Scientists One Step Closer to Cracking Minoan Linear A Script

Linear A is a logo-syllabic script used for administrative purposes on Bronze Age Crete. Together with Cretan Hieroglyphic, it is one of two writing systems created by the Minoan civilization. Upon its template, the Mycenaeans later created the Linear B script to register their dialect of ancient Greek. Linear B was cracked in the 1950s, but its predecessor has continued to elude scholars. In her new book, Dr. Ester Salgarella of St John’s College investigates the genetic relationship between Linear A and Linear B.

A Minoan clay tablet inscribed with Linear A, which is on display in Crete’s Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Image credit: Ester Salgarella.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach using evidence from linguistics, inscriptions, archaeology and paleography (the study of the handwriting of ancient scripts), Dr. Salgarella examined Linear A and Linear B in socio-historical context.

To compare them more easily, she created an online resource of individual signs and inscriptions called SigLA – The Signs of Linear A: a paleographic database.

“At the moment there is a lot of confusion about Linear A,” Dr. Salgarella said.

“We don’t really know how many signs are to be taken as core signs, there’s even been a partial misclassification of signs in the past.”

“This database tries to clear up the situation and give scholars a basis for advancement.”

Following the fall of the Minoan civilization, there is a gap of about 50 years with no archaeological evidence of either script on Crete.

“There is sufficient evidence that Linear B is a derivative from Linear A, so the question is, how did this transmission process happen? I wanted to find out how we can account for the similarities and, more importantly, the differences, and fill in these gaps,” Dr. Salgarella explained.

The Minoans used Linear A primarily, but not exclusively, for administrative purposes.

Small clay ‘labels’ found on Crete bear short Minoan inscriptions on one side and imprints of fibers or string on the other. These suggest the labels were used to secure information written on folded or rolled perishable material, such as papyrus.

Natural disasters caused fires, which destroyed any writing materials and baked the inscriptions into the clay labels and tablets.

“It’s possible that in the two generations between the periods when Linear A ended and Linear B appeared, writing may not have been used widely, but the findings show parts of the earlier script did survive and was adapted by the Greeks into Linear B,” Dr. Salgarella said.

The SigLA database features a list of 300 standard signs and 400 inscriptions copied by hand. It is still under construction but more than 3,000 individual signs found within the inscriptions are currently searchable.

To form words, the scripts use syllabaries, which means that one written sign or symbol is not a single sound but a syllable.

“Other signs are more like Chinese ideograms, or picture words,” Dr. Salgarella said.

“Structural analysis involved looking at how the signs function, the direction they read, and whether they represent syllables, words or punctuation.”

“Composite signs fall into ‘configurational categories’. I could see that there is some kind of rationale on how to put them together.”

By examining the patterns, the researcher was able to come to a better understanding of how to read the composite signs, and make sense of some of the combinations.

“Collecting the Linear A inscriptions in a unified database is of paramount importance to be able to answer sophisticated paleographical and linguistic questions about the Linear A script as well as the Minoan language it encodes, which will help us reconstruct the socio-historical context of the Minoan civilization,” Dr. Salgarella said.

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