Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1134:
LINEAR B

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1134.

Today, we struggle to read what our ancestors are saying to us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In the Odyssey, Homer wrote:

Out in the middle of the wine-dark sea there is a land called Crete, a rich and lovely land, washed by the sea on every side; and in it are many peoples and ninety cities. There, one language mingles with another ... Among the cities is Knossos ...

Historian Andrew Robinson tells how, in 1900, archeologist Arthur Evans dug up the old city of Knossos. He found what might've been the palace of King Minos. It had a labyrinth -- possibly the same labyrinth where legend placed the fabled Minotaur.

Evans also found writings on clay tablets. They included hieroglyphs and two forms of writing with straight-line strokes. The hieroglyphs were earliest. The first linear writing dated from 1800 BC. Evans called it Linear A. The other straight-line writing, Linear B, had come into use 350 years later -- in 1450 BC. Linear A and B were significantly different from one another.

Linear A had about 75 symbols. That was far too few if each symbol stood for a word. And it was too soon for alphabetic writing. This was what came in between hieroglyphs and alphabets. This was the first written language that used symbols for each syllable.

Evans had far more examples of Linear B, so that's what he set out to decipher. He spent the next 40 years at it. These were syllables of an unknown tongue -- nothing to compare them with. A cryptographer trying to design an unbreakable code could do no better than this. Evans was sure the language was unlike Classical Greek. He called it Minoan, after King Minos, but he couldn't translate it.

Then, in 1936, a schoolboy named Michael Ventris went to an exhibit of Minoan artifacts that Evans had mounted in London. Fourteen-year-old Ventris edged up to 85-year-old Evans and asked, Did you say [these tablets] haven't been deciphered, Sir?

Right there, Michael Ventris found his life's work. He worked on the problem for the next seventeen years. One clue lay in the old language of Cyprus. It had a few symbols that looked like Linear B. Evans had brushed that evidence off because old Cypriot was too close to Greek. He'd convinced everyone that Linear B was unrelated to Greek.

Then an American scholar, Alice Kober, saw something very important in Linear B. Identical groups of syllables often had different endings. Bingo! That's how Greek inflections work. Evans had been wrong. Linear B was closer to Greek than anyone thought.

Spurred by that lead, Ventris went at the language with the systematic apparatus of a mathematical code breaker. Then in 1953, Robinson tells us, three things happened. The structure of DNA was explained, Mount Everest was climbed -- and Ventris broke the code.

Now that we can read those texts, we find no new Homeric epics -- no more wine-dark seas washing the land on every side. These are mostly business accounts. And Ventris? Well, he died in a car wreck three years later. And Linear A remains an unsolved mystery.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Robinson, A. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1995. (See especially Chapter 6.)

I am grateful to Jeffery Scoggins, Detering Book Gallery, for directing me to Robinson's fine book.



Linear B Script


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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