such inscriptions are found on clay tablets, seal-stones and various other objects. The “Cretan Hieroglyphic” Script (c.2000-1600 B.C.) was an invention of the First Palaces and is found in inscriptions of both administrative and religious content. The best known example of this is the Phaistos Disk (which bears 45 different printed signs, 242 in total, in 61 words, on its two sides).


The best-known Minoan inscription is the Phaistos Disk. It is commonly accepted that this can be read spirally, i.e., from the rim inwards. 16 cm in diameter, the disk’s two sides bear a total of 242 signs which can be divided into 61 groups. There are 45 different signs on the Disk, too many for them to constitute an alphabet and too few for them to constitute a truly ideographic script, as is the case with Chinese. This observation enables us to deduce that it is also a syllabic script, as are both Linear B and Linear A.

It goes without saying that that the language of the Disk is unknown, and thus the text remains beyond our reach. Nevertheless, this has not deterred many potential decipherers from offering their own interpretations. Indeed, more has been written about this Cretan inscription than about any other, but most work is the product of fantasy.

MYCENAEAN GREEK (C.1400-1200 B.C.)

The decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris in 1952, demonstrated that the language recorded in the clay tablets was Mycenaean Greek, some 500-700 years before the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. The inscriptions from Knossos, Pylos, Mycenae and Tiryns, Thebes and Khania, clearly demonstrate the nature of the Greek language as a well-defined distinct centum branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

Linear B records the Greek Language in the second half of the second millennium from the Mycenaean take-over of Knossos until the destruction of Pylos, shortly after the Trojan War. The works of Ventris, Chadwick, Hooker et alii have shown the phonology and morphology of Mycenaean Greek, and its unbroken development into Classical, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Modern Greek. It is possible, by interpreting Mycenaean inscriptions, to write the history of Mycenaean Greece (c.1400-1200 B.C.).

MINOAN LANGUAGE (C. 2000-1400 B.C.)

The excavation of Knossos by Arthur Evans, and a century of subsequent research on Minoan Crete, has uncovered c.2,000 Minoan inscriptions. An epigraphic study, transferring the sound values from Mycenaean Linear B to Minoan Linear A as a working hypothesis, has made it possible to “read” the Minoan language. Subsequent linguistic study has now made it possible to begin to “understand” the Minoan language.

Indeed, a systematic approach has made it possible to identify the Minoan language as a separate distinct branch of the Indo-European family of languages from the first half of the second millennium, with connections with Sanskrit, Armenian and Greek. There is clear evidence for gender, noun and verb endings, and items of vocabulary, all indicative of a language of an Indo-European nature. It is now possible to start writing the history of Minoan Crete (c.2,000-1400 B.C.).

Faistos Disk


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