The Decipherment of Linear B

I’ve been reading this over the past few days (welp, the Canto Classics 2nd Edition), and it’s pretty darned interesting.

This book is, as the title would suggest, an account of efforts to decipher Linear B, an ancient script found on clay tablets excavated on Crete and in parts of mainland Greece. The book was written by John Chadwick, who collaborated with the eventual decipherer of Linear B, the self-taught linguist Michael Ventris. The original version of this account was published in 1952.

Chadwick’s account starts off with a brief biography of Ventris, covering his early years, education, and the beginnings of his interest in Linear B and linguistics more generally. The next few chapters cover previous attempts to crack this ancient linguistic code. These start with Arthur J. Evans’ setting the ball rolling with his initial classification of the scripts and symbols into syllabaric and ideographic forms. Unfortunately, Evans decided quite firmly that Linear B could not possibly be a form of Greek, but rather was a way of writing the Minoan language, similarly (it is to be assumed) to the still-undeciphered Linear A. This erroneous assumption is one on which he built much of his subsequent career, producing a quite spectacular case of confirmation bias. The account then moves to Alice Kober’s classification of the symbols into triplets based similarities in their forms, and Emmett L. Bennett’s creation (in collaboration with Kober) of conventions for transcribing the symbols of Linear B as numbers.

After this comes the main meat of the story — Michael Ventris’ climactic decipherment of the ancient language. Much of this section contains descriptions of cryptographic and philological techniques which, being inexperienced in these fields, I have to admit I found difficult to follow. One part I did understand, though, was that frequency analysis formed the basis on which Ventris assigned the syllabic values ko-no-so (Knossos) and a-mi-ni-so (Amnisos) to two particular recurring groups of symbols which looked like place names. From there, the unexplored vistas of Linear B opened up before him, showing that this most fascinating of scripts is an abbreviated form of Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested form of the Greek language. This section, and the next, were easily my favourite parts of the book.

After covering the momentous decipherment, and the incredibly positive (though not entirely without dissent and controversy) reaction, is a chapter speculating about what can be deduced about the Mycenaean civilisation which used Linear B. The small number of different ‘hands’ or styles of handwriting indicated few scribes, which in turn implies a specially trained class of literate people at the core of a sort of bureaucracy which ran a wealthy civilised society (indicated by references to quantities of gold, silver and luxury goods, and to persons with very specialised jobs such as makers of material for decorative inlays on furniture). References to supplies and troop movements imply that the ruler(s) of this society were preparing for war or at least feared some sort of attack, militaristic or otherwise. This is borne out by the fact that the Linear B tablets excavated from the site of a palace at Knossos were in a catastrophic fire, thus being baked and preserved for their future discovery.

Finally, there is a short essay by John Chadwick, dated 1992, examining the progress that had been made in the study of Linear B and its related scripts in the forty or so years after the initial decipherment. It is interesting, but indubitably out of date by now.

While this book can get a bit technical, I would still highly recommend it as a brilliant look at some of the earliest known written language.

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