Seven Against Thebes (12)


The first clay tablets covered with symbols were discovered in Knossos, on Crete, in the year 1900. Identical symbols were found on clay amphorae discovered in 1921 in the ruins on Theban Cadmea. The number of tablets dug up in Knossos rose every year: we now have more than four thousand: it was in fact the palace archive. But Crete was only one of the centers of Mycenaean civilization. The Mycenaeans captured it only around the year 1450 B.C., arriving from the mainland. Yet, there were hardly any examples of the script on the mainland; the only proof that the script was used there were inscriptions on the amphorae discovered in Thebes and later in Tiryns and Mycenae; and, of course, the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb.

But this all changed in 1939. In that year great excavations were began in Pylos, on the western shores of Peloponnese. In the Mycenaean period it was one of the more important castles; it was the seat of the old wise man Nestor, before whose wisdom even king Agamemnon, the commander of all the Greek armies at Troy, bowed his head in respect. Like in Knossos, a palace archive was found in Pylos. In the first year alone over six hundred clay tablets came to light. After World War II, excavations were resumed in 1952; and every year since then dozens, sometimes hundreds, of new clay tablets have come to light. Yet, in Mycenae, though it gave its name to the entire period, and though it was perhaps the most powerful of all the castles of its era, barely a few score tablets have been found. Nor has an archive been discovered in Tiryns. Perhaps this is not an accident: perhaps the richer centers have been pillaged more mercilessly by invaders?

What do the tablets look like? They are made of ordinary clay, in various shapes; some are rectangular, like the pages of a notebook, and covered with even lines of symbols which march, as in our own script, from left to right; others, long and narrow, look more like palm leaves. Sometimes the tablets were dried in the sun, though they were never fired. Nor was it necessary: even those unable to read the script can quickly figure out that most of the symbols represent nothing but rows of numbers, weights and measures. The tablets served a practical purpose: they were intended for the keeping of accounts and the maintenance of lists. Once they have fulfilled their role, they were mixed with water, erased, and reused. It was the cheapest and most readily available writing material. The tablets which survive to our times owe their survival to the great fires which raged in the palaces when their civilization collapsed, when the Mycenaean principalities fell and their states went into ruin.

One is free to speculate, perhaps, that those works, which were considered important and valuable, may have been recorded on a more expensive but less durable material – such as papyrus imported from Egypt (since Mycenaean trade contacts with Egypt, and the whole Middle East, were very close); but while in its country of origin, papyrus was preserved for millennia by dry air and desert sand, in the humid climate of Greece it rotted away quickly. Some texts, held to be especially valuable, were perhaps inscribed on bronze tablets; a practice also followed later by Greeks and Romans. But bronze has always been valuable and sought after and, following the fall of the Mycenaean world the conquerors probably ruthlessly melted down all bronze objects which they could lay their hands on; only those buried in the ground survived – as was the case with the tablet later found in Alcmene’s grave. This history was to repeat itself: when the Graeco-Roman world collapsed, most ancient bronzes were destroyed (and religious fanaticism aided the destruction): tablets and statues went into smelting furnaces to be reborn in new shapes. Even marble was not safe: masterpieces of sculpture were used as ordinary building materials.

But back to the humble clay tablets, of which we have by now thousands. As their number grew, efforts to decipher them became ever more intense. All sorts of hypotheses were proposed in order to break their secret. Some even followed in the footsteps of the Spartans, turning to Egyptian hieroglyphs for help, or Babylonian cuneiform. But these odd ideas proved fruitless. Most scholars turned in other directions. Egyptian hieroglyphs did play a certain role: the story of the decipherment of such a difficult, complicated script over a hundred years earlier inspired hope: why should the Mycenaean signs, so much simpler, resist decipherment?

First, scholars arrived at a general outline of the history of ancient scripts on Crete and on the Greek mainland. By about the year 2000 B.C. there already existed on Crete a hieroglyphic script: its signs represented objects and concepts and we know it only from short inscriptions on seals. Later a new, simpler script appeared, called now Linear A. Then, in the fifteenth century B.C. Mycenaeans conquered Crete and took over the script, adapting it significantly in the process. This is the script known as Linear B; it spread quickly across the Mycenaean world and survived until the end of the civilization in the twelfth century B.C. while the use of the earlier scripts has always been limited to Crete itself. Following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, the knowledge of Linear B script was lost forever. For several centuries, Greeks managed without any sort of script at all and only sometime in the ninth century B.C. they borrowed Phoenician alphabet, which became the basis of the Greek, which in turn gave basis to Latin, and therefore ours.

Even before the script was deciphered, much could be surmised about its nature. First, it was possible to distinguish a large number of signs which represented persons, animals, plants, weapons and vessels. There are several score such signs; we have mentioned them already. Their precise meaning is sometimes not clear as they are often very sketchy, simplified, symbolic representations; but it is quite clear that they are ideograms, that is, signs representing objects or concepts. It was also clear that some signs were used to represent numbers. Their discoverer, Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, established their values by 1935: horizontal lines represented units, vertical lines – tens, circles – hundreds, circles with four spokes sticking out – thousands. There also existed signs representing fractions, weights, and measures. But the most critical is a set of over eighty symbols which are found in ever shifting combinations, like the letters of our own alphabet. But they could not simply represent vowels and consonants, because to do that job a much smaller number of signs would have been sufficient. The idea suggested itself therefore that this may have been a syllabary script. It was remembered that still in historical times the Greeks of Cyprus used a strange script, possibly a distant descendant of the Mycenaean, whose every sign represented a syllable: either a vowel or a consonant plus a vowel, for example a, i, to, ro, ka.

But these were all general observations; none addressed the heart of the problem: in order to decipher Linear B we first had to know what language it was used to transcribe. Only then one could try to propose phonetic values for different signs and, through the process of trial and error, arrive at some sort of result. And thus the crucial question arose: who were the Mycenaeans? What was the language in which all these thousands of tablets from Knossos and Pylos and all the inscriptions on the amphorae in Thebes and Mycenae and Tiryns were written?

The Greeks themselves considered the men of the Heroic Age as their own ancestors (if more courageous and capable). But in modern times completely different views on this matter arose. There were those who claimed that the civilization was Illyrian; this people, now extinct, did indeed occupy much of the Balkan Peninsula in antiquity. And though most scholars thought that the Mycenaeans had been Greeks, there was no proof of it as long as the script remained silent.

We don’t have the space here to present the whole laborious process of decipherment of Linear B. And though we should mention Alice Kober, an American scholar, who, in 1950, was the first to observe that certain groups of signs of the script appeared with a frequency suggesting the existence of inflection of nouns in the Mycenaean language, we won’t repeat the whole story: someone else has already told it much better: the close collaborator of the discoverer of the truth, John Chadwick, in his highly readable The Decipherment of Linear B. The actual discoverer of the mystery was a young architect, Michael Ventris. Both were English, but we’re allowed to mention that the mother of Michael Ventris was Polish.

In 1953 there appeared an article jointly penned by the two men; it summarized the main findings of the many years of their labor; asserted that the Mycenaean language was Greek; and provided a glossary of the phonetic value of the signs of Linear B. But Ventris did not live to see the publication of the definitive monograph – Documents in Mycenaean Greek – published in 1956: he died in a car accident that year, aged only thirty four.

Using the phonetic key provided by Ventris it is possible to decipher the tablets, though with an important proviso: the script had not been originally designed to fit the phonetic structure of the Greek language; and in fact, since it was borrowed from another language, it lacks some signs necessary to record certain sounds indispensable in Greek, such as the consonant l. As a result, practically all words recorded in it were distorted; and thus we find in the tablets the name Castor recorded in the script as Ka-to-ro, the word leukos as re-u-ko, pater as pa-te, Pylos as py-ro, sperma as pe-ma, krater as ka-ra-te-ra. These distortions are not too difficult to decipher, but in some cases it is quite difficult to figure out what Greek word was meant.

The second obstacle to decipherment is equally important: in the Mycenaean language there existed many words, some native, some borrowed, which in time dropped out of use and were no longer known in classical times; some others changed their meaning entirely. This, of course, should not surprise: gradual change lies in the nature of language: after all, we find fifteenth and sixteenth century texts in our own language difficult to read without use of dictionary or reference to footnotes. But Mycenaeans have left us neither footnotes nor dictionaries: any word whose meaning is not apparent from the context, or through its links with some classical Greek term, is for us, today, simply dead; it is only an empty sound. This is why the text of many of the tablets remains mysterious or doubtful.

But broadly speaking, it is possible to say that the Mycenaean archives have opened up; that they have spoken.


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