Book Review: Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship between Linear A and Linear B

A REVIEW: In her book, Dr. Ester Salgarella makes the case for significantly narrowing the relationship gap between Linear A, the script identified with the ancient Minoans, and Linear B, the script associated with the ancient Mycenaeans.

It may be time to start thinking of TWO as actually ONE.

Since their discovery, scholars have split the best-known early ancient Aegean scripts into two separate and well-attested writing systems — Linear A and Linear B. First discovered by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans while excavating the ancient Minoan city of Knossos on Crete at the turn of the century (1900), these scripts were manifested mostly on clay tablets and seals that survived the ages, thought by scholars to be due to baking from accidental fires. Between 1951 and 1953, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick successfully deciphered the ancient Linear B script. While Linear A was found primarily at ancient palace sites on Crete, Linear B was found mostly within palace archives at the excavated sites of Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae. Linear B is considered the earliest form of Greek script. Linear A, which preceded Linear B, remains undeciphered, used mostly by the Minoans, whose language is still unknown, to document transactions as part of the administration of their palace business.

Though the respective scripts are still conventionally thought to be separate, to this day scholars continue to debate the nature of the relationship between the two and their origins, the scripts exhibiting clear similarities in both structure and paleography.

Academic Tour De Force

Enter here Dr. Ester Salgarella, who embarked on an exhaustive, in-depth study of Linear A as the basis and focus of her doctoral dissertation while pursuing her PhD at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge.

“There are no classes on LA [Linear A] at the University, so only at the graduate level could I work freely on what I liked most,” wrote Salgarella in her recently published interview with Popular Archaeology Magazine*. “I had always been intrigued by the partial knowledge we had of the LA to Linear B transmission process, and it puzzled me. When I proposed this topic for my PhD to my supervisor, I must say I was expecting a rejection. When the ‘yes’ came, I was beyond delighted! This meant I had to acquire knowledge of LA by myself, and full days, weeks and months were dedicated to that single purpose, thanks to the magnificent holdings of the Cambridge University Libraries and the ‘Mycenaean Epigraphy Room’ private collection in the Faculty of Classics.”

The result of her efforts has been nothing less than remarkable, leading in part not only to the awarding of her PhD but also the post-doctoral publication of her related book, Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship between Linear A and Linear B, published by Cambridge University Press. Her efforts also led to her creation and ongoing development of a unique, searchable and free paleographical database for Linear A known as SigLA, in collaboration with computer scientist Dr Simon Castellan at INRIA, University of Rennes (France).

The book itself may stand among the world’s best academic works on the subject, arguably inducting Salgarella onto the short-list of the world’s experts on Linear A. In 380 pages parsed among 5 intricately detailed and graphically rich sections, Salgarella takes the reader on an in-depth passage to a deeper understanding of the elusive script and how it relates to the later Linear B script. “I set off to examine the peculiarities of the transmission process to assess the degree of relatedness,” between Linear A and Linear B, comments Salgarella about the purpose of her book.* She achieves her objective while acknowledging at the same time that, as is common in all academic pursuits, the content is subject to healthy debate.

Setting the stage to help the reader understand where she is going with her narrative, Salgarella reviews in detail the current state of knowledge about the script, including an analysis of the evidence, structure and paleography of both Linear A and Linear B. With this foundation, she then introduces and expounds upon the interpretive models she formulates as her method of analyzing the respective structural and paleographical characteristics of the script systems. 

Not a Replacement, But a Continuum

Most significantly, Salgarella’s research and analysis as detailed in her book points, in her view, to some game-changing conclusions about fundamentally rethinking our understanding of the two scripts. For the reader, these takeaways are spelled out in the final section of her book:

First and foremost, she argues that the long understood ‘replacement’ of Linear A with Linear B did not actually occur as traditionally reflected in the literature. “The joint result of the combined structural and paleographical analysis reveals that the two scripts (as well as systems) appear closer than previously assumed on both structural and graphic grounds,” Salgarella stated in a recent interview with Popular Archaeology. “The script is continued in its graphic form with only slight modifications; the system itself was continued.”* In other words, the transmission process between Linear A and Linear B was more fluid than conventionally described. Indeed, as she argues in the conclusive remarks in her book, Linear A and Linear B should actually be thought of as one script, not two. Additionally, Salgarella argues, “my paleographical analysis suggests that LB was ‘created’ under the graphic influences of LA writing practices in use at North and North-East coastal sites,”* where contact and influence from mainland Greece was likely most acute. 

Finally, for the historian and those familiar with the literature touching on the Mycenaean ‘conquest’ of Crete during the Late Bronze Age, Salgarella suggests an important implication from her research that may likely draw further debate: that this ancient island civilization never really saw such a clear violent takeover.  “These results may make us rethink our very interpretation of the so-called ‘Mycenaean takeover of Crete’ still found in the literature,” she stated in the recent interview. “There was indeed language change in the transition between LA and LB, and their respective administrative systems, but this is not enough to claim a ‘takeover’ of the island.”* It is clear that a Greek-speaking group/community at some point controlled the highest levels of administration, however this does not necessarily mean there was an ‘invasion’.”

So did the Mycenaeans, as we understand them from ancient mainland Greece, really overtake the island society on Crete as conventionally thought? The debate goes on, but the script, according to Salgarella, does not clearly support that scenario.

An Educational Journey 

It should be noted that Aegean Linear Script(s) is not easy grist for those of us who are uninitiated in the fields of linguistics, paleography, ancient scripts, and the study of Linear A and Linear B in particular. For this reason, for the general reader, it might be advisable to keep a dictionary close at hand while fathoming the terminology in the text. It is nonetheless, in this writer’s opinion, a work of unquestionable and exceptional academic prowess. If the reader can exercise sufficient self-discipline to find oneself arriving at the final section detailing the author’s overall conclusions, it is a richly eye-opening educational experience, and a must-read for those interested in acquiring a much deeper understanding of Aegean linear scripts.

Cover Image, Top Left: Minoan inscriptions in Linear A script. Phaistos, 1850-1450 BC. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Zde, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International license. Wikimedia Commons


Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship between Linear A and Linear B, can be purchased from Cambridge University Press.


*Deciphering the Minoans, Popular Archaeology, April 15, 2021  



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