Saturday, November 12, 2011 - 0 comments

Pot Luck

By : David Schneider

Linear A, an ancient script, is unearthed in Turkey.

Recovered from mainland Turkey
Throughout this century, scholars studying the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean have pondered a vexing puzzle. The mystery unfolded soon after 1900, when the English archaeologist Sir Arthur J. Evans began excavating the buried palace of Minos at Knossos on the island of Crete. Among the many artifacts found were clay tablets bearing two related forms of unintelligible writing that Evans termed Linear A and Linear B script.

Evans, along with many other classicists, struggled for decades to decode the enigmatic symbols. It was an amateur—a young English architect named Michael G. Ventris—who finally deciphered Linear B in 1952, concluding correctly that the language it represented was archaic Greek. The older and more rarely
preserved Linear A code seemed obviously of a different origin, but the identity of that language remained unknown. Now an archaeological discovery in Turkey links the authors of that script—the so-called Minoans—with lands to the east.

There are many thoughts about what language the far-ranging Minoans spoke. Some scholars believe Linear  A inscriptions may be in the language of the Hittites, who some 4,000 years ago dominated what is now Turkey. Others suggest that Linear A transcribes Luwian, a more obscure ancient language of that area. Some have proposed that Linear A symbols spell out Semitic words. It also may be completely possible that the mysterious dialect of the Minoans is not related to any known language at all.

Because there is so little certainty about the origin or extent of Minoan civilization, scholars have been particularly intrigued by the recent findings: Wolf- Dietrich Niemeier of the University of Heidelberg’s Archeological Institute has discovered Minoan artifacts bearing Linear A script on mainland Turkey, marking a strong connection between the ancient inhabitants of Crete and the mainland to the east.

Niemeier’s work began in 1994, at the ruins of Miletus. He had returned to excavations made there by German teams during the 1950s and 1960s. Niemeier installed powerful pumps to lower the water table so that he could explore even deeper levels. Although his initial discovery of Linear A was made during the first season of fieldwork, he did not realize the significance of the find. He thought the curious marks incised on a  shard of pottery were just a graffito, a mere doodle. But in the second year his team uncovered two additional pieces with similar inscriptions. At that point, Niemeier remarks, “I recognized it immediately as Linear A.” He remembered the earlier discovery: “We pulled out the box with the shard, the so-called graffito, and it matched.”

According to Thomas G. Palaima, chairman of the department of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, “There’s absolutely no doubt that this is Linear A.” With only small fragments of pottery bearing three signs found so far, there is not much to read—even if one knew how. Still, this cryptic message helps to paint a picture of the Minoans who lived some 36 centuries ago.

Because Minoan artifacts have been found on several of the Aegean Islands, experts have wondered whether these people presided over a maritime empire that stretched beyond Crete. Did they, for example, rule  overseas colonies, or was it just that they exported their wares? (To make an analogy, one might find Chinese porcelain among items from Victorian England, yet it would be wrong to conclude that China had dominated the British Isles.)

From the type of clay used, it is apparent that the pottery in Miletus was made locally. It is also clear that these Linear A symbols were inscribed before the pot on which they were written was fired. According to  Palaima, these facts (and the observation that one of the signs is rather rare) suggest that Minoan speakers must have been there—probably as members of a Minoan colony.

Greater insight into Minoan society would come from reading Linear A inscriptions, but decoding remains elusive, in part because so few examples have been available to scrutinize. Perhaps archaeologists as determined as Niemeier will eventually recover sufficient text to make decipherment possible. But for the time being, the mystery of Linear A endures.


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