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Scripts and the Phaistos Disk
The Bronze Age in ancient Greece reads very much like a mystery novel, whose chapters continue even today to lead historians and archaeologists through various scenarios and plot twists in order to solve some of the great mysteries of ancient times. What is apparent though is that if we are to read this book of mysteries and all its chapters then we must be able to read its language. This is where the real challenge lies. The key to our understanding is our ability to traverse the early written languages found in ancient Greece during the Bronze Age which are known to historians as the Linear Scripts and to recognize the quest of those who have been dedicated to decipher them.
The journey into the mysteries began during the earliest excavations of Troy and Mycenae around 1870 by Heinrich Schliemann who had been inspired by the readings of Homer to seek out the truth of the civilizations depicted by the Greek poet. It was at a time in which the science of archaeology had no clear definition and Schliemann’s work, though revolutionary, was destructive, but his labors proved the existence of the Mycenaean period on the mainland of Greece. Inspired by Schliemann’s discoveries a young Sir Arthur Evans was certain that these newly discovered civilizations must have had a writing system, yet Schliemann’s excavations had never unearthed any inscriptions. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 6)
Sir Arthur Evans became unrelenting, searching out the antiquity dealers in Athens where he had seen engraved stones which he was certain were likely used as seals. Their pictographic arrangement seemed to him an obvious writing system and most likely they were from Crete. It was finally at the end of the Turkish occupation that Evans, in the year 1900, was able to search for his unanswered questions at Knossos among the Bronze Age ruins he found there. But his idea of a writing system for seals was proven to be different and more advanced. It was upon his discovery of numerous inscribed clay tablets that Evans realized he had found a script, not hieroglyphic like impressions. It was evident that this newly discovered civilization was older and more developed then those found in the Mycenaean cultures discovered earlier and so Evan in turn gave it the new name of Minoan. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 7)
After numerous excavations by Evans and various other archaeologists, new discoveries were made not only on Crete, but Mallia as well as Phaistos, which will promise to hold a deeper mystery yet to be discovered. It was through the continued unearthing of inscriptions, including some at Haghia Triada which were different from those at Knossos, that prompted Evans to separate the distinctions found by naming each inscription type. The seal stones inscriptions he would identify as hieroglyphic, though they bear no relation to their Egyptian namesake. The next form of inscription found mostly on clay, and successor to Evan’s Cretan hieroglyphic form had seemingly transformed from a more stylized picture and was not easily identified due to the fact the pictures had been reduced to lines. With that in mind Evan’s named the form Linear A. Subsequently an even later version of the script form was found at Knossos and Evans named it Linear B. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 8)
It is important to take note the time line of these written languages within the course of their historical context. Evan’s Cretan hieroglyphics is thought to date from about 2000-1900 BCE with Linear A hailing from approximately 1750 BCE and finally Linear B from about 1450 BCE. (Linear Scripts, 2004) In only a five hundred year span Greece gave birth to an accomplished and evolved form of pictographs to a more advanced version of script that were the precursors to the Greek language itself. Truly this is an astonishing accomplishment when one compares this to how long it took the Near Eastern Kingdoms. They took over 2500 years to let go of the ancient wedge shaped characters called cuneiform, writing which spanned the years 3300 BCE to 75 AD, including a declining time frame of 500 years, and not to be forgotten is the Egyptians who never evolved to relinquish their hieroglyphs. Truly the Greeks script evolution is something to be praised. (Walker, 1987: 6)
The logical step now is to analyze the differences in the two most distinct scripts, Linear A and Linear B, and also their relationship to the other great decipherment mystery alluded to earlier known as the Phaistos Disk. It is with the discovery of these first steps towards the known Greek language that one hopes to unfold the mysteries of the civilization and culture that was later to give birth to greater analytic thought, abstract concepts and the creation of geometry in order to study nature more completely. It is the culmination of those historical chapters that give us the complete picture of this advanced civilization.
Linear A is the undeciphered of the two linear scripts. Examples of the text has been found all over Crete and on two the Aegean islands, Kea and Melos, though only a small number of Linear A tablets, shards, pottery, metal and stones were found, compared to the vast Linear B discoveries. Linear A’s largest collection was found at the Minoan palace of Haghia Triada, but the inequity of pieces to compare against gives the ability to decipher the script greater difficulty. Yet the script does reveal some clues of its mysteries. Its first indication is in its reading direction which has been determined to be read from left to right, unlike cuneiform which is read from right to left. Linear A also seems connected to Linear B as many of the signs also called signary, meaning the system’s symbols, have been identified to correspond with Linear B, though some of those symbols have not been identified in Linear B either. The connections are similar ideograms and the same numerical system, though Linear A is not as formal as Linear B. They again part ways when words cannot be proven deductively to be the same. The scribes also seem to part ways as evidenced by less organized and cruder writing habits in the Linear A texts. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 45) So even with numerous Linear B connections, there is one certainty, and that is Linear A is not Greek, as many parallels have been proven deductively that they do not equal in value and thus alluding translation still today.
Linear A tablet from Knossos
Linear B tablet from Pylos
Linear B on the other hand is a mystery writer and a decipherer’s dream. The script’s obscurity would come to an end when a 14 year old boy by the name of Michael Ventris heard an aging Sir Arthur Evans speak in 1937. Upon hearing of Evan’s great discoveries on Crete, Ventris vowed to decipher the Cretan scripts. In 1952, after leaving school to become a member of a R.A.F. bomber squadron during the war and then later completing his studies to become an architect; Ventris successfully deciphered the key to Linear B. His success lasted only briefly when a sad and bizarre twist of fate ended his life instantly when on September 6, 1956 he was killed in a collision. (Chadwick 2, 1958:3)
The key to the Linear B decipherment had been determined by Ventris at precisely the right moment giving us the gift of his discovery just before his untimely death and ultimately at the right moment in history. He was not afforded a Rosetta stone but he did have the clues of deduction afforded Cryptologists during the war, which stated that any code could be broken, in theory, if there were enough related examples of similar texts available for comparison. This was a key factor in Linear A’s unsolved mystery, though was not a problem for Linear B as tablets were in great supply, not only from discoveries at Crete, but from the hundreds found in 1939 by the University of Cincinnati on the mainland near Pylos. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 9)
Ventris knew as in Linear A, its successor Linear B was read left to right, and that it too had listings of ideograms and numerals. Yet it had another connection that was to link its mystery was its similarities to the Cypriot script, deciphered in the 1870’s. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 19) It was a language known to the island of Cyprus, and had been deciphered easily when correlations of the script were also found written in the Greek alphabet. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 50) But even Cypriot proved an imperfect match to Linear B but it was helpful and lead to connections to Greek word meanings. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 18) It was evident after working with John Chadwick of Cambridge University that Ventris would make more Greek language connections from Chadwick’s knowledge of the language’s history and together they devised a set of rules that governed spelling and ultimately the connection of the archaic to the known Greek language. It was in their joint paper, “Evidence for Greek dialect in Mycenaean archives” published in 1953 in The Journal of Hellenic Studies that they announced their ancient mystery solved. (Chadwick 2, 1958: 72-73)
The use of linear scripts, more specifically Linear B and its 85 signs, had its purpose for written record keeping, such as the details of flocks of sheep, their wool and the person who shepherded them. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 50) But the mystery of the most recognized Crete discovery, like the illusive Linear A, is yet to be determined and deciphered. The Crete discovery is none other than the Phaestos Disk, a magnificently detailed two sided terracotta piece, measuring just over six inches in diameter. Like the other linear tablets, it could easily be held in your hand. It was discovered in the same location with a Linear A tablet and an example Minoan pottery. This small cache beckons one to wonder if they were not a collection of stolen items left in haste, but being careful not to digress to far into mystery, it is the clues of its location and the company it keeps that would hopefully unfold the keys to its decipherment, but that assumption is wrong. (Pedley, 2002: 72)
What is definitely known about the disk is that there have been absolutely no other texts found, not even shards, in the last 96 years since an Italian excavator made the original discovery. It has been thought to be a different script from within the Linear A family of signs but that remains to be seen. Its creation is also unique not only from its immediate distinguishing feature of a spiral design, but it is heralded by John Chadwick as “the world’s first typewritten document.” Its script was created by a stamp or punch method which would have required a stamp for each sign. The stamp would have been impressed leaving a raised pattern into wet clay. Knowing Chadwick’s reference to the disk as typewritten, one can understand that the creation of a stamp for each sign was likely made for repetitive use much like a printing press or for the use of making numerous copies. In knowing that information it begs us to answer where are all the others? But just as with Linear A, the mystery continues, or does it? (Chadwick 1, 1987: 57)
Theories and even decipherment claims abound. The numerous speculations include John Chadwick’s suggestion that its 242 signs could be completely foreign in origin; as well it has some resemblances to a Linear A family of signs as mention before. (Chadwick 1, 1987: 58-59) Chadwick’s ideas seem plausible, though sadly enough he died in 1998 and we will now have to hope for another young Ventris to take his place. But others claim to have found the answers to all our questions. Though none have been recognized by any reputable archaeological museum, and likely will not for the moment since there are no other disks or tablets of the same script to prove or disprove them. Examples of the varied and numerous claims include a Greek woman, though I am uncertain or not if she is a scholar, named Efi Polygiannakis, who has published a book in Greece, to be translated to English in sometime in 2004, which claims the disk to be an ancient syllabic Greek dialect and the disk is a religious text. In America Dr. Keith A.J. Massey, a PhD in Hebrew and Semitic languages and his twin brother Rev. Kevin Massey a hospital chaplain claim that the Phaistos disk is likely a magical text or curse with Indo-European origins. In Germany, Andis Kaulins believes the disk is Greek, and that is actually contains a proof to a Euclidean theorem. (Svoronan, 2004)
It is obviously prudent to wait until there is an absolute consensus before taking any of these examples as the definitive answer. What is certain is that the mystery promises to continue indefinitely for the moment. We can be assured though that upon their revealing, Linear A and the Phaistos Disk will eventually illuminate the world about the secrets still lost to us about ancient Greece or the hidden civilizations we may have yet to discover. Until then our challenge is to hold on to the many chapters of our undeciphered clues as we wait patiently for the mystery to be revealed.
Chadwick, John. Reading the
Past, Linear B and Related Scripts. University of California Press / British
Chadwick, John, The
Decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge University Press. 1958.
Encyclopedia.com. (6/2004). Linear Scripts Definition. From http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/L/LinearS1c.asp
Walker, C.B.F. Reading
the Past, Cuneiform. University of California Press / British Museum. 1987.
Pedley, John Griffiths. Greek Art and Archaeology, Prentice Hall, Inc. 2002.
Svoronos, Anthony, P. (5/2004). Phaistos Disk. http://users.otenet.gr/~svoronan/index.htm
Stephanie Stambaugh, from Denver,
Colorado, is a distance education Art History major at Mansfield University of
Pennsylvania. She works as an
independent antique dealer, artist consultant, and writer in Denver.