linearb.html

The
Nature and Use of the Linear B Script

Archeologists working on the Islands of Crete uncovered
a Minoan civilization that seems to have been involved with the civilization
of Mycennean Greece. Some of the artifacts can be reliably dated as belonging
to the century between 1300-1200 BCE. The important Island sites include:
Mycenae; Thebes; Tiryns; Knossos, and Pylos. The sites of the ancient Minoan
cultures included texts and inscriptions in two different writing systems,
known as Linear A and Linear B. Linear A is used to write a Minoan language
(unrelated to Greek) that has never been identified or deciphered; Linear
B is a script derived from Linear A and used (according to the currently
prevailing theory originally developed by Michael Ventris in 1952) to write
an extremely ancient form of Greek, Mycennean Greek.
 
Linear B is a syllabary – a script whose characters represent
not individual letters but entire syllables (the devanagari writing system
of Sanskrit, and the kana scripts of Japanese are also syllabaries). The
syllables may be entirely vocalic or open syllables of a consonant-vowel
combination (for example, ka, ta, na, pi, do, etc.), but no closed syllables
(of a vowel-consonant combination, for example ap, ik, ul, etc.). There
are approximately 90 such syllabic characters. Some Linear B inscriptions
also make use of ideograms (approximately 100). The texts I’ve consulted
so far confuse „ideogram“ and what I prefer to call „logograms.“ In other
words, they discuss the ideograms as characters in Linear B that represent
words. I would prefer to distinguish among „pictograms“
– characters that represent objects pictorially; „ideograms“ – as characters
that represent „ideas“ pictorially; and „logograms“ – characters which
represent words pictorially. Given the remaining questions and controversies
surrounding Linear B, it is not at all clear to which of these categories
the signs in question belong, and the texts do not seem aware of the distinctions,
or perhaps avoid it as unanswerable. I think it important not simply out
of my characteristic obsessive compulsiveness regarding language, but because
these categories are fully and illuminatingly attested in Sumerian and
Akkaddian cuneiform (as well as in Mayan writing systems and others, but
I wanted to keep this discussion within the parameters of the Ancient Mediterranean
and Near East). Two writing systems were also discovered, Linear A and
Linear B.Ý

THE DATE OF THE KNOWN LINEAR B TEXTS

The tablets from the citadel of Mycenae and from Thebes,
as well as all but five of the over 1100 tablets from Pylos, are firmly
dated to the end of the 13th century B.C. by the burnt destruction contexts
in which they were found. The tablets from Tiryns probably date from the
same period, although they were found in wash deposits containing later
material. The tablets from the houses outside the walls at Mycenae are
earlier in date, although probably no more than fifty years earlier. How
much earlier than ca. 1250 B.C. a group of five odd tablets from Pylos
may be, three of which resemble Knossian Linear B more closely in paleographic
terms than they do Mainland Greek Linear B, is uncertain. For many years,
the tablets at Knossos were dated within the period ca. 1425-1385 B.C.
[end of LM II or ca. 1425 B.C. (Evans); early LM IIIA2 or ca. 1385 B.C.
(Popham)], but there is a growing consensus that they are to be attributed
not to the destruction horizon of ca. 1385 B.C. at Knossos but rather to
a subsequent destruction of the site sometime in the mid- to later 13th
century, that is, to a period broadly contemporary with the Linear B tablets
from the Mainland. The most recent and perhaps most decisive piece of evidence
in favor of a later dating in the 13th century B.C. for the Knossos tablets
is the discovery of a pair of tablets at Chania in a LM IIIB1 destruction
context, one of which appears to have been written by a scribal hand already
known at Knossos. All of the inscribed stirrup jars which come from well-dated
contexts are datable to the 13th century B.C. (LM/LH IIIIB) and these include
an example from Knossos itself. It is now beginning to appear that Linear
B, both on the Mainland and in Crete, is a phenomenon strictly of the 13th
century B.C. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to argue that
Linear B was created much if at all earlier than ca. 1350-1300 B.C. Theories
that connect the beginning of Linear B with the appearance of Mycenaeans
at Knossos ca. 1450-1425 B.C. or with the presence of Minoan artisans on
the Greek Mainland at an even earlier period ca. 1600-1500 B.C. (the era
of the Shaft Grave burials at Mycenae) may have to be abandoned as a result
of the redating of the Knossos tablets.

Linear
B
is a principally syllabic script written with some 89 different signs
which have been deciphered as representing both bare vowels (i.e. a, e,
i, o, u) and open syllables of the form consonant+vowel (e.g. pa, pe, pi,
po, pu). Closed syllables consisting either of vowel+consonant or of consonant+vowel+consonant
do not occur. In addition to the syllabic signs there are over one hundred
ideograms (signs representing physical objects, numerals, measures of weight
and of liquid and dry volumes, and a variety of commodities). Forty-five
of the Linear B syllabic signs have close equivalents in Linear A, while
a further ten have more doubtful parallels in the older script. There is
therefore general scholarly consensus that Linear B was derived from Linear
A for the purpose of writing a different, non-Minoan language which happens
to have been deciphered as an early form of Greek. It is still unknown
where, when, why, by whom, and under what circumstances the Linear B writing
system was devised for this purpose although several suggestions have been
proposed as solutions to each of these five fundamental questions.

Linear B, in the form of sign groups which form words
as opposed to isolated signs with a variety of possible significances,
occurs in only two forms of text. The first and most important consists
of tablets of unbaked clay which have survived due to the fact that they
were burned and hence crudely fired, usually in fires which destroyed the
buildings in which they have been found. These tablets are of two principal
types: long and thin „palm-leaf“ tablets and rectangular „page“ tablets.
The second form of Linear B text consists of painted inscriptions on ceramic
vessels, for the most part large, coarse stirrup jars on whose shoulders
between one and three words were painted before the vessels were intentionally
fired.

Tablets have been found only at palatial centers, whether
on the Mycenaean Mainland (Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes) or at non-Mainland
sites controlled by Mycenaean rulers (Knossos, Chania). In the case of
Pylos, Thebes, and Knossos, tablets were found in palace archives, although
at both Pylos and Knossos tablets have also been found in a variety of
contexts within the palaces other than special archive rooms. At Mycenae,
tablets have been found in burnt debris within the citadel, arguably fallen
down the hillside from the palace on top of the hill, but they have also
been found in LH IIIB1 contexts in houses outside the citadel, houses which
may conceivably have belonged to merchants rather than to the king himself.
At Tiryns, tablets have been found only in debris on the slopes of the
citadel; their original place of storage is uncertain. The only major archives
to have been discovered thus far where the material preserved is sufficiently
abundant for us to be able to attempt reconstruction of major portions
of the administrative system of a Mycenaean kingdom are those at Pylos
(1107 tablets written by 32 different scribes) and Knossos (3369 tablets
written by 100 distinct scribes).

In contrast, painted Linear B inscriptions have been
found at both palatial and non-palatial sites on both the Mainland and
Crete: six or more examples at the sites of Thebes, Mycenae, Tiryns, and
Chania, and between one and five examples at the sites of Orchomenos, Kreusis
(in southwestern Boeotia), Eleusis, Knossos, and the Mameloukas Cave (in
western Crete). A good number of these jars were made, and hence painted,
in West Crete in the Chania area during the LM IIIB period. They indicate
not only that Greek was spoken during this period in western Crete but
also that Chania was the capital of a Mycenaean kingdom at this time. The
concentration of inscribed stirrup jars in Boeotia, the Argolid, and Crete
is notable: of some 140 known jars of this type, none have so far been
found in the well-explored region of Messenia (whose capital at Pylos has
been extensively excavated) nor have any been found in the Cyclades or
in any area of the Peloponnese outside of the Argolid.


THE DATE OF THE KNOWN LINEAR B TEXTS

The tablets from the citadel of Mycenae and from Thebes,
as well as all but five of the over 1100 tablets from Pylos, are firmly
dated to the end of the 13th century B.C. by the
burnt destruction contexts in which they were found. The tablets from Tiryns
probably date from the same period, although they were found in wash deposits
containing later material. The tablets from the houses outside the walls
at Mycenae are earlier in date, although probably no more than fifty years
earlier. How much earlier than ca. 1250 B.C. a group of five odd tablets
from Pylos may be, three of which resemble Knossian Linear B more closely
in paleographic terms than they do Mainland Greek Linear B, is uncertain.
For many years, the tablets at Knossos were dated within the period ca.
1425-1385 B.C. [end of LM II or ca. 1425 B.C. (Evans); early LM IIIA2 or
ca. 1385 B.C. (Popham)], but there is a growing consensus that they are
to be attributed not to the destruction horizon of ca. 1385 B.C. at Knossos
but rather to a subsequent destruction of the site sometime in the mid-
to later 13th century, that is, to a period broadly contemporary with the
Linear B tablets from the Mainland. The most recent and perhaps most decisive
piece of evidence in favor of a later dating in the 13th century B.C. for
the Knossos tablets is the discovery of a pair of tablets at Chania in
a LM IIIB1 destruction context, one of which appears to have been written
by a scribal hand already known at Knossos. All of the inscribed stirrup
jars which come from well-dated contexts are datable to the 13th century
B.C. (LM/LH IIIIB) and these include an example from Knossos itself. It
is now beginning to appear that Linear B, both on the Mainland and in Crete,
is a phenomenon strictly of the 13th century B.C. It is therefore becoming
increasingly difficult to argue that Linear B was created much if at all
earlier than ca. 1350-1300 B.C. Theories that connect the beginning of
Linear B with the appearance of Mycenaeans at
Knossos
ca.
1450-1425 B.C. or with the presence of Minoan artisans on the Greek
Mainland at an even earlier period ca. 1600-1500 B.C. (the era of the Shaft
Grave burials at Mycenae) may have to be abandoned as a result of the redating
of the Knossos tablets.

THE ACCEPTANCE OF THE DECIPHERMENT
OF LINEAR B AS GREEK

Most Aegean prehistorians have accepted Ventris‘ decipherment
of 1952, but there are some notable exceptions (e.g. Sinclair Hood). The
grounds for continuing to reject the decipherment may be summarized as
follows:

(1) The „spelling rules“ of Linear B are so complex
that a given word as „spelled“ in Linear B may be interpreted (that is,
transliterated and spelled out in the modern Western European alphabet)
in a large number of different ways. It is therefore argued that the interpretation
of any one word is a largely subjective process. [For the Linear B spelling
rules, see M. Ventris and J. Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek
[2nd edition] (Cambridge 1973) 42-48].

(2) Even a „deciphered“ Linear B text is often largely
or completely unintelligible because the Mycenaean Greek words have no
cognates in later Greek. The decipherers argue that such Mycenaean words
dropped out of the Greek language at some point between ca. 1200 and ca.
650 B.C. In a number of instances where such later Greek cognates do exist,
the Mycenaean Greek predecessor clearly means something rather different,
an indication, or so the skeptics argue, that the language of Linear B
is being forced to become Greek. In a number of cases where words are unintelligible,
their lack of „meaning“ is explained by the decipherers as being due to
the fact that the word in question is a proper name, either of a person
or of a place. The skeptics argue that this is a further instance of the
decipherers‘ refusal to admit that Linear B is in fact not Greek at all.

The decipherers point out that the clumsy
spelling rules
are a result of the fact that Linear B is derived directly
from Linear A, a writing system designed for a non-Greek language. Features
such as consonant clusters, terminal -s, and distinctions between
r and l , g and k, and p and b,
all of which occur in Greek, do
not appear to have been characteristic of this Minoan language, and hence
cause bizarre problems in the „spelling“ of Greek words in the modified
form of Linear A (i.e. Linear B) which was used to write Greek.

To Bibilography of Mycenean Archeology

To LineUp