What did Achilles, Odysseus, and Agamemnon sound like? Up until the 1950s you would have been directed to the earliest form of “classical Greek”, the archaic form of ancient Greek found in the lyrics of The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as a few other texts. However, the heroes of these epics were held to have lived centuries before (if they had existed at all), so while they spoke in Homeric Greek in the poems, their actual language might have been different.
The 19th century was a period of rediscovery by Europeans of the historical roots of these ancient classics. Heinrich Schliemann famously uncovered Troy in Anatolia, in what is now eastern Turkey by the Dardanelles. His methods were a bit crude – dynamite is not normally considered to be a basic tool in archaeology – but he confirmed that one could peer past the texts of antiquity and find something that, if not verifying the Trojan War, certainly might have provided the seed for epics centuries later. Schliemann also excavated the Bronze Age sites of Mycenae (“Mee-ke-nee”) and Tiryns (“Tir-inz”) in the north-eastern corner of the Peloponnese, and labelled the common civilization that flourished from the 16th to the 12th century BCE as Mycenaean (which is usually pronounced in English, perversely, as “My-sen-ian”). In 1900 Sir Arthur Evans began excavations at a site in Crete, believing it to be the ancient Knossos of the legendary King Minos of minotaur and labyrinth fame. In all three of these locations and elsewhere a type of writing was found on tablets, written on pottery, and as inscriptions. After a fair size corpus of texts had been built up Evans was able to distinguish between two types of related but different writings. The older he called Linear A, and the more plentiful type found in higher, younger levels of the strata he called Linear B. He named the civilization at the site Minoan and declared that he had found Knossos, and the place has been known by that name ever since.
There were attempts to decipher both Linear A and B, but there was no easy success with either. What was evident from the number of symbols was that Linear B seemed to be a syllabary much like Japanese, ancient Egyptian, or Cree – instead of an alphabet, the symbols represented combinations of consonants and vowels, so that, for example, “ba”, “da”, “bi” and “di” would each be represented by a different syllabogram. As well, it appeared that the syllables were supplemented by simple ideograms, images that looked like the things to which they referred, i.e. an ox was represented by something that looked like an ox head. A number of prominent archaeologists and linguists suggested connections with the ancient Hittites, others with Homeric Greek, but all of their solutions were subjective and not very obvious.
The story of how Linear B was finally cracked has been written up many times, but is best told in “The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” (2013) by Margalit Fox. An initial challenge was to get all of the texts onto paper so that some sort of analysis could be done. The heavy lifting on this was done by Professor Alice Kober of Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Starting in the 1930s she transcribed the many hard to read tablets and started to construct grids of associations in forty notebooks, and using over 180,000 cards. She died in 1950, but before then had determined that the language was inflected – that the word endings changed according to what they were doing.
Michael Ventris, an architect and highly knowledgeable amateur classicist, deciphered the texts in 1952, building on the work of Kober. He treated it very much as a puzzle, and it was a bit like doing a sudoku by inserting guesses and then seeing if the other numbers would fit in. Many of the guesses were wrong, but working on the assumption that he was dealing with a very old form of Greek he tried out the idea that some of the syllabograms represented place names. This started a cascade of deductions, and in 1952, working with John Chadwick of Cambridge University, they published their results. Ventris, unfortunately, was killed in a car accident just before the publication of Documents in Mycenean Greek. Chadwick carried on the work in Linear B, which continues today.
Much to the disappointment of many, the tablets in Linear B proved to be, for the most part, inventories of oil, gold, tripods, and such. While gods were occasionally mentioned, all that could be determined was that there was some continuity of names between the Mycenean Greeks and the Homeric gods of seven centuries later. So, while there was no real insight into the culture and religion of the Myceneans, there was now significant evidence about their economics and the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. Another important achievement was the demonstration that Greek-speaking peoples had been in Greece as early as the 16th century BCE, something which had been hotly disputed before the decipherment.
What was it like? Unlike modern Greek, with four cases, or classical Greek, with five, nouns in Mycenaean Greek had seven: nominative, genitive, accusative, dative, vocative, instrumental and locative. The “w” sound was present, unlike most dialects of classical Greek where it had entirely dropped out (modern Greeks have difficulty with the sound, as it is now quite foreign). Linear B, as it turns out, was not a good means of writing down a highly inflected language. After the mysterious fall of Mycenaean civilization around 1200 BCE the use of the script ceased, and when the Greeks began to write again in the 8th century they adopted and adapted the alphabetic script of the Phoenicians.
Linear A, the writings system of the earlier population Evans called “Minoan” is clearly related, but the language it represents does not appear to be Greek or any other known ancient language. It may represent an ancient language like Etruscan or Basque that pre-dates the arrival of languages belonging to the Indo-European family.