Linear B is the writing system used by all those people Homer wrote so much about — gods and heroes who roamed the world between 1600 and about 1100 BC. People with legendary leaders like Agamemnon of Mycenae and Minos of Crete. We don’t know if those legendary leaders were real people like you and I – but they were inspired by real people. People not so different from you and me.

Athenian aristocrats claimed direct descent from its gods and heroes. We may laugh now, but it was very real for them then.

All the gods and heros who fight and fumble in Homer and Hesiod during what was commonly known in Classical Greece as the Golden Age. Now we call it Archaic — if we want to judgemental about it — or Mycenaean [my-sin-A-in], if we don’t.

“Archaic” is also shorter and easier to spell and remember if you’re new to the field.

But here’s the most interesting thing:

Those legends were never written. Linear B was used for accounting only. All those symbols signified objects or commodities. They are never used to write a sentence. All that narrative that comes down to us from Homer et al was gestated by word of mouth culture between 1600 and 1100 BC. That’s five hundred very mysterious, very productive, years. And then it survived another 500 years until Homer transcribed it in what we’re thinking was about the middle of the 8th century BC. BC 750.

One thousand years, guys. No reading, no writing. Just talking and sharing. And, it must be said, a lot of raping and pillaging.

I’d been a bit confused about the difference between phonetics alphabets, syllabaries and logograms – but there’s no question in my mind now. It was quite an achievement, in retrospect, to distinguish between consonants and vowels.

Linear B consists of 87 syllabic signs

and 100 ideographic signs.

I particularly love the difference between a garment and armour. And. Why do you suppose they felt the need to distinguish between a chariot and a wheeled chariot?


I had to do some snooping around to figure out what that kapo logogram refers to — the multiple choice list seemed way off the mark –and we got a lovely surprise for just a little extra effort. Pylos was in the Perfume industry. “Kapo” refers to whatever it was they put in their olive oil to turn it into perfume.

You might be thinking, “you mean, like French perfume?” – but no. I’m thinking like animal sacrifice, aftermath. It wasn’t until Christianity took over western Europe that the practice of sacrificing animals to the gods, and then eating what was “left over”, became a frowned upon practice. I’m sure that Perfumed Oil was a big seller.

The Cretans, my friends, were the embalmers of the Bronze Age (you’ll be sorry, if you don’t follow that link).

In all the thousands of clay tablets, a relatively small number of different “hands” have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete).

The oldest Mycenaean writing dates to about 1450 BC.

From here we go to Phoenicia — to get that first phonetic alphabet — and then we’ll take a look at how the Greeks and Hebrews evolved it. That may not be the only thing we’ll do, or even the next thing we do, but it’s on The List.

Text adapted from wikipedia.


Ventris video and Linear B tables: omniglot