Friday, June 18, 2021

The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick

Cracking the ancient Mycenaean code
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeologists working in Greece discovered a number of clay tablets inscribed with a previously undiscovered system of writing. Caches of these tablets were found primarily at two sites: the Minoan palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, and the Mycenaean city of Pylos on the Greek mainland. Eventually linguists and archaeologists established that the writing dates to around 1450 BC. The script was dubbed Linear B (as opposed to Linear A, an even earlier script). From the 1930s to the 1950s, many philologists tried unsuccessfully to decipher this writing, until British architect Michael Ventris discovered the key to cracking the code. Tragically, Ventris died soon after, in his mid-thirties. In his book The Decipherment of Linear B, first published in 1958, classical linguist John Chadwick, who collaborated with Ventris on the decipherment, tells the story of how this ancient writing system was discovered and decrypted. I am reviewing the Second Edition published in 1967.

When first encountered, any unknown script presents two main problems: First, is it a pictographic, alphabetic, or syllabic script, or a combination of the above? Second, all scripts are meant to represent a spoken language, but to which particular language does this script correspond? In the case of Linear B, it might very well be a language that no longer exists. Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered with the help of a bilingual text, the Rosetta Stone, but for Linear B there exists no such bilingual text, so the investigators basically had to start with nothing. Ventris and others began this daunting task by looking for familiar syntactical patterns in the texts and comparing them to languages from roughly the same time period, such as Etruscan, Cypriot, and Hittite. Ventris finally cracked the code when he proved that the characters corresponded to an early form of Greek.

Though Chadwick, along with Ventris, published several articles and books intended for specialists in the field, he states in the introduction to The Decipherment of Linear B that this book is intended for a general reading audience. While this is certainly an authoritatively informative book on its subject, Chadwick is not entirely successful at making this topic accessible to the lay reader. To tackle this book, one not only needs to have an avid interest in the ancient Greek world but also a fairly firm knowledge of linguistics. In explaining the decryption process, Chadwick goes into a level of detail that often surpasses the layman’s comprehension. One editorial choice that really makes this book user-unfriendly is that, due to difficulties in typesetting, the bulk of the text does not reproduce the Mycenaean words in the Linear B script in which they were actually written. Instead, Chadwick uses a system of numerals assigned to each character. Thus, the notation 08-60-02-15-04-13-06 may signify the word for “chariots.” Page after page of these numbers is enough to drive the reader nuts. The volume does, however, include 17 figures that illustrate the actual Linear B characters, including a comprehensive numbered syllabic chart (see below).

The tablets found at Knossos and Pylos were not literature, but rather lists of commodities. Still, as Chadwick interprets them, these tablets reveal a surprising amount of information on ancient Mycenaean life, including governmental administration, taxation and tribute, religious practices, the organization of military units, and ancient armaments. This window into the past is the most fascinating aspect of Chadwick’s book. The process of decipherment itself does not make as captivating a story as the decipherment of the Mayan language, as related by Michael Coe in Breaking the Maya Code, but anyone interested in ancient languages, particularly of Greece, will certainly find much intellectual stimulation in Chadwick’s insider account.

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