Linear A - Undeciphered Writing System of the Minoans

The ancient written form of the Minoan language is not yet deciphered

Cretulae with Linear script from Archanes, Crete, Greece, Minoan civilization, 15th century BC
Cretulae with Linear A script from Archanes, Crete, Greece. Minoan civilization, 15th century BC. De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

Linear A is the name of one of the writing systems used in ancient Crete before the Mycenaean Greeks arrived. We don't know which languages it was used to represent; nor do we fully understand it. It isn't the only ancient script that has so far evaded decipherment; nor is it even the only ancient Cretan script of the time that remains undeciphered. But there is another script used by the end of Linear A's period called Linear B, which British cryptographer Michael Ventris and colleagues deciphered in 1952.

Undeciphered Cretan Scripts

Linear A is one of two main scripts used during the Minoan Proto-palatial period (1900-1700 BC); the other is a Cretan hieroglyphic script. Linear A was used in the central-southern region (Mesara) of Crete and Cretan hieroglyphic script was used on the northern and northeastern parts of Crete. Some scholars see these as simultaneous scripts, others argue that Hieroglyphic Cretan developed slightly earlier. Some believe Linear A developed from the hieroglyphs.

Conceivably, a third script of the period is that stamped into the Phaistos Disk, a controversial flat disk of fired ceramics about 15 centimeters in diameter. Both sides of the disk have been impressed with mysterious symbols. The disk was discovered by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier at the Minoan culture site of Phaistos in 1908. It may not even be Cretan. It could be a fake or,  if authentic, it could be a game board.

The Phaistos Disk is unlikely to be deciphered unless other examples are found.

Sources of Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphic

There are about 350 examples of Hieroglyphic Cretan and 1,500 separate inscriptions of Linear A. Interpretation of some of Linear A has been possible using knowledge of Linear B, for which there are about 6,000 examples [Morpurgo Davies and Olivier].

It would help if we knew which languages those who wrote in Linear A spoke.

Both Linear A and Hieroglyphic Cretan have been found mainly on economic documents inscribed in clay tablets, which survived because they were baked, whether accidentally or deliberately. Both Linear A and Hieroglyphic Cretan were used on sealings, leading researcher Schoep to believe that they reflect a fairly sophisticated administrative system in place on Crete as early as the pre-Palatial period (~1900 BC). Hieroglyphic Cretan has also been found on medallions, bars, nodules, roundels, and vessels; Linear A, on stone, metal, and ceramic vessels, tablets, nodules, and roundels. Linear A scripts have been found in quantity at the Minoan sites of Ayia Triadha, Khania, Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia. More (147 tablets or fragments) Linear A has been found at the Ayia Triadha (near Phaistos) than elsewhere.

A Mixed System

Invented about 1800 BC, Linear A is Europe's first known syllabary — that is to say, it was a writing system using different symbols to represent syllables rather than pictograms for complete ideas, used for both religious and administrative functions. Although primarily a syllabary, it also includes sematographic symbols/logograms for specific items and abstracts, like arithmetical symbols showing what looks like a decimal system with fractions.

About 1450 BC, Linear A disappeared.

Scholars are divided about the origins, possible languages and disappearance of Linear A. Some say the disappearance results from invading Mycenaeans who crushed the Cretan culture; others such as John Bennett suggest the Linear A script was retooled to include additional signs to record a new language. Certainly, Linear B has more symbols, is more systematic and exhibits a "tidier" appearance (Schoep's term) than Linear A: Schoep interprets this as reflecting the ad hoc nature of reports written in Linear A versus a more regulated archival purpose for those in Linear B.

Linear A and Saffron

A 2011 study into possible signs in Linear A that might represent the spice saffron was reported in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. Archaeologist Jo Day points out that although Linear A has yet to be deciphered, there are recognized ideograms in Linear A that approximate the Linear B ideograms, especially for agricultural commodities such as figs, wine, olives, humans and some livestock.

The Linear B character for saffron is called CROC (the Latin name for saffron is Crocus sativus). During his attempts to crack the Linear A code, Arthur Evans thought he saw some similarities to CROC, but reported no specifics and none is listed in any of the other previous attempts to decipher Linear A (Olivier and Godart or Palmer).

Day believes a plausible candidate for a Linear A version of CROC might be one sign with four variants: A508, A509, A510 and A511. The sign is found primarily at Ayia Triadha,  though examples can be seen at Khania and the Villa at Knossos. These instances are dated to the Late Minoan IB period and appear in lists of goods. Previously, researcher Schoep suggested the sign referred to another agricultural commodity, perhaps a herb or spice such as coriander. While the Linear B CROC symbol does not much resemble A511 or the other variants in Linear A, Day points out similarities of A511 to the configuration of the crocus flower itself. She suggests that the Linear B sign for saffron may have been a deliberate adaptation of the crocus motif from other media, and it may have replaced the older symbol when the Minoans began using the spice.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Undeciphered Scripts, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

The best online source on Linear A (if a bit technical) is from John Younger, whose page on the Haghia Triada site contains many (if not all) the corpus on Linear A.

Day J. 2011. Counting threads. Saffron in Aegean Bronze Age writing and society.

Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 30(4):369-391.

Eisenberg JM. 2008. The Phaistos Disk: One Hundred Year Old Hoax? Minerva 19:9-24.

Lawler A. 2004. The Slow Deaths of Writing. Science 305(5680):30-33.

Montecchi B. 2011. "A Classification Proposal of Linear A Tablets from Haghia Triada in Classes and Series" Kadmos 49(1):11-38.

Morpurgo Davies, Anna and Jean-Perre Olivier. 2012. "Syllabic Scripts and Languages in the Second and First Millennia BC". Parallel Lives. Ancient Island Societies in Crete and Cyprus, ed. by Gerald Cadogan, Maria Iacovou, Katerina Kopaka, and James Whitley, 105-118. London.

Powell B. 2009. Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. Wiley-Blackwell.

Schoep I. 1999. The origins of writing and administration on Crete. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18(3):265-290.

Schoep I. 1999. Tablets and Territories? Reconstructing Late Minoan IB Political Geography through Undeciphered Documents. American Journal of Archaeology 103(2):201-221.

Schrijver P. 2014. "Fractions and food rations in Linear A" Kadmos 53(1-2): 1-44.

Whittaker H. 2005. Social and Symbolic Aspects of Minoan Writing. European Journal of Archaeology 8(1):29-41.

Updated by N.S. Gill