Today, I’m pleased to host this guest post on the ancient scripts of Crete from Ingrid of Experiments in Fiction. On her lovely blog, Ingrid posts poetry and runs a series called “Postcards from Slovenia.” She also blogs about her work-in-progress, The Folks Across the River. Just the other day, she posted the first chapter, which I adored. Check out Experiments in Fiction!

Today, Ingrid has turned to an area of expertise related to my previous article on the ancient Minoan civilization to bring us a post on the ancient scripts of Crete, the largest island in the Aegean Sea. She wrote her MA dissertation on Greek mythology and the Minoan civilization, making her an expert on the matter! And her life ambition is to decipher Linear A. What’s Linear A? Well, if you don’t know already, you’re about to find out. — Laura

Ancient Scripts of Crete

In addition to being home to the first civilization on what we now consider European soil, the island of Crete in the South Aegean is also the place where writing originated in Europe. The ancient scripts of Crete are very different from our modern alphabet (which developed from the Greek alphabet, itself derived from the Phoenician), and they form a fascinating window onto a long-forgotten past. Below, I take a look at the four ancient scripts discovered on the island of Crete at the turn of the last century by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.

Cretan Hieroglyphic

an example of Cretan hieroglyphics, the oldest ancient script discovered on Crete
An example of Cretan hieroglyphics carved into stone.

This is the script that led Sir Arthur Evans to discover the long-lost Minoan civilization. On a trip to Crete, while looking for the legendary home of the Minotaur, he found small sealstones being sold as souvenirs in the town of Heraklion (the capital of modern Crete). The sealstones bore inscriptions, which he recognized as a form of writing. He had in fact discovered the earliest example of writing on Crete: a hieroglyphic script in which each picture stands for a word or syllable, much like the more famous Egyptian hieroglyphics. Since Evans’ first discovery, many more examples of Cretan hieroglyphic have been discovered. But the script, which was in use by the Minoans from around 2100 to 1700 B.C., has never been deciphered.

Linear A & B

an example of Linear B script
An example of Linear B script.

As Evans began to excavate the legendary palace of Knossos (which he identified as the palace of Minos), he found hordes of clay tablets inscribed with two distinct scripts formed out of lines scratched into clay. For this reason, he termed the scripts “Linear” A & B. He could tell that they were related, but they were distinct enough for him to give them separate classifications.

Linear B was deciphered in 1951, not by a linguist or philologist, but by a brilliant architect with an interest in classics, named Michael Ventris. In a stroke of genius, he recognized the language as a very early form of Greek. He had in fact discovered the Greek of the Mycenaean civilization. You can read all about his work deciphering Linear B in the fascinating book The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick, who worked with Ventris on the decipherment. This script was in use by the Mycenaeans from around 1450 to 1200 B.C.

Linear A
an example of Linear A
An example of Linear A script.

Linear A has not yet been deciphered. Though examples of this script have been found all over Crete and on neighboring islands, there is not a large enough corpus of inscriptions to allow a successful decipherment. There have been many rather dubious claims at decipherment over the years. Another big problem lies in the fact that we do not know the underlying “Minoan” language, though we can guess at what it might have sounded like by substituting Linear B phonetic values for those of Linear A. Some probable place names, e.g. “KU-NI-SO” for Knossos and “I-DA” for Mount Ida, are recognizable, as is the word for “total,” “KU-RO.” The language of the tablets could be indigenous to the island of Crete, and will provide a fascinating window on the Bronze Age world if ever deciphered. Find out more about the phonetic translation of Linear A on this website.

The Minoans used Linear A from around 1800-1450 B.C., when the Mycenaeans apparently took over administrative control of the island of Crete.

The Phaistos Disk

one side of the Phaistos disk
One side of the enigmatic Phaistos disk.

The most enigmatic example of writing on Crete is surely the Phaistos disk. This stone disk was found during the excavations of the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the south side of the island. The disk is embossed with a series of repetitive characters which form what appear to be words, spiraling in towards the center of the disk. There is “writing” on both sides of the disk. This is the only example of this type of writing on the island or, indeed, in the world.

There are many theories as to what it might represent: a poem or ritual incantation, a prayer, or even a coded message from an alien civilization! As there is certainly not enough material to attempt a decipherment, perhaps we will never know. Of course, there have been many attempted decipherments, an inordinate number of which involve references to “phalluses” — though perhaps this says more about the would-be decipherers than the script of the disk itself.

As to the disk’s age, archaeologists have dated it to between 1800 and 1650 B.C. based on its find circumstances (the other objects it was found with). However, a definitive date cannot be given, since the Greek authorities refuse to grant permission for the thermoluminescence tests that would provide a definitive age for the disk. The reason? For all the speculation, wild theories, and alleged decipherments, it could one day turn out to be a hoax!

A big thank you to Ingrid of Experiments in Fiction one more time. Check out her blog if you’re interested in her poetry and her WIP!

If you enjoyed “Ancient Scripts of Crete,” read more articles about history!

Check out an overview of the ancient Minoans and catch some images of their beautiful artwork. Learn about Herodotus. And get a brief introduction to ancient Greek history itself and the time periods historians divide it into.

Find all historical articles in the That’s History archives.

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