Linear B

Linear B

Infobox Writing system
name=Linear B
typedesc=with additional Logograms
time=Late Bronze Age
languages=Mycenaean Greek
fam1= Linear A
sisters=Cypro-Minoan syllabary
unicode= [ U+10000–U+1007F] syllabic signs
[ U+10080–U+100FF] logograms

Linear B is a script that was used for writing Mycenaean, an early form of Greek. It predated the Greek alphabet by several centuries and seems to have died out with the fall of Mycenaean civilization. Most of the tablets inscribed in Linear B were found in Knossos, Cydonia, [C. Michael Hogan, "Cydonia", "The Modern Antiquarian", January 23, 2008 [] ] Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae. [Linnea Holmer Wren, David J. Wren and Janine M. Carter (1994) "Perspectives on Western Art", Westview Press ISBN 0064301540] The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, provides no evidence of the use of writing.

The script appears to be related to Linear A, an undeciphered earlier script used for writing the Minoan language, and the later Cypriot syllabary, which recorded Greek. Linear B consists of around 87 syllabic signs and a large repertory of semantographic signs. These “signifying” signs stand for objects or commodities, but do not have phonetic value and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence.

The application of Linear B was confined to administrative contexts. In all the thousands of tablets, a relatively small number of different "hands" have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete). [cite book|first=J.T.|last=Hooker|title=Linear B: An Introduction|publisher=Bristol Classical Press UK |year=1980|id=ISBN 0906515696] From this fact it could be theorized that the script was used only by some sort of guild of professional scribes who served the central palaces. Once the palaces were destroyed, the script disappeared.

The script

Linear B has roughly 200 signs, divided into syllabic signs with phonetic values and logograms (or ideograms) with semantic values. The representations and naming of these signs has been standardized by a series of international colloquia starting with the first in Paris in 1956. After the third meeting in 1961 at the Wingspread conference center in Racine, Wisconsin, a standard proposed primarily by Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., became known as the Wingspread Convention, which was adopted by a new organization, CIPEM, affiliated in 1970 by the fifth colloquium with UNESCO. Colloquia continue: the 13th is scheduled for 2010 in Paris. [cite web|last=Palaima|first=T.G.|coauthors=Josē L. Melena|title=A Brief History of CIPEM| work|publisher=Comitē International Permanent des Ētudes Mycéniennes|url=|format=html|accessdate=2008-03-28]

Many of the signs are identical or similar to Linear A signs; however, Linear A, which encoded the unknown Minoan language, remains undeciphered and we cannot be sure that similar signs had similar values.

yllabic signs



The tablets are classified by the location of their excavation.

*KN Knossos: ca. 4360 tablets (not counting finds of Linear A).
*PY Pylos : 1087 tablets.
*TH Thebes: 99 tablets + 238 published in 2002 (L. Godart and A. Sacconi, 2002; see under Thebes tablets)
*MY Mycenae: 73 tablets.
*TI Tiryns: 27 tablets.
*KH Chania: 4 tablets.
*another 170 inscriptions in Linear B were found on vessels.

The publication of the Thebes tablets (L. Godart and A. Sacconi, 2002) was long anticipated, and their actual content was rather disappointing compared to what had been hinted at by the editors in the previous years.

If it is genuine, the Kafkania pebble, dated to the 17th century BC, would be the oldest known Mycenean inscription, and hence the earliest preserved testimony of the Greek language.


The main archives for Linear B are associated with these stages of Late Minoan and Helladic pottery: [This table is heavily indebted to cite web|first=Cynthia|last=Shelmerdine|title=Where Do We Go From Here? And How Can the Linear B Tablets Help Us Get There?|url=|accessdate=2008-03-27|format=PDF]

LM II (1425-1390 BC):
* Knossos, Room of the Chariot Tablets.

LM IIIA2 (1370-1340 BC) or IIIB (1340-1190 BC):

* Knossos, main archive.

* Chania, tablet Sq 1, 6659, KH 3 (possibly Linear B).

LH/LM IIIB1 end: [LM III is equivalent to LH III from a chronological perspective.]
* Chania, tablets Ar 3, Gq 5, X 6.
* Mycenae, tablets from Oil Merchant group of houses.
* Thebes, Ug tablets and Wu sealings.LH IIIB2, end:
* Mycenae, tablets from the Citadel.
* Tiryns, all tablets.
* Thebes, Of tablets and new Pelopidou Street deposit.
* Pylos, all but five tablets.


The Knossos archive was dated by Sir Arthur Evans to the destruction by conflagration at about 1400 BC (which baked and preserved the clay tablets), in the Late Minoan II (LM II) period. Evans made a career of excavating the Knossos site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and creating the concept of Minoan civilization, which he believed was historically accurate.

This view stood until Carl Blegen excavated the site of ancient Pylos in 1939 and uncovered tablets inscribed in Linear B, one of the two scripts discovered at Knossos and named by Evans. Those tablets were fired in the conflagration that destroyed Pylos about 1200 BC, at the end of Late Helladic IIIB (LHIIIB). With the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris in 1952, serious questions about Evans' date began to be considered. Most notably, Blegen said that the inscribed stirrup jars (an oil flask with stirrup-shaped handles) imported from Crete around 1200 were of the same type as those dated by Evans to the destruction of 1400. Blegen found a number of similarities between 1200 BC Pylos and 1400 BC Knossos and suggested the Knossian evidence be reexamined, as he was sure of the 1200 Pylian date.

The examination uncovered a number of difficulties. The Knossos tablets had been found at various locations in the palace and Evans had not kept exact records. Recourse was had to the day books of Evans' assistant, Duncan MacKenzie, who had conducted the day-to-day excavations. There were discrepancies between the notes in the day books and Evans' excavation reports. Worse, the two men had quarreled over the location and strata of the tablets, MacKenzie had called Evans a liar, and Evans had not only sacked him but made sure he did not excavate anywhere else.

The results of the reinvestigation were eventually published in a definitive work: cite book|first=L.R.|last=Palmer|coauthors=John Boardman|title=On the Knossos Tablets|city=Oxford|year=1963|publisher=Clarendon Press It consists of two works, Leonard Palmer's "The Find-Places of the Knossos Tablets" and John Boardman's "The Date of the Knossos Tablets." In this book Palmer plays the role, so to speak, of prosecuting attorney and Boardman of defending attorney; consequently, the dispute was known for a time as "the Palmer-Boardman dispute".

Like questions concerning the veracity of Heinrich Schliemann, the controversy soon escalated beyond the evidence, which set the world of classical scholarship looking for a way to resolve the question once and for all, a still unfulfilled hope. There appeared to be no "smoking gun" of Evans' mendacity; that is, he could in his excavation reports have simply been generalizing to resolve contradictions in the data. Moreover Blegen's arguments depended more on a preponderance of evidence rather than any single incontrovertable proof. No such incontrovertible proof has ever been found.

The real issue is whether sufficient reason exists to question Evans, since there is as much evidence for 1400 as there is for 1200. Without a solid reason to doubt Evans, the community of classical scholars tends to support a date of 1400 by default; that is, LM IIIA:2. As for LH IIIB, it likely begins in the 1310s or 1300s BC, after Mursilis II's sack of Miletus; it ends around 1200 BC.

The colours of the scholars can be identified by the dates they give for the tablets. This article utilizes an outline developed by Cynthia Shelmerdine, who is in the Boardman camp. While stating two possibilities for the main archive of Knossian tablets, she accepts a 1400 date for the Room of the Chariot Tablets. There still might have been two conflagrations and tablet firings, one in 1200 and one in 1400. As an example of a scholar who is in the Palmer camp, see cite web|first=Jeremy B.|last=Rutter|year=2000|title=Lesson 25: The Linear B Tablets and Mycenaean Social, Political, and Economic Organization
work=Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean|url=|accessdate=2008-03-28
Rutter relies on a similarity of scribal hand between one of the Chania tablets and the Knossos tablets and dates all the tablets from 1350-1300 to 1200 BC.

Nearly every scholar presents their view as the generally accepted view or the one most proved by recent evidence. Regardless of how they may present their perceptions, the issue is very much open and the search for evidence continues.


The major cities and palaces used Linear B for records of disbursements of goods. Wool, sheep, and grain were some common items, often given to groups of religious people and also to groups of "men watching the coastline."

The tablets were kept in groups in baskets on shelves, judging by impressions left in the clay from the weaving of the baskets. When the buildings in which they were housed were destroyed by fires, many of the tablets were then fired.


The first clay tablet at Knossos was discovered by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans on March 31, 1900 and on April 6 he discovered a significant hoard of tablets (measuring 5x10 inches).

The convention for numbering the symbols still in use today was first devised by US Professor Emmett Bennett, who, by 1950, had deciphered the metrical system. He was also an early proponent of the idea that Linear A and B represented different languages.

About the same time, Alice Kober studied Linear B and managed to construct grids, linking symbols that seemed to have a strong grammatical relationship. Kober noticed that a number of Linear B words had common roots and suffixes. This led her to believe that Linear B represented an inflected language, with nouns changing their endings depending on their case. However, some characters in the middle of the words seemed to correspond with neither a root nor a suffix. Because this effect was found in other, known languages, Kober surmised that the odd characters were bridging syllables, with the beginning of the syllable belonging to the root and the end belonging to the suffix. This was a reasonable assumption, since Linear B had far too many characters to be considered alphabetic and far too few characters to be logographic; therefore, each character should represent a syllable.

Using the knowledge that certain characters shared the same beginning or ending sounds, Kober built a table similar to the one above; her untimely death at age 43 in 1950 prevented her from possibly taking the final step or see others do it, namely to link the characters to actual phonetics.

Michael Ventris and John Chadwick performed the bulk of their decipherment of Linear B between 1951 and 1953. At first, Ventris chose his own numbering system, and agreed with Evans' hypothesis that Linear B was not Greek; however he later switched back to Bennett's system.

Based on Kober's work, and after making some inspired assumptions, Ventris was able to deduce the pronunciation of the syllables. To the amazement of Ventris himself, the deciphering of Linear B proved that it was a written form of Greek, in direct contradiction to the general scientific views of the times. Chadwick, an expert in historical Greek, helped Ventris decipher the text and rebuild the vocabulary and grammar of Mycenaean Greek.

Ventris' discovery was of immense significance, because it demonstrated a Greek-speaking Minoan-Mycenaean culture on Crete, and presented Greek in writing some 600 years earlier than what was thought at the time.


Linear B is assigned Unicode range 10000–1007F for syllabograms and 10080–100FF for ideograms.


Further reading

* has the Enkomi clay tablet, circa 1500 BCE., examples of Linear B tablets, and translated, the basic Linear B "syllabary", the Cypriot "syllabary" and discussions thereof, and short sections on Linear A, and the Phaistos Disk.
* Chapter 6, Linear B, pp 108-119: discusses Arthur Evans, his work, the Cypriot clues, the "syllabary," Alice Kober, the "Grid", and a sample tablet "transliterated, and translated into English."
* for a general outline of the Linear B deciphering story, from Schliemman to Chadwick.

ee also

*Aegean civilization
*Linear A
*Linear C
*Trojan script

External links

* [ The Linear B Syllabary]
*Dartmouth: [ The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean] , [ The Linear B Tablets and Mycenaean Organization]
*UT-Austin: [ Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP)]
* [ Linear B]
* [ Linear B at Omniglot]
*Unicode code pages for the Linear B [ syllabary] and [ logograms] , including sample glyphs.
* [ Unicode Linear B Syllabary TrueType fonts] (some also include ideograms)
* [ Free, but incomplete, non-unicode Linear B TrueType font among other ancient fonts.]
* [ Markos Gavalas, MYCENAEAN (Linear B) - ENGLISH Dictionary] (
* [ DAIDALIKA - Scripts and Languages of Minoan and Mycenaean Crete]

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