The History of the Linear B Writing System

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Since the discovery made by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos on Crete, in 1900, uncovered a large amount of clay tablets inscribed with an unknown language, Linear B has fascinated scholars and the general public. These tablets were detrimental in the understanding of the history of Minoan Crete.

There are three types of Minoan script which were termed by Evans himself. These were, respectively, Linear B, Linear A and hieroglyphic (this because of its generic resemblance to the Egyptian writing system). Linear B clearly derives from Linear A, and was widespread throughout the 14th and 13th centuries BCE on Crete, but also found at sites such as Pylos, Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes, Eleusis and Orchomenos. The prehistoric scripts of the Aegean were obviously products of Minoan civilization, and the art of writing might well have been jealously reserved to the officers of the Cretan chancery.

There are regional differences between the clay tablets found at Knossos by Evans and the others found throughout mainland Greece. Differences can be seen in “the shapes of signs, as well as in the disparate frequencies of use of the less common syllabic signs, and especially in the absence of some Knossian signs at Pylos, and of some Pylian signs at Knossos” (, p.295).

The Linear B texts that have been found and studied were written by a number of writers, who differed in prominence, age, disposition, and proficiency. It has been suggested that they may have been taught to read and write in different places, either in different Mycenaean cities, or in different schools, or, as is likely, apprenticed to different clerks. At any rate, the writing is not consistent. It has been possible to gather the surviving texts written by individual scribes, and to closely study the characteristics of their hands.

The Linear B tablet evidence is notoriously uneven in its representation of palatial interests from region to region. We therefore have only a partial view of what must have been fuller documentary oversight of the economic activities that were sufficiently complex and important to warrant inclusion in the internal mnemonic records written in Linear B. The records themselves were kept for subsequent reference by tablet-writers or other palatial official.

Evans himself studied the tablets, but the results were not published until 1952, 12 years after his death. The tablets were able to be studied since the clay tablets had been baked in the fire that had destroyed the Minoan palace in the late 13th century BCE. Initially, the scholars had believed that the Linear B language was a Cretan language not spoken by Greek speakers. However, the result of this study soon overturned this.

There have been great advances in the study of Linear B documents over the past 25 years, although there are glaring gaps within our knowledge. However, the continual study of Linear B will continue to reveal unknown aspects of Minoan society as well as the rest of the ancient Greek world.


Alcock, Susan E. & Cherry, John F. (2005) The Human Past – The Mediterranean World, Thames & Hudson, London.

Bennett Jnr., Emmett L. (1966) Some Local Differences in the Linear B Script, Hesperia, American School of Classical Studies at Athens.


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