MINOAN AND MYCENAEAN WRITING
The Minoan culture of Crete developed several writing (or protowriting) systems. A number of seals show apparently pictographic signs that have been labelled Minoan Hieroglyphic, although the script has never been deciphered. Another apparently pictographic system appears on the mysterious Phaistos Disc, found in 1908 at Phaistos in southern Crete.
 

Photocredit: J. M. Stitt, 1998

Phaistos Disc. The unique Minoan script defies decipherment.

Photocredit: J. M. Stitt, 1998

Detail of Phaistos Disc.. The signs were impressed with stamps, leading John Chadwick to call this "the world's first typewritten document."

The Phaistos pictographs seem unrelated to Minoan hieroglyphs, and no other example of this script has been unearthed. Because the disc is unique, the script remains undeciphered. (Several attempts have been made, but there is no concensus that any one is correct.) Curiously, given that only one example of the script has been found, each pictograph is impressed into the clay disc with a stamp, rather than incised individually. If the disc was intended to be a unique document, why go to the trouble of creating a set of stamps? And if other documents were made, why has none been found? Another curiosity is that stratigraphic evidence dates the disc to about 1700 BCE, at which time another Minoan script was common. This script is called Linear A. It appears to be derived from Minoan hieroglyphic and, like Mesopotamian cuneiform, the signs represent syllables rather than individual sounds. This script, too, remains undeciphered for the most part.

 

Photocredit: J. M. Stitt, 1998

Linear A. This Minoan script remains undeciphered, but is the direct predecessor of the famous Linear B.

Minoan Linear A came into use around 1800 BCE and was used for about three and a half centuries. Then, around 1450 BCE a new script occurred. It, too, was originally found on Crete, and was called Linear B. The famous excavator of the Minoan palace of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, had a major key to reading Linear B, but rejected it. He guessed that Linear B might be related to a syllabic script used to write a Cypriot dialect of Greek, since certain symbols were quite similar. Evans applied the sound values of the Cypriot syllabary to Linear B, and concluded that the following passage would read

two horses

(the pictographic horse, which has a mane, is followed by two strokes)

 
 
two foals (the pictographic horse is maneless, to indicate a young animal, or foal. To emphasize this feature, Linear B is written before the pictograph. Applying the sounds of these symbols in the Cypriot syllabary results in po- lo-, which corresponds to the Greek word for foals, polo. )
 
Evans rejected this reading because it would mean that Linear B was an early form of Greek, which made no sense to him. Linear B was not deciphered completely until 1953, thanks to the work of an amateur cryptographer named Michael Ventris, who had developed a fascination with Linear B as a young teen. To his own amazement, he was forced to conclude that Linear B was indeed a form of Greek, a conclusion that was soon substantiated by finds of Linear B tablets at Mycenaean sites on the mainland. We know today that the Mycenaeans had contact with the Minoans and later occupied Minoan sites on Crete. Apparently, just as Semitic Akkadian speakers borrowed the syllabary of Sumerian cuneiform to record their language, the Mycenaean Greeks borrowed Minoan Linear A.
 
 

Photocredit: J. M. Stitt, 1998

Linear B . The syllabic writing proved that the Mycenaeans were Greek.

 
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