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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.3: Minoan Crete

Bronze Age Writing on Crete: Hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B

The discovery of three different ancient scripts in Bronze Age Crete - hieroglyphic, Linear A, and Linear B - is not only important from a linguistic standpoint, but also for historic data which they have revealed (and may still reveal) about Bronze Age culture throughout the Aegean. Deposits of tablets, seals, and seal impressions have been uncovered at palace sites throughout Crete, including Knossos, Phaistos, Agia Triadha, Khania, Malia, and Petras.

Minoan Hieroglyphic Scripts: The earliest Minoan writing is the Cretan hieroglyphic script used on sealstones and clay accounting documents (Packard 1974). This early syllabic script evolved by 1900 BC during the Middle Minoan period, and was used through the destruction of the Minoan palaces ca.1450 BC.

[Fig.1: Detail of clay bar with hieroglyphic inscriptions from Petras (photo: Erik Hallager].

At Petras, in northeastern Crete, an archive of hieroglyphic documents has been found dating from the Protopalatial period of MMIIA-MMIIB (1900-1800 BC), along with numerous potters' marks which continue Early Minoan practices. The Petras hieroglyphic deposit includes 2 four-sided bar inscriptions (fig.1), 9 medallions, and impressions from 40 different seals (see article on Petras).

The proto-syllabic script upon the Phaistos Disk (fig.2) is distinctive and may have originated outside of Crete. Some of its symbols (such as a soldier wearing a crested helmet) seem foreign to Minoan culture. Resemblances have been seen with a roughly contemporary Hittite hieroglyphic script from Turkey, which was used for Luvian, an Indo-European language (Duhoux 1977). The 242 figures were stamped with sealstones on both sides of the disk starting from the edge and leading towards the center. The Phaistos Disk, whose content may be literary or ceremonial, probably dates from the MMIIB period (17th century BC).

[Fig.2: The Phaistos disk, stamped on both sides with a hieroglyphic script (Herakleion Museum; photo: Athena Review)].

Linear A (fig.3) seems to have evolved from hieroglyphs by about 1850-1700 BC, as Evans (1895) first pointed out, with original pictograms reduced to cursive strokes or lines (hence the name "linear"). Linear A documents took many forms from multi-word clay tablets to the more common nodules, roundels, and sealings stamped with only a few characters. Occurring at a wide variety of sites (palace and non-palace) from Knossos in central Crete to the islands of Thera and Samothrace, most evidence of Linear A's use for administrative purposes dates from MMIIB-LMIB (1750-1475 BC). The most abundant Linear A deposits have been found at Agia Triadha, Khania, Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia. Other sites include Zakros, Gournia, Petras, Arkhanes, Myrtos-Pyrgos, Tylissos, Kea Milos, Palaikastro, Thera, and Samothrace (Schoep 1995).

Very few Linear A documents have been discovered in situ. Destruction of upper levels by earthquakes or fire caused the artifacts to fall to lower levels, thus moving them from their original location.

The largest single deposits were found at Agia Triadha in two buildings containing about 150 tablets and 861 nodules. Knossos' Temple of the Repositories, excavated by Evans in 1903, revealed 150 Linear A seal impressions and three disks, dating from MMIIIB-LMIA. Khania has produced Linear A archives with lists and censuses on 97 clay tablet fragments, 122 roundels, and 28 nodules (see Vlasaki, this issue). Examples at Phaistos include four flat-based nodules, four roundels, and one sealing on a chest which dates to MMIIB, the time of a great palatial destruction. Linear A usage seems to have terminated somewhat abruptly towards the end of the LMIB period, with the final palatial destructions on Crete.

[Fig.3: Linear A text on a clay tablet (Herakleion Museum; photo: Athena Review).]

Linear B: Used at Knossos and Khania in Late Minoan times when Crete was occupied by Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland, Linear B (fig.4) evolved directly from the Minoan Linear A, whose characters the Mycenaeans then adapted to their own language. It is best represented at various sites on Greece including Mycenae and Pylos, which have yielded archives of thousands of tablets. Linear B was successfully deciphered in the 1950s by Michael Ventris (Chadwick 1958; 1989), who recognized it as a syllabic writing system used for an early form of Greek spoken by Mycenaeans.

Like Linear A, Linear B served bureaucratic or record-keeping purposes, as in palace inventories, censuses, or taxation accounts. Unlike Linear A, Linear B used horizontal lines or registers to separate each entry. The transliteration of certain examples of Linear A indicates that their contents did not differ drastically from Linear B. The entries were usually made in a list-like format and prefaced with numbers tabulating the records. Both types of tablets cited elements of daily life, such as livestock (sheep, pigs, goats, cows), religious rituals or ceremonies associated with palace life, food and drink (such as wine used in celebrations), the harvesting of wheat and barley, weaponry, and tabulations of men and women who had contributed significantly to palace life or military exploits. Also revealed are Late Minoan site names, including ko-no-so (Knossos) and a-mi-mi-so (Amnissos).

[Fig.4: Linear B text from Knossos (Herakleion Museum cat. #87; photo: Athena Review).]

While Linear B can be accurately read as an archaic Greek dialect, it remains unknown which language(s) either Linear A or Minoan hieroglyphics represented. Eventually, their successful decoding may shed invaluable historical insights on the specific details of Minoan daily life, including trade, farming, administrative practices, ritual, and perhaps names of individuals, rulers, and datable events.

[Note: This article appears in the printed issue of Vol.3, no.3 of Athena Review (p.21). Copyright 2003, Athena Publications, Inc.]

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