Minoan Linear B

Minoan Linear B

If the four great palaces give a remarkable insight into how the Minoan Empire worked, there is a remarkable supplement in the information preserved in the clay tablets written in what is known as Minoan linear B.

Minoan linear B was first discovered – and named  – by Sir Arthur Evans. When he began excavating the Palace at Knossos around the year 1900, he began finding baked clay tablets inscribed with a totally unknown language. Hoards of tablets soon emerged thick and fast,  and in 1909 he published his first collection of the tablets in a volume Scripta Minoa I. Here he already realised there were two different scripts, an earlier one which he labelled A, and a later one which he labelled B. Minoan Linear A remains undeciphered, but Linear B was more tractable: tablets continued to be discovered, but unfortunately Evans sat on the subsequent discoveries and did not publish them,  hoping to publish them in a second volume when he had deciphered the language

Then in 1939 the American archaeologist Carl Blegen, excavating on the mainland of Greece at Pylos, discovered more tablets there, and it was clear that the script was used extensively on the mainland of Greece too and could well be Mycenaean rather than Minoan. Evans died in 1941, the script still undeciphered, but after the war, when Evans’ later discoveries were released, and combined with the Pylos tablets,  decipherment could begin in earnest, and eventually the decipherment was triumphantly achieved by Michael Ventris in 1952

Michael Ventris

Michael Ventris

Ventris was not a professional scholar but an architect. His mother was half Polish and his father contracted TB and was sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland so Ventris grew up  speaking English, French, German and Polish. He learnt Latin and Greek at school (Stowe) but his mother had many artistic friends,  so Ventris decided to become an architect. However the excitement of the post-war architectural modernist revolution soon wore off and he decided to take a year off and devote himself to his other great passion, that of deciphering Minoan linear B.

Word Grid

One of Ventris’s wonderfully neat linear grids

It had been clear from an early stage that linear B must be a syllabary, that is a system halfway between hieroglyphs where each symbol represents a word, and a proper alphabet where each letter represents either a vowel or a constant. A syllabary is in between, where each symbol represents a consonant and a vowel, and words are built up using a number of syllables. A grid system was worked out by the American scholar Alice Kober with vowels along the top and consonants down the side, and the problem was to decide where the individual symbols were to go.

Ventris began experimenting with certain words which appear only in the Knossos tablets and not in the Pylos tablets:  could these possibly be the names of places? He tried out Amnisos, the port of Knossos. This fixed several positions on the grid: he applied these to another group and the word Knossos emerged. In a rush, more Cretan towns emerged: Tulissos, Phaestos, Luktos. Ventris was in the habit of typing out what he called Work Notes which he sent round to all his fellow would-be decipherers, and on June 1 he sat down to type what would turn out to be his final Work Note, number 20,  boldly entitled ”Are the Knossos and Pylos tablets written in Greek?” He called this merely a frivolous digression but rapidly more and more words began to fit in. Carpenters,  wainwrights,  chairmakers and bakers made their appearance,  as did father (pa-te) and the people (da-mo).

A BBC producer happened to come to dinner. She realised she had a scoop, and on 1 July 1952 the decipherment was announced on the Third Programme. At Cambridge, a young scholar of early Greek dialects, John Chadwick, heard the program and immediately offered to help. A pioneering book, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, was written jointly by Ventris and Chadwick and published by Cambridge University Press.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the discovery that Linear B was Greek. Hitherto the general assumption had been that the Greeks had invaded Greece in the Dark Ages in a series of invasions, first the Dorians, followed by the Ionians, bringing with them the different dialects of Greek. Suddenly this was all wrong. The Greeks were already in Greece,  and Greek becomes the world’s prime example of a long lived language. There was also the further implication that Minoan Linear B was not essentially Minoan at all but Mycenaean, and represented a Mycenaean takeover of the Minoan palaces in their final stages and that Minoan Linear A, which is still undeciphered but is generally considered to be non-Greek, represents the original Minoan language.

The upshot of this triumph turned into tragedy for Ventris.  He was still in his early 30s and the world was at his feet: but which way should he go? The academic world did not entice such a free spirit, so he returned to architecture.  But at the end of six months, he was becoming disenchanted. On 5 September 1956, he left his new house in Hampstead late at night and driving fast down the Barnet bypass, crashed into the back of a stationary lorry and was killed instantly: he was only 34. The suspicion remains that if it was not exactly suicide, it was something close to it. Should one recall perhaps that another frustrated classicist, Lawrence of Arabia, was also killed on his motorbike?

 What the tablets reveal

The largest number of tablets – over 4,000 – come from Knossos itself, and even if they were produced by Mycenaean invaders, nevertheless presumably reflect Minoan conditions.  Most of the remainder come from the mainland and are therefore essentially Mycenaean and appear to be a century or a century and a half later than those from Knossos, dating from around 1250 BC.  The largest number – 1100 – come from the palace at Pylos in the south western part of the Peloponnese, where according to Homer, Nestor was King.  The palace was unknown until it was discovered by Carl Blegen in 1939, but it is now recognised as one of the most important of the Mycenaean palaces.

430 tablets are known from Thebes where the palace is largely lost under the modern town, but whose importance is clear from the huge role it plays in classical mythology.  There are 73 tablets known from Mycenae itself, though surprisingly these come mostly not from the palace, but from the town that surrounds it.  And 24 tablets are known from Tiryns, the other palace not far from Mycenae.  More tablets are constantly being discovered.  These figures will by now be out-of-date, but they give a good idea of the general breakdown of the early tablets coming from Crete and the later tablets being found scattered around many of the palatial sites on mainland Greece.

But once the tablets were read, what did they reveal? They can be divided into several different types. Some were lists of livestock and agricultural products: the tablets reveal very large numbers of sheep and goats and pigs (in that order);  but few cattle and even fewer horses. Some appear to have been lists of rations, given out to groups rather than to individuals, while others were requisitions, produce to be given to the authorities. There are also  lists of farm produce,— grain, olives and figs, while the tablets from Mycenae also produced several quite detailed spice lists.

Others were lists of people. Often these were very brief enumerations: seven corn-grinding women, ten girls, six boys. Others add ideograms for wheat and figs with symbols of quantity which appear to mean rations being distributed.  Others seem to catalogue men being sent out on specific work assignments; one tablet may possibly record men being sent out on naval or military duty.

A particularly interesting group appears to show the Mycenaean or Minoan economy at work. It is interesting to note the items of importance. First and foremost are textiles and clothes: we tend to forget the importance of textiles in early economy, but the preparation of blankets and clothes almost always takes up an enormous amount of time. Then there were the bronze workers and perhaps surprisingly those producing perfumed unguent, mainly by mixing olive oil and spices and sometimes boiling it. It comes almost as a shock to see how much attention the Minoan women spent on their appearance: it would appear that modern women, brought up to believe that they are ‘worth it’ are little different from Minoan women; or perhaps it was rather more important simply to hide the smells.

Then there are the makers of chariots and chariot wheels and also furniture. A separate category were those making weapons and the leather workers. What is to archaeologists the big omission is pottery making,  Certainly pottery was used in vast quantities and jars full of produce are recorded – one of the crucial stages in the decipherment of the language was the discovery of ideograms  of tripods – little pictures  of a pot with three legs, with the label  ti-ri-po-do, or tripod. However it would appear that pottery making was something outside the direct Palace economy – or perhaps it was something that was not worth recording.

The most interesting tablets are those that appear to reveal the workings of industry, particularly the way that the elaborate woollen textiles were produced. The process begins with the enumeration of the flocks. Some 600 flocks are known from the tablets, each apparently of around 100 sheep, implying that the palace had at least 60,000 sheep in all. These were clipped or perhaps plucked, probably producing an average of 750 g of wool. This was then brought in for collection mostly directly to the palace authorities though some temples also received goods,  notably to the great mother goddess Potnia, known in classical Greek as the Lady Goddess. However it is clear that temples only played a small role in the economy – unlike Egypt where at times the temples received almost as many goods as the pharaohs. However some 30% went to ‘collectors’ — the word used is cognate with the later ‘agora’ meaning marketplace, though these appeared to have been members of the elite. The wool was then weighed out on the ‘talasia’ principle — word which may or may not be cognate with ‘talents’; it is then distributed to the manufacturing groups who finished it and delivered it in bales of 25 to 35 pieces, often with descriptive markings – ‘red’ or ‘with white fringes’, while some of them were marked ‘Xenia’ (the word survives in ‘xenophobe’) which appears to mean ‘for export’.

The tablets also reveal something of the social structure of Minoan society.  At the top was the wanax, the King, — the word is known in classical Greek as anax:  it was a word that was early recognised by Ventris, and helped convince him and his colleagues that linear B really was Greek. Under him was the lawegetas, the assembler of the host, apparently the second-in-command the leader of the people; and beneath him were the heketai, or followers who were in effect the Minoan nobility.

On the other side were the damoi, in classical Greek the demos, or people, from which we derive the word democracy, but in the Minoan language it meant the local communities – Ventris originally translated it as ‘villagers’; they were under the control of the gwasileus, the later Greek word basileus meaning King. Here it is tempting to translate it as the ‘mayor’ but it will really be the supervisor of craft production.

When the tablets were first revealed to be Greek, it was widely expected and indeed hoped that they would throw vivid life on Homeric society, the society portrayed in the poems of Homer. However, as Moses Finlay, the professor of ancient history at Cambridge soon pointed out, such comparisons were misplaced. The real comparisons should be made with the other palatial economies of the Bronze Age: the society revealed in the Homeric poems should be seen as the forerunner of classical Greece rather than the descendant of Minoan Crete.

The tablets give a vivid impression of the working of Minoan society: one should  realise that all the tablets belonged to the Palace – except those in Mycenae – and that even the ‘collectors’ must have been Palace officials or perhaps Palace subordinates. It is always tempting to see the Minoans as being the forerunners of Homeric Greece but this is to categorise them wrongly:  the society revealed has really little resemblance at all to classical society:  the resemblances are to other Bronze Age palatial societies, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. True, Homer at times does seem to reflect a similar heroic society but this society should be seen as being a primitive forerunner of the society of classical Greece with only the faintest memories of the highly complex bureaucracies of the palatial economy.  Such economies can perhaps be seen in even greater detail in the societies of the near East, but the light from Minoan Crete and Greece is particularly vivid.


On to the Chronology of the Minoans


Sources: John Bennet in The Cambridge Economic History of the Ancient World,

J T Killen in: A Companion to Linear B: Mycenaean Greek Texts and Their World, ed Morpurgo Davies and Y Duhoux

Moses Finlay,  in Economic History Review, 1957

December 2011