In 1900, the archaeologist
Arthur Evans started excavating at a site called Knossos on the island of Crete
. There, he discovered the earliest literate
society in Europe
by finding the remains of Minoan civilization, constructed around 2000 B.C. With an experienced excavator
named Duncan Mackenzie, Evans found a clay bar in the shape of a chisel
with script and numerals on it. The presence of a gypsum
throne suggested that the site of the finding was once a palace
. King Minos
was the supposed ruler of Knossos, so Evans called the complex he uncovered the Palace of Minos, thus the civilization
became known as Minoan
The clay tablets Evans found had three different scripts and seemed that they had been used in succession. The first of the three, Minoan hieroglyphic, was the oldest and used around the time when early palaces were built on Crete. The scribes who developed this first Minoan script heavily borrowed signs from Egyptian hieroglyphics, but their language was much different. This first script remains undecipherable along with the second, Linear A. Linear A was made up of over 100 signs and was not alphabetic nor pictogryphic in which each sign denotes a word or syllable. It also contained numerals adapted from the Egyptians, once used to keep inventories.
The third script on the tablets, Linear B, originated in the final phase of Knossos. Arthur Evans found over 4000 tablets written in Linear B which evolved from Linear A as a syllabic script. While Evans was able to decipher numerals and ideograms, signs that described what was listed on the tablet, he was unable to decipher the script.
In 1936, Evans gave a lecture on his discoveries that was attended by Michael Ventris, who was 14 at the time. When Ventris was 18, he published his first article on undeciphered Aegean scripts and argued that the language was Etruscan. World War II intervened, then Ventris resumed his studies in Linear B. He devised a grid that indicated which signs were linked and gradually refined this, coming up with the possibility that the language might be in Greek. In 1952, he had fully deciphered and published Linear B with the aid of John Chadwick, a philogist.
Carl Blegen, who excavated the Mycenaean palace at Pylos, tried the proposed decipherment on a tablet he had found the summer before. He was able to read most of the tablet and ideograms. Blegen confirmed that Ventris had succeeded and soonafter, most scholars accepted Linear B as an early form of Greek. The translation of the tablets was a slow process and slowed further by the death of Ventris in a 1956 car accident. His scholarship however proves priceless for the ages.