The Mysterious Linear A

In 1886, the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and prominent Hellenic archaeologist Arthur Evans was given an ancient seal stone from Crete engraved with an unknown writing system.  Intrigued, Evans continued to investigate in Greece and Crete and found much more evidence that connected this writing system with the Aegean empire of the ancient Minoans.  Through the excavation of Minoan ruins on Crete (and Mycenaean ruins on the Greek mainland) Evans discovered two unique, but very similar, writing systems.  He called them Linear A and Linear B because it utilized a linear structure in the construction of its characters unlike much of the other writing of the day which was pictographic.  He also determined that Linear A was a predecessor of Linear B and that Linear A was mostly used in religious and administrative writings, while pictographic writing was used for everyday use.  Despite gaining all this knowledge, Evans and many other archaeologists, linguists, and historians were at a loss as to how to decipher Linear A and B.

The first major breakthrough in deciphering these writing systems came in the early 1950s when American archaeologist Alice Kober constructed a method of determining the grammatical relationship between various symbols in Linear B.  The result of her work was connecting certain symbols to others grammatically within Linear B, and determining that the symbols of Linear B had to represent syllables, not letters.  Not long after this discovery, Michael Ventris made a breakthrough that would crack Linear B wide open.  By comparing the texts from mainland Greece to those from Crete, Ventris noticed that certain words appeared on the Cretan texts and not on the Greek ones.  Ventris guessed that these words represented city and place names in Crete and by deciphering these names he was able to unlock much of the language.  As a result, Ventris determined that the underlying language of Linear B was Greek.

However, Linear A presents a different beast altogether.  Although these two writing systems look very similar, most scholars agree that the underlying language must be completely different for the two systems.  This is because when Linear A was deciphered using symbols from Linear B, the result was a garbled mess that did not make any sense.  Even when similar syllabic values of Linear B are applied to Linear A the underlying language of Linear A appears unrelated to any other presently known language.  While deciphering Linear A has proven out of reach, many scholars have hypothesized its origins.  Some believe it to be Greek in origin, but as we have seen, the linguistic structure is unique from other contemporary languages.  Others believe that Linear A is a descendant of an Anatolian language, but there is little resemblance between Minoan and contemporary Anatolian writing, there is very little evidence for migration of Hitto-Luwian peoples (the people of Anatolia) to Crete, and a distinct lack of connection exists between the two peoples.  Another theory is that Linear A is a descendant of Phoenician; however, while a few terms may be Semitic in origin, Linear A presents many written vowels – a direct contrast to Semitic script.  Indo-Iranian is another candidate, however, the work done by Hubert La Marle to prove this connection ignored established evidence and used different script systems at will.  The most widely accepted theory to date is that Linear A is somehow related to the Tyrrhenian family of languages which is pre-Indo-European and comprises of Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian.  However, even the most robust arguments for any of these theories is lacking and the mystery of Linear A remains.

3 thoughts on “The Mysterious Linear A

  1. Language and writing systems both certainly seem to be huge tools for archaeologists, though they can be difficult to decipher and understand. Certainly, translating a text is a whole different beast from excavating and analyzing potsherds, but no less important.

    If Linear B was truly derived from Linear A, it’s almost strange how different they truly are in both their symbols and their structure. A quick Google search claimed that 80% of Linear A’s symbols are unique, sharing only about 50 to Linear B. Certainly they must be related, but the exact nature of that relationship may remain unclear until Linear A is deciphered.

    Between this and the texts we discussed in class, I almost find the idea of a syllabic writing system baffling. The idea that symbols represent symbols instead of letters seems inherently odd to me, even though I know it was very common in older languages! It’s difficult to picture what our words would look like in such a system, at least for me – I’m no expert in the subject.

    Linguistic Archaeology seems to be so distinct from what many consider ‘traditional’ archaeology. I think it’s less about deciphering individual languages, and more about actually tracing the evolution and development of language and writing systems. I believe this is the biggest reason the link between Linear A and Linear B – deciphering their relationship could provide insight into cultures we may not have even realize were linked. The idea that language has as much value as artifacts in archaeology is truly interesting, and I almost wish we had been able to delve into it a bit more – though it must be rather esoteric compared to looking at artifacts.

  2. It is incredible to me that so much can be lost for lack of a relatively simple piece of knowledge. Numerous examples of Linear A have been found that could represent a wealth of information, but without the ability to read it, all of them become simple lines that say almost nothing. With that one bit of information missing, an object goes from being a historical document of great value to an archaeological artifact which, while of value, is simply not the same as a written record. We have these people’s words, but we have lost the ability to understand their voices, so for us, they are silent. It seems to me to be a great tragedy indeed, that when the ancient civilizations of Crete might yet speak to us, we have no way to listen.
    The same tragedy befell the Inca. Though it is known that they kept complex records, we have no idea what these records say. Without a way to decode the quipu they become nothing more than bits of string, a testament to the complexity of the Inca civilization, but a record no longer. If only one person remained who could unravel the mysteries of the quipu or one person could understand the mysterious Linear A, two civilizations – now utterly lost – might speak to us in their own voices once more.

  3. Imagine what would happen if future people found our computers but had no way of reading the information they stored. Such a simple piece of knowledge lacking, so much of our civilization lost.

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