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Sat Mar 30, 2024, 09:08 AM Mar 30

On This Day: Early form of writing system discovered, later translated - Mar. 30, 1900

(edited from Wikipedia)
The discovery and classification of Linear B (1886–1909)

Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing in Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested form of the Greek language. The script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries, the earliest known examples dating to around 1400 BC.

Linear B was first identified as a writing system by Arthur Evans, who excavated the first Linear B tablet at Knossos on Crete on 30 March 1900. By the end of the year, he had categorised the writing system of the tablets as a "linear script", as opposed to what he called the "hieroglyphic or conventionalized pictographic script" now known as Cretan hieroglyphs, and correctly realised that it was written from left to right. He categorised its signs as "for the most part syllabic", though asserted that "a certain number are unquestionably ideographic or determinative."

In 1909, Evans published the first volume of Scripta Minoa, which included the then-unpublished Phaistos Disc, which had been discovered in July 1908, and similarly-unpublished tablets excavated by Federico Halbherr from Hagia Triada. Evans named the script of these tablets "Class A" and that of the Knossos tablets "Class B".

Decipherment (1909–1952)

Most of the Knossos tablets, which numbered around 3500, remained unpublished in Scripta Minoa I. Evans published a selection of them in 1935, allowing serious efforts at decipherment to begin. To these were added, after 1939, the first tablets excavated at Pylos. The later decipherers John Chadwick and Michael Ventris, however, considered little of the work done towards a decipherment before 1944 to be of substantial value.

Building on important work by Arthur Cowley and later by Alice Kober, the decipherment of Linear B was completed by Michael Ventris between 1940 and 1952, with a particular "critical period" between 1948 and 18 June 1952. On 1 June, Ventris published a 'Work Note' to a group of Mycenaean scholars arguing that Linear B was used to write Greek. On 18 June, he wrote a letter to Emmett L. Bennett Jr., including the line "I think I've deciphered Linear B". In this letter, Ventris restated his conviction that the language of Linear B was Greek, and gave an account of some of its spelling rules and of certain transliterations between Classical Greek and Linear B. On 1 July, he announced the decipherment on BBC Radio 3.

PY Ta 641

PY Ta 641, sometimes known as the Tripod Tablet, is a Mycenaean clay tablet inscribed in Linear B, currently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Discovered in the so-called "Archives Complex" of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Messenia in June 1952 by the American archaeologist Carl Blegen, it has been described as "probably the most famous tablet of Linear B".

It was inscribed around 1180 BCE by a senior scribe working for the palatial administration at Pylos.

The role of PY Ta 641 in proving the decipherment

Ventris's announcement was largely met with scepticism from the scholarly community, including from John Chadwick, who later wrote that he had been "completely taken aback" by the idea that Linear B had been used to write Greek, which he had considered "preposterous". In particular, scholars such as Bennett worried about the possibility of circular reasoning: since Ventris had not tested his decipherment on any unseen material, it would have been possible for him to shape his solution in order to fit the available data, whether or not it was correct.

On 16 May 1953, Blegen sent Ventris a copy of PY Ta 641, in which he drew attention to the correspondence between the ideograms used for vases on the tablet and the corresponding adjectives given by reading the tablet with Ventris's values for the syllabograms. In his letter, he wrote "all this seems too good to be true. Is coincidence excluded?"

By early July, Chadwick had obtained a copy of Ventris's decipherment from R. A. B. Mynors, and become convinced of its accuracy. On 13 July, he wrote to Ventris, offering his help as a "mere philologist" in charting the development of the Greek language between Mycenaean and the better-known Archaic and Classical dialects.

Another early sceptic of the idea that Linear B encoded Greek, Sterling Dow, changed his mind by October 1952 after Ventris and Bennett shared with him the news of PY Ta 641: he was particularly influenced by the fact that Ventris had completed his decipherment before seeing the tablet, and that Blegen had been the only person to see the tablet when he had used Ventris's sign-values to read it. Chadwick is quoted as saying

"Greeks should be grateful to this tiny piece of charred clay, because it proved that the Linear B language is Greek."

Objections to Ventris's decipherment

By April 1954, when both Ventris and Dow wrote articles in The New York Times publicising the decipherment, most Anglophone scholars accepted it as correct. A minority, notably Chadwick's former lecturer Arthur J. Beattie – then in post at the University of Edinburgh – continued to doubt its validity. Shortly after Ventris's death in 1956, Beattie published an article in The Journal of Hellenic Studies which conceded that "this text [PY Ta 641] has probably done more than anything else to convince classical scholars that Mr. Ventris's decipherment is right." Beattie argued that "the apparent correspondence between words and ideograms is due to chance", and an artefact of the multiple possibilities offered by Ventris for the pronunciation of each Linear B sign.

Chadwick responded to Beattie's article in 1957, with a riposte, later described as "brief but effective", in the same journal. He rejected Beattie's objections, wrote of the "rapidity and unanimity" with which the decipherment had been accepted among the scholarly community, and concluded with "Professor Beattie underestimates the size of the windmill at which he is tilting."

In 1958, Beattie alleged that Ventris had seen a copy or photograph of PY Ta 641 before finalising his decipherment, and then fraudulently presented the tablet as independent evidence of its validity. Blegen, however, affirmed that the tablet had been locked away until late July, after Ventris had stated his conviction of the Greek solution to Linear B in June, and had remained illegible until the following year. Finally, in 1959, Beattie claimed that Ventris had seen, and subsequently destroyed, a similar tablet to PY Ta 641 prior to making his decipherment – a claim which the Mycenaean philologists John Killen and Anna Morpurgo Davies later described as "outrageous".

Beattie's arguments attracted only small-scale support, primarily in Scotland. By 1960, English-speaking scholars generally accepted the decipherment, though the pro-decipherment linguist Leonard Palmer wrote in 1965 of widespread "agnosticism" as to whether the matter could be considered proven. It remained more controversial among continental European scholars, such as the German philologist Ernst Grumach and the Belgian Byzantinist Henri Grégoire, who disputed it into the 1960s.

By the 1980s, the decipherment was almost universally accepted,[35] though it continued to be controversial in German-speaking scholarship until the early 1990s.

[Extent and structure of Linear B]

It is adapted from the earlier Linear A, an undeciphered script potentially used for writing the Minoan language, as is the later Cypriot syllabary, which also recorded Greek. Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives at Knossos, Kydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean civilization during the Late Bronze Age collapse. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, provides no evidence of the use of writing.

Linear B was deciphered in 1952 by English architect and self-taught linguist Michael Ventris based on the research of American classicist Alice Kober. It is the only Bronze Age Aegean script to have been deciphered, with Linear A, Cypro-Minoan, and Cretan hieroglyphic remaining unreadable.

Linear B consists of around 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs. These ideograms or "signifying" signs symbolize objects or commodities. They have no phonetic value and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence.

The application of Linear B appears to have been confined to administrative contexts. In all the thousands of clay tablets, a relatively small number of different people's handwriting have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in Southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete). Once the palaces were destroyed, the script disappeared.


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On This Day: Early form of writing system discovered, later translated - Mar. 30, 1900 (Original Post) jgo Mar 30 OP
excellent rampartc Mar 30 #1
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