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← The race to decode a mysterious language - Susan Lupack

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Showing Revision 6 created 07/13/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. In the early 1900s on the island of Crete,
  2. British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans
    uncovered nearly 3,000 tablets
  3. inscribed with strange symbols.
  4. He thought these symbols represented
    the language spoken
  5. by Europe’s oldest civilization.
  6. Their meaning would elude scholars
    for 50 years.
  7. Evans discovered these tablets
    amid the colorful frescoes

  8. and maze-like hallways
    of the palace of Knossos.
  9. He called the civilization Minoan—
  10. after the mythical Cretan ruler,
    King Minos.
  11. He thought the script, dubbed Linear B,
    represented the Minoan language,
  12. and scholars all over the world
    came up with their own theories.
  13. Was it the lost language of the Etruscans?
  14. Or perhaps it represented
    an early form of Basque?
  15. The mystery intensified because Evans
    guarded the tablets closely––

  16. only 200 of the inscriptions
    were published during his lifetime––
  17. but he couldn’t decipher the script.
  18. However, he did make
    two accurate observations:
  19. the tablets were administrative records,
    and the script was a syllabary,
  20. where each symbol represented
    both a consonant and a vowel,
  21. mixed with characters
    that each represented a whole word.
  22. Evans worked on Linear B for three decades
    before a scholar from Brooklyn, New York,

  23. named Alice Kober
    set out to solve the mystery.
  24. Kober was a professor
    of Classics at Brooklyn College
  25. when few women held such positions.
  26. To help in her quest, she taught herself
    many languages––
  27. knowledge she knew she would need
    to decipher Linear B.
  28. For the next two decades,
    she analyzed the symbols.
  29. Working from the few
    available inscriptions,

  30. she recorded how often
    each symbol appeared.
  31. Then she recorded how frequently
    each symbol appeared next to another.
  32. She stored her findings on scrap paper
    in cigarette cartons
  33. because writing supplies were scarce
    during the Second World War.
  34. By analyzing these frequencies,

  35. she discovered that Linear B
    relied on word endings
  36. to give its sentences grammar.
  37. From this she began to build a chart
    of the relations between the signs,
  38. coming closer than anyone before
    to deciphering Linear B.
  39. But she died, probably of cancer,
    in 1950 at the age of 43.
  40. While Kober was analyzing
    the Knossos tablets,

  41. an architect named Michael Ventris
    was also working to crack Linear B.
  42. He had become obsessed with Linear B
    as a schoolboy after hearing Evans speak.
  43. He even worked on deciphering
    the script while serving in World War II.
  44. After the war, Ventris
    built on Kober’s grid

  45. using a newly published cache
    of Linear B inscriptions
  46. excavated from a different archeological
    site called Pylos, on mainland Greece.
  47. His real breakthrough came
    when he compared the tablets from Pylos
  48. with those from Knossos
  49. and saw that certain words appeared on
    tablets from one site but not the other.
  50. He wondered if those words represented
    the names of places
  51. specific to each location.
  52. He knew that over centuries, place names
    tend to remain constant,

  53. and decided to compare Linear B
  54. to an ancient syllabary
    from the island of Cyprus.
  55. The Cypriot script was used
    hundreds of years after Linear B,
  56. but some of the symbols were similar—
  57. he wondered if the sounds
    would be similar, too.
  58. When Ventris plugged some of the sounds
    of the Cypriot syllabary
  59. into the Linear B inscriptions,
  60. he came up with the word Knossos,
  61. the name of the city where Evans
    had discovered his tablets.
  62. In a domino effect,
    Ventris unraveled Linear B,
  63. with each word revealing more clearly
    that the language of Linear B
  64. was not Minoan, but Greek.
  65. Ventris died in a car crash four years
    later, at the age of 34.

  66. But his discovery rewrote
    a chapter of history.
  67. Evans had insisted that the Minoans
    conquered the mainland Greeks,
  68. and that was why examples of Linear B
    were found on the mainland.
  69. But the discovery that Linear B
    represented Greek, and not Minoan,
  70. showed that the opposite had happened:
  71. mainland Greeks invaded Crete and adopted
    the Minoan script for their own language.
  72. But the story isn’t over yet.

  73. The actual language of the Minoans,
  74. represented by another script
    called Linear A,
  75. has yet to be deciphered.
  76. It remains a mystery—
    at least for now.