Linear A: Early Cretan Writing System

Tantalizing Glimpses of an Ancient Minoan Accounting System

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 between about 2500–1450 BCE, before the arrival of the Mycenaean Greeks. We don't know which language it represents; 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 was another script in use by the end of Linear A's period called Linear B, which British cryptographer Michael Ventris and colleagues deciphered in 1952. There are tantalizing similarities between the two.

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.

Conceivably, a third script of the period is that stamped into the Phaistos Disk, a flat disk of fired ceramics about 15 centimeters (6 inches) in diameter. Both sides of the disk have been impressed with mysterious symbols, arranged in lines that spiral towards the centers. The disk was discovered at the Minoan culture site of Phaistos by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908.

The symbols on the Phaistos Disk are similar to but not identical to other symbols in use throughout the Mediterranean. Theories about the meaning of the symbols abound. It may or may not be Cretan. It could be a fake or,  if authentic, it could be a game board. Some scholars suggest that the maker wasn't writing anything, she or he simply used motifs that were familiar from seals and amulets and assembled them into groups in order to imitate the appearance of writing. The Phaistos Disk is unlikely to be deciphered unless other examples are found.

A Mixed System

Invented about 1800 BCE, 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, such as arithmetical symbols showing what appears to be a decimal system with fractions. About 1450 BCE, 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—Linear B is associated with the Mycenaeans; 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 (classicist Ilsa 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.

Sources of Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphic

Tablets with inscribed Linear A characters were first discovered by British archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1900. To date, there have been found over 1,400 Linear A documents with about 7,400 different symbols. That is much fewer than Linear B, which has about 4,600 documents with more than 57,000 symbols. Most of the inscriptions are from Neopalatial contexts (1700/1650-1325 BCE), with the end of that period, Late Minoan B (1480-1425 BCE) the most abundant. The vast majority (90 percent) were incised on tablets, sealings, roundels, and nodules, all of which are associated with markets and trade goods.

The other ten percent are objects of stone, pottery, and metal, including some gold and silver. Most of the Linear A documents were found on Crete, but a few are from the Aegean islands, at Miletos in coastal western Anatolia, and possibly at Tiryns in the Peloponnese islands and at Tel Haror in the Levant. Some possible examples have been reported from Troy and Lachish, but those remain controversial among scholars.

Linear A scripts have been found in quantity at the Minoan sites of Haghia Triadha, Khania, Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia. More examples (147 tablets or fragments) of Linear A have been found at the Haghia Triadha (near Phaistos) than anywhere else.

Why Can't We Crack the Code?

There are a few reasons why Linear A is difficult to decipher. Mostly, there are no long text strings, in fact, the documents are primarily lists, with headings followed by a logogram, followed by a number and/or fraction. Classicist John Younger thinks the headers represent a type of transaction, while the entries in the lists are commodities and their descriptions (e.g., fresh/dried, or subset types), and a monetary amount follows that. The purposes of these lists are likely inventories, assessments, collections or contributions, or allocations or disbursements.

The lists include several more or less plausible place names: Haghia Triada is probably DA-U-*49 (or da-wo in Linear B); I-DA is likely Mount Ida; and PA-I-TO is likely Phaistos. KI-NU-SU is probably a place name, but recent research has shown it is not very likely to be Knossos. About 10 three-syllable words are identical in A and B, including Phaistos, which occurs 59 times in the corpus. About 2,700 people seem to be recorded in Linear A, some of whom may have been part of a list of available porters.

Which Language?

Nevertheless, it would help if we knew which languages those who wrote in Linear A spoke. According to John Younger, Linear A is mostly written left to right, in more or less straight rows from top to bottom of the clay document, and sometimes lined. There are at least three vowels, and 90 symbols are used regularly. It is called linear because unlike Cretan hieroglyphs, the characters are abstract, drawn with lines.

Hypotheses for the underlying language include a Greek-like language, a distinct Indo-European language, an Anatolian language close to Luwian, an archaic form of Phoenician, Indo-Iranian, and an Etruscan-like language. Computer scientist Peter Revesz has suggested that Cretan Hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B are all part of a Cretan Script Family, with an origin in western Anatolia and perhaps ancestral to Carian. 

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.

Assembled Corpora

In the late 20th century, researchers Louis Godart and Jean-Pierre Olivier published "Recueil des inscriptions en Linéaire A," a massive undertaking to bring all of the available Linear A inscriptions onto paper, including images and context of each and every known example. (Without images and context, the entire corpus of known Linear A scripts would barely fill two pages.) The Godart and Olivier corpus known as GORILA was moved onto the web in the 21st century, using the best of the Linear A fonts at the time, released by D. W. Borgdorff in 2004, called LA.ttf.

In June 2014, Version 7.0 of the Unicode Standard was released, for the first time including the Linear A character set, including simple and complex signs, fractions and compound fractions. And in 2015, Tommaso Petrolito and colleagues released a new font set known as John_Younger.ttf.

Hands down, the best online source on Linear A is from Linear A Texts & Inscriptions in phonetic transcription by John Younger. It makes fascinating reading, and Younger and colleagues continue to update it regularly.

Sources

  • Day, Jo. "Counting Threads. Saffron in Aegean Bronze Age Writing and Society." Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 30.4 (2011): 369–91. Print.
  • Eisenberg, Jerome M. "The Phaistos Disk: One Hundred Year Old Hoax?" Minerva 19 (2008): 9–24. Print.
  • Godart, Louis, and Jean-Pierre Olivier. "Recueil Des Inscriptions En Linéaire A." Études Crétoises I-V (1976-1985). Print.
  • Montecchi, Barbara. "A Classification Proposal of Linear a Tablets from Haghia Triada in Classes and Series." Kadmos 49.1 (2011): 11. Print.
  • Morpurgo Davies, Anna, and Jean-Pierre Olivier. "Syllabic Scripts and Languages in the Second and First Millennia BC." Parallel Lives. Ancient Island Societies in Crete and Cyprus. Eds. Cadogan, Gerald, et al. Vol. 20. Athens: British School at Athens Studies, 2012. 105–18. Print.
  • Petrolito, Tommaso, et al. "Minoan Linguistic Resources: The Linear a Digital Corpus." Proceedings of the 9th SIGHUM Workshop on Language Technology for Cultural Heritage, Social Sciences, and Humanities. Association for Computational Linguistics and The Asian Federation of Natural Language Processing, 2015. Print.

This page was written by N.S. Gill and K. Kris Hirst.