Monday, November 30, 2015

The Most Interesting Thing About That Ancient Spartan Palace Isn't The Palace - It's The Language

Remnants of a Mycenaean-era palace on the plain of Sparta have brought to light a number of finely-decorated artifacts, bronze swords, and wall frescoes, according to a press release from the Greek Ministry of Culture.  But the real jaw-dropper is the fact that the ancient fire that destroyed the palace preserved some of the earliest known examples of Greek writing , in a form called Linear B.

Excavations between 2009 and 2015 led by archaeologist Adamantia Vasilogamvrou have revealed a palace: a complex of buildings and rooms set up by the ruling Mycenaeans between the 17th and 16th centuries BC. These were the first people, at the end of the Bronze Age, to establish a full-scale civilization in Greece, complete with urban centers anchored by large palaces for the elite, an impressive artistic tradition, and the earliest decipherable writing in the area. This civilization is perhaps best known from the 16th century BC grave circles at Mycenae and the famous gold “mask of Agamemnon” discovered in the 19th century by Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist who spent his life trying to show that the Trojan War was based on historical events.

The newly uncovered palace, named Ayios Vassileios, is near another ancient site that would become famous in later Classical times for its Spartan warriors.  Within the palace were found devotional objects, carved figurines, bronze swords, animal-shaped pottery, Egyptian scarabs, and extensive wall paintings, speaking to its clear position as the elite seat of an urban center with trade connections throughout the ancient world. Further, its layout is allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the political, administrative, economic, and social organization of this region.

After the initial settlement of the area in the 17th-16th centuries BC (or the Middle to Late Helladic periods), the palace was built around the 14th century BC (Late Helladic IIIA period). Flanking a central courtyard are a series of rooms, ten of which archaeologists have excavated. Later in the 14th century BC, it appears that a fire destroyed the palace.  The fire preserved raw clay tablets on which were texts engraved in Linear B. While the architecture and artifacts are certainly spectacular, the Linear B find is even more interesting.

Linear B is the name given to the earliest form of Greek that we know of, dating to many centuries before the invention of the Greek alphabet we are familiar with today. As a form of writing, Linear B is probably related to Linear A, which was used for writing down the Minoan language.  Texts in both Linear A and Linear B were initially found at Knossos on Crete by the renowned archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans at the turn of the 20th century.  Evans tried in vain to decipher them and, as the story goes, would take the tablets on tour to show off.  He so impressed a 14-year-old schoolboy named Michael Ventris with his tales of the Minoans and these scripts that Ventris determined to decipher them.

Until his death at the unfortunately early age of 34, Ventris worked on Linear B, initially thinking it may be related toEtruscan, another incompletely deciphered language from ancient Italy. When Linear B tablets were also found on the Greek mainland, Ventris got the idea to search the tablets from Crete for unique words–and he found them, in the form of place names. Building on Alice Kober‘s discovery that Linear B was a syllabary, Ventris unlocked Linear B, showing that it is an early form of Greek and that, importantly, Knossos was a part of Mycenaean Greece in its waning years.  But Linear A, although it shares some symbols with Linear B, is to this day undeciphered.

The vast majority of the six thousand or so Linear B inscriptions we have are from Knossos on Crete, also following a palatial fire that baked the clay tablets, but a good fraction of them come from the mainland sites of Pylos and Thebes. Linear B appears to have been primarily used for administrative and accounting reasons: many inscriptions relate to the centralized distribution of goods like wool and grain.

These new clay tablets from Ayois Vassileios represent a key addition to the mainland corpus of Linear B , and the Greek Ministry of Culture reports that the texts refer to supplies of goods to religious groups, men’s and women’s names, place names, and some commercial transactions related to perfume and cloth production controlled by the palace administrators. The inclusion of these new inscriptions into the sparse collection of Linear B texts that currently exist will undoubtedly help archaeologists and linguists better understand the structure of Mycenaean society.

Although archaeologists are not entirely sure what happened to cause the end of Mycenaean society, following which a “dark age” of several centuries was ushered in, new clues from palatial collapse and written texts may eventually solve the mystery.

Killingrove, Kristina. 2015. “The Most Interesting Thing About That Ancient Spartan Palace Isn't The Palace - It's The Language”. Forbes. Posted: August 26, 2015. Available online:

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