Cracking the code: the decipherment of Linear B 60 years on
University of Cambridge Research News, 13-10-2012
A conference in Cambridge this weekend will mark the 60th anniversary of the decipherment by Michael Ventris of Linear B, a script used for an early form of ancient Greek. His stunning achievement pushed back the frontiers of knowledge about the ancient world.
When during the early 20th century archaeologists excavated some of the most famous sites of Ancient Greece – notably Knossos on the island of Crete and Mycenae and Pylos on the mainland – they found large numbers of clay tablets inscribed with a type of script that baffled them. It was significantly different to any other script known at the time. Moreover, it was immediately clear that there were at least two variants of this type of writing.
These scripts – characterised by about 90 different characters, and on the clay tablets interspersed with signs for numerals as well as the depiction of every-day objects and commodities such as pots, cloth and grain – acquired the name ‘Linear’. Linear because they were more abstract and characterised by a more linear style than the earlier hieroglyphic type of writing, also found on Crete. The two variants were given the names Linear A and B. It was clear that Linear A was the earlier type, much rarer and restricted to the island of Crete. The younger type B was found in significantly larger numbers and found at Knossos, Mycenae and Pylos. Since the original excavations evidence for the same type of writing has come to light at other places, including Thebes and Tiryns on the Greek mainland and Chania on Crete.