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Definition: Linear B Script
by Cristian Violatti
Linear B Script was the writing system used by the Mycenaean civilization. Examples of this script have been recovered from late Minoan II contexts in Crete and Mycenaean IIIA-B contexts in mainland Greece, which suggest that the script was in use between c. 1450 and c. 1100 BCE. The use of Linear B Script was restricted to major palace sites such as Knossos, Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes, and Tiryns. Most Linear B inscriptions are on clay tablets and largely concerned with documenting economic transactions of the palace administration, but we also have a few examples that relate to military activity.
Linear B is the oldest preserved form of written Greek that we know of.The Greeks were not the only ones who employed a syllabic writing system: several syllabic scripts were used by different contemporary Near-Eastern neighbours. The Linear B writing system is composed of 90 syllable signs plus an indeterminate number of pictorial signs. Each syllable sign represents either a vowel or an open syllable (consonant-vowel), but they cannot represent consonant clusters.
Origin of the Linear B ScriptLinear B is the oldest preserved form of written Greek that we know of. By the time we first meet this writing system, Greece and different areas of the western coast of Asia Minor were already Greek-speaking. Linear B was used to write an archaic form of Greek known as Mycenaean Greek, which was the official dialect of the Mycenaean civilization. The inscriptions found in Crete appear to be older than those discovered in mainland Greece. The oldest confirmed Linear B tablets are the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets from Knossos and have been dated to c.1450-1350 BCE, while the tablets found at Pylos have been dated to c. 1200 BCE. This suggests that the Linear B script was devised in Knossos (Crete), somewhere around 1450 BCE when the Mycenaeans took control of Knossos, and spread from here to mainland Greece. Whether by peaceful annexation or armed invasion, we know that the Minoan culture was replaced, both in Crete and in mainland Greece, by the Mycenaean culture.
The Palace of KnossosAlthough most Linear B documents can be read today, some features of the writing system remain unclear. Not all syllable signs have been determined conclusively.
Long before the Mycenaeans took control of Knossos, the Minoan civilization had a writing system in use known as Linear A Script, which was employed to represent the official Minoan language. Nothing certain is known about the Minoan language. Its linguistic affiliation remains a mystery, but the general consensus is that the language was not Greek; probably it was not even part of the Indo-European languages. Since Linear B shares many signs with the older Linear A, it has been inferred that Linear B came into existence when the scribes adapted Linear A to a new language: Greek. This idea is further supported by the fact that Linear B is poorly suited to writing Greek. For instance, Linear B is unable distinguish between short and long vowels and between r and l. As a result, words like 'leuka' (white) had to be written as re-u-ka. Another difficulty relates to the fact that Linear B cannot represent consonant clusters. Therefore, names such as 'Knossos' had to be written as ko-no-so and words like 'aksone' (axes) or 'demnia' (bed clothes) had to be written a-ko-so-ne and de-mi-ni-a respectively. In some specific examples such as the word 'aiguptios' (Egyptian), written as a-ku-pi-ti-jo, the limitations of the script to represent Greek are fairly clear.
Decipherment & content of the Linear B ScriptAlthough the first examples of Linear B texts were discovered early in the 20th century CE, these tablets were not published until 1952 CE. The meaning of Linear B texts remained surrounded by mystery until 1953 CE, the year when an architect named Michael Ventris managed to decipher the script. Ventris interpreted the script as an early form of Greek, which was unexpected since most scholars at that time believed that Linear B represented a form of Minoan language different from Greek. Although most Linear B documents can be read today, some features of the writing system remain unclear. Not all syllable signs have been determined conclusively.
Linear B tabletLinear B texts are mostly of an administrative nature, often under the form of lists of goods, statements of delivery, and records of commercial transactions. Tablets found at Pylos, for instance, provide details on the manufacture and distribution on palace-supervised commodities such as woollen and linen fabrics and perfume oils. Since the Mycenaean palaces performed not only an economic and political function but also a religious one, some of the deciphered Linear B texts are concerned with lists of religious offerings. These lists provide us with an idea of the type of items being offered (mainly foodstuff, including wine and olive oil) and also with the names of some of the gods and goddesses addressed. Interestingly, many of the names used in Mycenaean times were the same names used for the deities of the classical Greek world: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Ares, Dionysos, and Artemis are just some examples. There is no certainty that there was cult continuity between Mycenaean times and classical times, but at least the names of several deities remained unchanged. A few examples of Linear B texts also mention chariots, armour, weapons, and soldiers getting ready for military campaigns.
Decline of the Linear B ScriptAfter the collapse of the Mycenaean political order in c. 1200 BCE, the use of the Linear B script gradually diminished until it was fully abandoned around 1100 BCE. Literacy was completely lost in the Greek world until its return during the 8th century BCE, with the emergence of a new writing system: the Greek alphabet. The Linear B Script and the Greek alphabet are two completely different and unrelated writing systems, which reflects in a way how deeply Greece plunged into illiteracy and stagnation during the interval between the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization and the Greek Archaic period, a time known as the Greek Dark Age.
Written by Cristian Violatti, published on 26 January 2015 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.
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