A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems

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The Phaistos Disc – see below

Every so often a news article will make the rounds of the internet – or, for that matter, a paper will be published in an academic journal – presenting a new ‘decipherment’ of an undeciphered ancient writing system. Obviously, such decipherments have taken place in the past – probably most famously that of Egyptian hieroglyphs – and it’s certainly possible that more will take place in the future; but when it comes to the undeciphered writing systems of the Bronze Age Aegean, at least, there’s good reason to be extremely sceptical about any such claims of decipherment. This post is a quick guide to some key facts about the various related writing systems found in Bronze Age Crete and mainland Greece, starting with the one deciphered writing system, Linear B, and then surveying the undeciphered ones roughly in order of how much we know about them, looking very briefly at where and when they’re from, what kinds of documents exist, and how much (if anything) we know about the writing system or the language it represents. Continue reading “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems”

Conversing the Classics podcast: Linear B

I’m very pleased to be able to share a podcast I recorded for the Classical Youth Society of Ireland‘s “Conversing the Classics” series, in which I talk to Oscar McHale about the Linear B writing system: what it is, what kinds of text were written in it, and what it can tell us about Greece in the Late Bronze Age, as well as how it was first discovered and deciphered. You can listen/watch here:

 

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International Women’s Day: celebrating Alice Kober

Fig. 2 Alice E. Kober
Alice E. Kober in 1946 (Image: Brooklyn Public Library)

As today is International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate the woman without whose work it’s not an exaggeration to say my field of research might well not even exist today: Alice E. Kober, the American classicist who was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the eventual decipherment of the prehistoric Greek Linear B script (first discovered at Knossos on Crete in 1900, and representing a then-unknown language).

Kober (1906-1950) had a full-time job teaching Classics at Brooklyn College, New York; apart from a year spent as a Guggenheim Fellow, which allowed her to work full-time on research, all of her work on Linear B was therefore done in what little spare time she must have had left after teaching. And yet Kober’s research established the methodology which would later enable the decipherment of the script, which means that researchers like me can now read and analyse the Linear B texts in order to reconstruct the society of Late Bronze Age Greece. Continue reading “International Women’s Day: celebrating Alice Kober”

The decipherment of Linear B

P1090872Now that the Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition is over, I’m able to make my catalogue chapter, ‘The Decipherment: People, Process, Challenges‘, available here for anyone who’d like to read it (click on the link for a PDF file)! It’s about the process by which the Linear B script was deciphered, the main people involved – Emmett L. Bennett, Alice Kober, Michael Ventris, and John Chadwick – and the remaining difficulties involved in reading and interpreting the documents written in this script.

Readers may also be interested in seeing some of the correspondence between Ventris and Chadwick that’s quoted in the chapter – PDFs of a selection of their letters are available on the website of the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group (the research group I’m part of in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics), and you can view them here.

I hope you enjoy the chapter, and if anyone has any further questions about Linear B and the decipherment after reading it, please ask me in the comments!

Last chance to see Codebreakers and Groundbreakers!

CaptureJust a quick reminder for any Cambridge-based readers that this week is the last chance to see the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition about the decipherment of Linear B and WW2 codebreaking, which is finishing on Sunday Feb 4th! It’s been incredibly popular, and I’m told the catalogue has even completely sold out – for anyone who’s interested in reading more about the process by which Linear B was deciphered, and the people involved, I’ll be putting my catalogue chapter up here once the exhibition has finished, so check back for that next week!

Codebreakers and Groundbreakers

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I mentioned this upcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in my last post – I’m very pleased to say that ‘Codebreakers and Groundbreakers‘ is now open (and on until February 2018)! The exhibition brings together two apparently quite different stories – the discovery and decipherment of the Linear B tablets and the breaking of the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park during World War II – to emphasize the two main threads which connect them. Most obviously, both of them are about decipherment and making unreadable texts readable – whether that’s three-thousand-year-old clay tablets written in an undeciphered script and an unknown language, or messages that have been deliberately encrypted to (try to) stop them being read by a wartime enemy.

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Clay Play Day #2

Last term I wrote about the ‘clay play day‘ we held in my department: as the last in a series of seminars about the undeciphered Cretan script Linear A, we all got a chance to try out making and inscribing our own Linear A clay tablets. Since there was quite a bit of clay left over afterwards, I decided to have my own clay play day at home to make some tablets with inscriptions in Linear B – the script I mostly work on, which is related to Linear A but used to write Greek. This was partly an excuse just to mess around with clay a bit more, but I also figured some replica tablets would come in handy for teaching purposes, outreach events, etc – it’s hard to show what sort of size the tablets actually are via photographs on a PowerPoint. So here are some pictures of 1) a tablet in progress, using a photocopy of the published photograph and drawing to get the size right; 2) holding the finished tablet, for scale purposes; and 3) all three tablets I ended up making.

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