Deciphering the Minoans

A brilliant pioneering scholar is paving a path that may eventually help crack Linear A, the ancient script of the Minoan civilization.

 

“Only joint efforts will make decipherment possible.”

Ester Salgarella

 

No one knows their names. Lost personalities of an ancient civilization, their most famous king is known to us only through Greek mythology—King Minos—if in fact he ever existed as described in the mythical narrative. But archaeological remains tell us that, whether or not King Minos was real as depicted in the mythology, there must have been kings in this land. Today the land is known as the island of Crete, a part of modern-day Greece, but as long ago as at least 3000 BCE it was the center of what has been penned in the historical literature as the ‘Minoan’ civilization—so named by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans after the mythical king. It was Evans who first excavated the palatial remains at Knossos in 1900. In short, he ‘discovered’ the Minoans. Evans’ efforts were followed in succeeding years by a string of excavations and research that have revealed a remarkable ancient civilization that has left behind a wondrous legacy of monumental palaces, building complexes, tools, incredible artwork, writing systems, religion, and evidence of an expansive trade network across the Mediterranean. Remnants of their monumental past can be seen beyond Crete on multiple islands in the Aegean. They have been arguably described as representing Europe’s first great urbanized society. 

Yet even so, we do not really know their story. We do not know the chronology of their kings, the major events of their history, or the affairs and issues of their elites. That is because, outside of Greek myth and unlike what scholars have been able to determine from the decipherment of ancient inscriptions that have testified and recorded the often detailed story of civilizations like ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Maya, there are to-date no successfully deciphered written records for the Minoans. Evidence of ancient writing systems, however, was discovered during excavations at Knossos and other Minoan sites. Scholars, beginning with Evans, were able to distinguish three writing systems manifested mostly on clay tablets and seals that survived the ages due to baking from accidental fires, and on other artifacts. Known as Cretan Hieroglyphic (the earliest, a pictographic script), Linear A and Linear B, with Linear A determined to be the predecessor of linear B, the decipherment of these scripts eluded scholars for decades after their first discovery. 

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Above and below: The ancient remains of Knossos, the largest known center of the Minoans on Crete. Above: Pat_Scrap, Pixabay  Below: Bigfoot, Pixabay

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Cracking the Scripts

Scholars began to open windows on this mystery when, between 1951 and 1953, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick successfully deciphered the ancient Linear B script. Linear B was found mostly within palace archives at the excavated sites of KnossosCydonia, PylosThebes and Mycenae.  Excepting Knossos and Cydonia, these sites are best known as Mycenaean centers, and Linear B is thus largely associated with the Mycenaeans. The archaeological finds indicate this script was used to record and communicate economic transactions related to palatial center administration from approximately 1600–1100 BC. Although the Mycenaeans arose after the Minoans, with their most significant centers located in present-day mainland Greece, many scholars have suggested that the Mycenaeans were significantly influenced by the Minoans, with archaeological finds evidencing a strong trade and exchange relationship. Both Linear A and Linear B scripts share many common signs, and it is generally thought that Linear B is a derivative of the yet undeciphered Linear A. However, despite decades of study, scholars have yet to decipher Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A, but new strides have been made in recent years.

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The ancient remains of Mycenae, on mainland Greece. This image depicts the famous Lion Gate. Zde, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons

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Clay tablet inscribed in Linear B from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, on present-day mainland Greece. This inscription provides information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. This tablet was preserved because it was baked in fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BC. Sharon Mollerus, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, Wikimedia Commons

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A partial tablet inscribed in Linear A, found at the Palace of Zakros, located on the island of Crete. Olauf Tausch, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons

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What follows is an interview with Dr. Ester Salgarella, who is a Junior Research Fellow at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. She is most recently known for the creation of the open access SigLA database of Linear A inscriptions, a remarkable and possible game-changing tool developed in collaboration with computer scientist Dr Simon Castellan at INRIA, University of Rennes (France). Although this new tool is under ongoing development, it now features more than 3,000 individual inscription signs that are searchable. Her work, along with others, may prove to be a key to the eventual decipherment of this mysterious script, opening a long-awaited window for understanding the ancient Minoans………….

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Working Toward a Comprehension of the Minoan Script

Q: What is your background experience as it relates to the study and decipherment of Linear A? What inspired you to focus on research related to this?

ES (Ester Salgarella): My background is in Classics and Archaeology. Before coming to Cambridge, I received both my BA and MA from the University of Padova (Italy), where I started studying Aegean Prehistory and Mycenaean Greek out of passion and as optional classes (when available). I came to Cambridge for graduate study (MPhil and PhD) as I knew Cambridge is a leading institution in this field and the very place where the archive of LB decipherment is preserved. It was the most sensible place to go to follow my passion and further my knowledge. And, in hindsight, I was not mistaken!

However, my passion for the ancient world and ancient scripts is rooted in my childhood: I still remember a time when I was 6 years old. My parents took me to Venice to visit an exhibition featuring the Ancient Egyptian queen Nefertari (http://www.fondazionememmo.it/nefertari-regina-degitto/) . Needless to say, I fell in love with Egyptian Hieroglyphs more than anything else and at the exhibition shop I acquired a little booklet (for children) on how to draw hieroglyphs. Once back home, I started to cover the house with sticky labels displaying names of objects in hieroglyphic (to the extent a child would do, of course). This is my earliest memory of my passion for ancient scripts. As a teenager, at school I studied very fondly both Greek and Latin and I was mesmerized when the Aegean Bronze Age world was disclosed to me: I had a sudden and strong feeling of belonging… it was like a call. This is what I wanted to study, what I wanted to do. I wanted to work on the earliest evidence of writing on European soil, to know more about the people who invented and made use of writing there, to understand more of their history through the lens of writing. Moreover, it was a reasonably new field of study (beginning with Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Troy and Mycenae, and Sir Arthur Evans’ unearthing of the palace of Knossos), and this added to the excitement.

However, it was not until my PhD that I could focus on Linear A (LA). There are no classes on LA at the University, so only at the graduate level could I work freely on what I liked most. I had always been intrigued by the partial knowledge we had of the LA to Linear B (LB) 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.

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Q: What is the current status of efforts to unlock the language behind Linear A and the implications or significance of this endeavor?

ES:

a). The state of the art: ‘readability’ of LA texts, within a hoped-for ‘decipherment’ framework

Despite the language difference between LB, which writes the earliest form of the Greek language known to date, and LA, which writes a language we dub ‘Minoan’, it is still possible – to some extent and with an approximation – to ‘read’ LA inscriptions. This is because of the script relationship between LA and LB. It has long been known that these scripts are related, and that the LB script (not language) is derivative from the LA script. The (to date) known context of use (primarily administrative purposes) also suggests the same. In my work (more on this below) I set off to examine the peculiarities of the transmission process to assess the degree of relatedness. 

Given that the LB script used the LA script as a template, it is assumed that those LA signs that maintained approximately the same shape in LB may also be ‘read’ with the phonetic reading (approximate, if not the same) we have reconstructed in LB. This allows us to at least ‘read’ LA texts in phonetic transcription. Such transcriptions have now been made open-access by Prof. John Younger in his website: http://people.ku.edu/~jyounger/LinearA/  Regrettably, the printed edition of LA inscriptions does not have any phonetic transcription. Although this method may well be subject to criticisms, as we do not have a way of uncontrovertibly proving all sound values remained approximately the same upon script transmission, there are a number of legitimate reasons in favor of applying this method, as it has been recently argued by two colleagues of mine, Dr. Torsten Meissner and Dr. Philippa Steele, based here at the University of Cambridge.

However, even if we could fully ‘read’ LA texts, we cannot yet understand the underlying language. To ‘decipher’ means to get to know the language encoded in a script. Hence, we are currently faced with what I call ‘readability’ of LA texts, within a hoped-for ‘decipherment’ framework. It has been demonstrated by Prof. Yves Duhoux from the University of Louvain that LA makes use of a good many prefixes and suffixes (i.e., in our case, syllabic signs that are attached to the beginning or end of a word-stem to create a new word). This makes it unlikely for it to belong to the Indo-European linguistic family, which does not show this feature to such an extent. More recently, Dr. Brent Davis from the University of Melbourne has investigated LA texts at a deeper level by using statistical and phonotactic methods (more on this below) and he has attempted to determine which linguistic family (e.g. Indo-European, Semitic, Afro-Asiatic etc.) may best fit the LA pattern. For now, none of the existing families shows a close correspondence with the features we see in LA.

In order to arrive at a decipherment, we need to carry out interdisciplinary research in a collaborative international environment. This is necessary until we eventually find a bilingual inscription (a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for LA), of which there is none to date. In light of this, in the following discussion I would rather leave aside the issue of ‘deciphering’ LA, though ultimately critical, and focus on the stepping stones that may help to pave the way to a future decipherment.

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Linear A tablets on display at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete. Dr Ester Salgarella

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A Minoan clay tablet inscribed with Linear A, on display in Crete’s Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Dr Ester Salgarella

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b). Significance of a long-awaited decipherment

On a local scale, knowing the language behind the LA texts shall allow us to carry out an assessment of the extent of literacy in the Bronze Age Aegean, developing insights into the workings of the palatial administrations during the Minoan period (ca. 1800-1450 BCE), and achieving a more nuanced reconstruction of ‘Minoan’ society, economy and religion. Moreover, further linguistic analysis shall allow us to assess linguistic/dialectal variation over time and space in the different parts of Crete (and the Aegean islands that have so far produced LA evidence).

On a global scale, linguistic data shall enable us to situate the language in its diachronic position, in case it can be successfully linked to one of the already known linguistic families; if not, this will nevertheless give us an astonishing example of an ‘isolated’ language (such as, e.g., Sumerian and Etruscan). Knowledge of the underlying language may also allow us to reconstruct (although with due caution) prehistoric population movements, giving us a hint as to the place of origin of the pristine nucleus of the so-called ‘Minoans’.

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Q: A recent press release article about your work stated the following: “Taking an interdisciplinary approach using evidence from linguistics, inscriptions, archaeology and palaeography (the study of the handwriting of ancient scripts), Dr Salgarella examined the two scripts in socio-historical context.”* Could you explain this in such a way that a reader from the general public would understand, perhaps giving some examples to illustrate?

ES: Let us start with the terms that may sound more familiar: archaeology and linguistics.

Archaeological analysis: in our case, this primarily concerns chronology. It is essential to know where tablets come from and the dating archaeologists have assigned to a given tablet deposit. This gives us a relative chronology of the finds being studied, and consequently allows us to situate the attestations of the script in its diachronic development.

Linguistic analysis: this involves an assessment of current approaches to the linguistic analysis of the Linear scripts. Of particular importance is the discussion about how legitimate it is to read LA signs with the phonetic values we have reconstructed for LB (see my discussion above). Moreover, we also need to take into consideration those signs that are attested in one script only: within LB, to try to understand the reasons why some signs were created anew and some others were discarded during the transmission process; within LA, to try to understand why some signs (esp. not continued into LB) are at times site-restricted, i.e. found at a given site only.

Let us now discuss two fields of study that may not be familiar: epigraphy and palaeography.

Epigraphic analysis (inscriptions): this has to do with the study of how inscriptions are made, with respect to both the implement and the support (in the case of LA and LB, the support is the clay tablet and the implement is a stylus). An examination of tablet layout and disposition of information on the writing surface also plays a key role. If we take for example the LB tablet I have annotated with a phonetic transcription and a translation in the before-mentioned St. John’s press release article, in that type of layout we can see that each spot occupied by a word is significant for administrative purposes: e.g. the first word (bigger size) is always a man-name (that of a shepherd), the slot on top is occupied by another man-name (that of the person responsible for overlooking the shepherd and its flock), finally the slot on the bottom is filled with a place-name (in this case ‘Ku-ta-to’). Epigraphy is also concerned with features like word division (e.g. in LB this could be achieved by changing the size of close-by words or by adding a word-divider in the shape of a little comma); erasures (cases in which a previously written sign or word was erased and a new one was written on top: at times we are still able to work out what had been written in the first instance and to make sense of the change); presence or absence of ruled lines to guide writing; and intentional blanks and spaces between words and/or lines. All these data give us information about how tablets were redacted and edited, and which kind of information the palace administrators (aka ‘scribes’) deemed ‘essential’ for future record.

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Linear B clay tablet with the text explained. Dr Ester Salgarella

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Palaeographical analysis: this is the study of sign forms, how a sign was designed in the first instance, the number of variant ways in which a sign can be drawn, the variation in handwriting that we witness between different ‘scribes’, the modifications signs undergo over time and place. By way of example, in Linear B palaeographic analysis has been used to detect ‘scribes’ (referred to with the more neutral term ‘scribal hand’ in the scholarship): i.e., the individuals who were responsible for writing the clay documents. Such a task has not been fully undertaken for LA, and we hope that the palaeographical analysis carried out in my book (Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship between Linear A and Linear B), alongside SigLA (SigLA – The Signs of Linear A: a paleographic database), will help with the detection of individuality on Linear A tablets. This would have significant implications for our reconstruction of administrative connections in the palatial centers and it would be key to assessing the level of literacy at that time (e.g. how many people are likely to have mastered writing in the form of the LA syllabary?).

By examining the available evidence using and integrating these approaches, I was able to disentangle some of the intricacies that surround the LA to LB transmission process.

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Q: What have you specifically discovered about the relationship between Linear A and Linear B that opens up a significantly better window on understanding and deciphering Linear A, as opposed to what scholarship already knows about the two scripts?

ES: We already knew these scripts are derivative from one another, however, the precise way in which the latter was derived from the former was not straightforward, esp. in relation to the amount of change/rupture with the previous system: how much different is the LB script/system if compared to its template? In order to throw light on this, I set out to examine the structure and palaeographical features of both LA and LB.

By structure I mean the examination of the arrangement of their respective syllabaries, the function performed by a sign in context (e.g. syllabic, logographic, ideographic), the kind of sign combinations that were used in LA and which ones were continued in LB (and why so). This allows us to assess the level of ‘rupture’ with the previous system on a systemic level to get to an understanding of the degree of change (or lack thereof) upon the script transmission process from LA to LB.

As to palaeography, I produced detailed palaeographical charts of all signs attested on the LA tablets and the oldest LB tablets from Knossos (from the deposit called ‘The Room of the Chariot Tablets’) unearthed at any given site on Crete that has so far yielded written evidence. This allowed me to get a global view of all signs and their variants in each script and to assess the extent to which sign forms were modified when transmitted from LA to LB. These charts clearly showed that most of the graphic variants that we see in LA are also present in LB: this implies that the degree of change was kept to a minimum and there was no strong or drastic sign selection process (nor strong sign standardization) when LB was ‘created’.

The joint result of the combined structural and palaeographic analysis reveals that the two scripts (as well as systems) appear closer than previously assumed on both structural and graphic grounds: comparable categories of signs were transmitted from LA to LB, and also when LB innovates it appears to follow principles already operating in LA; also the graphic shapes of signs we see in LB were continued from LA antecedents most of the time, and not created completely anew. If change is likely to have been kept to a minimum during the script transmission process, this means that there may be scope for making even further comparisons between these two scripts as well as systems: in other words, we may want to test whether other features we see and know from the LB system may also be applied to the LA system to shed light on its characteristics. By way of example, LB tablets, in that they are records of economic transactions, contain a good number of words with administrative significance (e.g. ‘total’, ‘grand total’, ‘deficit in payment’, ‘allocation’, ‘contribution’, etc.): by studying contextual positions of words and their associations, we may be able to make inferences as to the plausible meaning of some LA words (and there are scholars already attempting to do so).

Moreover, by implication, these results may make us rethink our very interpretation of the so-called ‘Mycenaean takeover of Crete’ still found in the literature. From a script perspective, it is unlikely that there was an abrupt change: the script is continued in its graphic form with only slight modifications; the system itself was continued. The very purpose of clay documents was also the same as in the LA administration: documents used for the bookkeeping of palatial administrations. Moreover, this interpretation is consistent with the archaeological record: there is no evidence of a war-like context on Crete, at least on present evidence. These considerations may make us want to reconsider slightly our interpretation of the two communities dubbed ‘Minoans’ and ‘Mycenaeans’ by modernity. 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.

I shall finish with a modern example: there are countries, like Switzerland for example, in which more than one language is spoken, though still they consider themselves as one nation. Language, therefore, shall not be taken a priori as a necessary condition to distinguish between different population groups. Moreover, it also needs stressing that we have to exercise due caution when projecting our modern views onto the past. We need to always question our interpretations and envisage more than one possible scenario.

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Q: What archaeological discoveries and sites have indicated the best potential for contributing to our understanding of Linear A?

ES: LA evidence does not amount to much, so we need to take into account all sites that have yielded written evidence in order to obtain as comprehensive a picture as possible. Only three sites on Crete have produced a sizeable amount of LA evidence allowing for site-internal comparison. These are: Haghia Triada in Central-South Crete (with some 1250 inscriptions: 147 tablets and 1103 sealed documents), Zakros on the North-East coast (with some 591 inscriptions: 31 tablets and 560 sealed documents) and Khania on the North-West coast (with some 309 inscriptions: 99 tablets and 210 sealed documents). The best preserved (and not only fragmentary) tablets come from these three sites, where there is potential to investigate the LA writing system at a deeper level given the higher amount of information we can retrieve from better preserved texts. However, scholars are now embarking on statistical and phonotactic analysis of the inscriptions with the aim at understanding some of the linguistic features (most importantly, Dr. Brent Davis from the University of Melbourne). Decipherment will only be made when we can say which language the tablets are written in, but in order to do so we first need to ‘tidy up’ our dataset: the structural and palaeographical analyses conducted in my work will be a stepping stone, complemented by progress in statistical and phonotactic analysis.

Thus, we need the whole LA dataset for statistical and cross-comparison analysis.

However, when it comes to examining the transmission process from LA to LB – esp. with respect to the much debated ‘place of origin’ of LB – then we can argue for some Cretan sites to have played a role in shaping up LB as we see it. My palaeographical analysis suggests that LB was ‘created’ under the graphic influences of LA writing practices in use at North and North-East coastal sites: these are primarily Khania, Arkhanes (and the area around Knossos) and Zakros. This scenario raises the issue of ‘connectivity’ and network analysis: in fact, when sailing from Mainland Greece, coastal sites are obviously more easily reached and connections between the two population groups (so-called Mainlander ‘Mycenaeans’ and Cretan ‘Minoans’) are more likely to have been more intense in such contexts. Adding to this, on Crete LB is only attested at Knossos, situated in a strategic position in the Centre-North area of the island. Only later on, we find some scattered evidence of LB at Khania (and one tablet fragment at Sissi, located near Mallia), but only at a time when LB at Knossos appears not to have been used any longer. This would be further evidence suggesting that LB is likely to have originated within a North coastal milieu.

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Q: When, for example, an inscribed tablet is discovered in archaeological context, how can you determine at first whether it is inscribed in Linear A or Linear B?

ES:  In order to distinguish between a LB tablet (or other kind of inscribed document) from a LA one, we need to look at three sets of features (and the combination thereof): pinacological features, epigraphical features, palaeographical features.

Pinacology is the study of the shape and format of a clay document (πίναξ ‘pínax’ is the Greek term for ‘tablet’): LA tablets are only page-shaped (rectangular shape, they usually fit quite nicely into the palm of a hand), while LB tablets can be either elongated (called palmleaf-shaped tablets) or page-shaped tablets (however, esp. at Knossos, the palmleaf-shaped type is more frequent than the page-shaped one, and this is a new tablet format introduced in the LB administration). Hence, tablet format already gives us a hint for the correct identification as well as classification of an inscribed clay tablet.

Epigraphy studies the disposition of information and writing on the tablet surface and the way in which the inscription was made. This also helps us in the identification process. A few examples: (i) LB inscriptions appear neater and tidier than LA ones, hence gaining in clarity (a number of LB tablet layouts show a well-thought-out disposition of information on the writing surface, with specific spaces/slots destined to a given – and recurrent – type of information, which is significant from an administrative standpoint). (ii) Often LB tablets show ruling lines to guide writing (the LB tablet with my notes shows a middle line, but bigger size page-shaped LB tablets may show much more). This is also a new feature introduced in LB. (iii) Most LB tablets also tend to clearly separate different entries occurring on the same record (e.g. one per line) and to distinguish more clearly between text and logograms by placing logograms at the far end of each entry (this does not happen in LA, where entries are often broken across lines). The examination of epigraphical features clearly shows that in the move away from the LA administration, LB both improved and systematized tablet format and layout.

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Above: Linear B clay tablet showing ruling line. Dr Ester Salgarella  Below: Linear B clay tablet KN Fp 13, showing ruling lines. It is dated to 1450-1375 BC. It records quantities of oil offered to deities. vintagedept  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic  Wikimedia Commons

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Palaeographical features also help in this undertaking. Although very many sign shapes and variants were transmitted straight from LA to LB, some degree of change/modification did occur in LB. This, of course, did not compromise the overall shape of a given sign. LB signs appear to have been graphically systematized in order to ‘resonate’ with each other, so to say: e.g. similar traits got more marked in order to make signs more alike (See the image below from my book, where I discuss this systematization process, and where you can see in different colors those traits of LB signs that became more enhanced). Moreover, most LA composite signs were not continued into LB. Hence, if we see a composite sign, the inscription is more likely to be LA than LB.

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From Fig 31, p 289, Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship between Linear A and Linear B, by Ester Salgarella. Image courtesy Dr Ester Salgarella

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By combining together these approaches and examining specific features, we are able to distinguish a LB document from a LA one. However, it is also worth mentioning that chronology may help us as well (in case a new find is unearthed from a clearly datable stratigraphic deposit). As mentioned already, LA spans ca. 1800/1700 to 1450 BCE, while LB is slightly later (ca. 1400/70-1200/1190). The earliest attestations of LA are dated to either 1800 or 1700 by scholars, and this fluctuation is due to the fact that there exist (at Knossos and Mallia) a number of inscribed clay documents called ‘dubitanda’ (= doubtful), as it is not clear whether we ought to classify them as Cretan Hieroglyphic or Linear A.

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Q: What additional or new archaeological discoveries or research/analysis could help provide the key to ‘unlocking the code’ of the Minoan language behind Linear A?

ES: What we all wish we could find is a bilingual text! A real ‘Rosetta Stone’. This does not need to be an inscription on hard support (like a clay tablet or a stone inscription). What we would need from any context (even beyond Crete) would be a bilingual text that could give us some clues as to the exact meaning and interpretation of the words of LA and ultimately the reconstruction (and possible) identification of the Minoan language. This lacking, we need to use ‘every tool we have’ in order to get as much as we can from the short and laconic texts.

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Q: Regarding the new online resource of individual signs and inscriptions you created, has this resource already been used by scholars/researchers? Why has such a resource or technique/instrument not been developed and used before?

ES: The SigLA database is a new resource and shall allow in-depth and comprehensive palaeographic and epigraphic comparison both within a given site that produced LA evidence and across different sites. Searches are customizable according to users’ needs. They will be able to create their own datasets in ways unfeasible before.

Why has it not been created before? My field of research is a relatively new one: excavations and discoveries of Bronze Age ‘Mycenaean’ citadels started with Heinrich Schliemann towards the end of the 19th century, and the ‘Minoan’ civilization was brought to light with the discovery of the palace of Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans at the very beginning of the 20th century. Much progress has been made ever since, however most works and editions of inscriptions have been published in old-fashioned print form only (for obvious reasons). The ‘digital era’ had yet to touch our field until recently. Most digital resources have been developed over the last decade, with digital education as well as skills on the rise. We are eventually moving toward a ‘digital landscape’ and away from unmovable print editions.

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Homepage of SigLA database. Salgarella and Castellan 2020

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The development of this research tool is also timely, as now – after a century of study of our material – we are asking ourselves more sophisticated palaeographical, epigraphical and linguistic questions (among others) that could not be answered without the help of digital resources. I am aware of a number of colleagues who are already using SigLA, and I am sending them regular updates on its implementation. In fact, it needs stressing the database is still under construction (it was started only one year ago) and it will take long before it comes to completion. In order to track changes and updates, we have added a specific page for users to see the amount of evidence they are searching. But this database has also been created with a view to making it accessible to the wider audience: that is the reason why we opted for an interactive interface that allows users to engage with the evidence displayed and to get information about signs and words by simply hovering with the mouse over a given sign or word (with the aid of color-code). In this way the world of LA is disclosed to everyone, for research, for self-study, or just for fun. As it is, it can also be taken as an open-access ‘didactic tool’ for everyone to use and enjoy.

Last but not the least, needless to say this project is interdisciplinary, but even more: it is also collaborative. SigLA is a joint effort, developed in collaboration with Dr. Simon Castellan, computer scientist at INRIA, University of Rennes (France), who has produced the software (Sigil) from scratch to tailor it to the needs and peculiarities of the LA evidence. I am beyond delighted to say this is a clear example of how far we can go by joining forces toward a common goal.

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Close-up of Linear A tablet HT 7 (from Haghia Triada), on display at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete. Dr Ester Salgarella

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Screenshot of the same Linear A tablet, HT 7, from SigLA database. Salgarella and Castellan 2020

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Q: What are your next steps or projects in your quest to deciphering the script, and where do you see research going on this in the future?

ES: I need to stress again that my work is not necessarily concerned with decipherment itself (see reasons stated above), but it helps to ‘tidy up’ our dataset to eventually come to a better understanding and appreciation of the LA writing system. Only joint efforts will make decipherment possible.

For now, my project is to get SigLA to completion: it will take long until all known LA inscriptions are replicated (my drawings based on the edited corpus), their data and metadata parsed and coded and finally uploaded onto the database. In fact, only when complete will SigLA show its full potential. In the long-term, I would not mind creating a comparable database for LB inscriptions, given that no such tool has yet been developed. I must say, this may be the only area where LA studies are doing better than LB ones!

Finally, my wish for the future is that the much-awaited decipherment of the Minoan language encoded in the Linear A script be the result of a collective effort and undertaking. We are one global, interconnected research community helping each other with our respective expertise: what best to foster further interdisciplinary research approaches and avenues? I hope the age of ‘individualism’ in scholarship has come to an end.

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The archaeological site of Haghia Triada in southern Crete, where the largest known collection of artifacts featuring Linear A were found. Olaf Tausch, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons

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Readers may learn much more about the latest results of Dr. Ester Salgarella’s research in her new book, Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship between Linear A and Linear B , published by Cambridge University Press.

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About the Interviewer

Dan McLerran is a writer, journalist, and the founder and editor of Popular Archaeology Magazine, an online venue specializing in disseminating stories related to archaeological and anthropological discoveries worldwide to a global public readership. He previously created and published Archaeological Digs, a weblog highlighting archaeological excavation opportunities across the world. He is the author of numerous articles on a variety of archaeological developments and discoveries. As a writer, artist, and publisher, he has a passion for all things archaeological. Pictured left, he walks near the graves of members of the ancient Qumran community, adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. 

If you liked this article, you may like The Minoan Connection, a major feature article published by Popular Archaeology in 2011, and Stela 14: Unlocking the Maya Script.

Cover Image, Top Left: Detail of the partial tablet inscribed in Linear A, found at the Palace of Zakros. Olauf Tausch, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons

Above, 7th image from top, oriented left:Portrait Image of Dr Ester Salgarella: Dr Ester Salgarella began studying Linear A and B during her PhD. Her findings are revealed in her book, Aegean Linear Script(s) (Cambridge University Press) Dr Ester Salgarella.

*https://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/rosetta-stone-internet-could-help-researchers-finally-solve-puzzle-ancient-minoan-language

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