A conference in Cambridge, southeast England, marked the 60th anniversary of the decipherment by Michael Ventris of Linear B, a script used for an early form of ancient Greek. His stunning achievement pushed back the frontiers of knowledge about the ancient world.

When during the early 20th century archaeologists excavated some of the most famous sites of Ancient Greece – notably Knossos on the island of Crete and Mycenae and Pylos on the mainland – they found large numbers of clay tablets inscribed with a type of script that baffled them.

It was significantly different to any other script known at the time. Moreover, it was immediately clear that there were at least two variants of this type of writing.

These scripts – characterised by about 90 different characters, and on the clay tablets interspersed with signs for numerals as well as the depiction of every-day objects and commodities such as pots, cloth and grain – acquired the name ‘Linear’. Linear because they were more abstract and characterised by a more linear style than the earlier hieroglyphic type of writing, also found on Crete.

The two variants were given the names Linear A and B. It was clear that Linear A was the earlier type, much rarer and restricted to the island of Crete. The younger type B was found in significantly larger numbers and found at Knossos, Mycenae and Pylos. Since the original excavations evidence for the same type of writing has come to light at other places, including Thebes and Tiryns on the Greek mainland and Chania on Crete.

Brilliant minds

Today scholars are gathering at Cambridge University for a conference marking the extraordinary story of the decipherment of Linear B, a narrative that brings together some of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds in the fields of not only classical archaeology but also specialist areas ranging from philology and epigraphy to experts on Greek religion and economy.  While celebrating what is often seen as the greatest advances in classical scholarship in the last 100 years, the scholars taking part are also looking at the challenges that remain in piecing together the story of the Mycenaean world, a civilisation known for its stunning art and complex and highly developed economy.

Discovery at Knossos

In the wake of some of the most famous excavations in history, the classicists who put their minds to the tantalising puzzle of deciphering Linear B included the best-known names in the field. After the German scholar Heinrich Schliemann had excavated Troy (or a site compatible with Homer’s famous city) and Mycenae and thereby opened the door to Greek archaeology of the second millennium BC, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered these inscribed tablets in large numbers at Knossos in the year 1900. Evans and other scholars knew that the tablets held the key to a fuller understanding of the Mycenaean civilisation. But deciphering what was inscribed on them seemed an impossible task, given that both the script and the language behind it were unknown.

Unlocking the secrets