A Minoan seal-stone from Tavşan Adası, near Miletus

Languages in the prehistoric Aegean

I was recently re-reading a chapter written by W-D Niemeier about the “Minoan presence” at the site of Miletus in the Late Bronze Age. Niemeier points out that there are Linear A inscriptions found at Miletus, most of them incised before firing on vessels made of local clay. Linear A, the script of Neopalatial Crete, was thus used locally on the Anatolian coast of the Aegean. “This is of importance,” he writes, “as the language otherwise used (and written) in western Asia Minor was Luwian” (Niemeier in Greeks in the East, p. 7). Although Linear A is undeciphered, and so we don’t know what language (or languages) it was used to write, Niemeier is arguing that its presence in a territory otherwise associated with Luwian suggests the presence of speakers of a foreign language (i.e., the language(s) of Minoan Crete).

A similar argument has been made for Linear B on Crete in the Late Bronze Age. The Linear B script, which we know was used to write the Greek language, was apparently invented at Knossos in the second half of the 15th century BC. Linear B used many of the same signs of Linear A, but adapted the writing system so that it could effectively represent Greek. This involved creating some new signs, especially to represent syllables whose vowel was ‘o’: the signs for do, no, mo, qo, so, wo, and jo are part of the Linear B script, but are unattested in Linear A. Although, as stated above, we don’t know what language(s) Linear A was used to write, it seems unlikely that it was used to write Greek, because in that case we would presumably be able to read Linear A. It might also be hard to explain the changes that led to Linear B. So we must have a linguistic change: Linear A is modified to write Greek. This has led a number of scholars to suggest that Greek was introduced at this time from the Greek mainland by ‘Mycenaeans’. Farnoux and Driessen (p. 3, in La Crète Mycénienne), for example, write “L’administration de la Crète par des étrangers est un fait que le grec des tablettes en linéaire B prouve a lui seul…”

But these arguments are strange, because they rely on ‘facts’ that aren’t really in evidence. Sure, Luwian was spoken in western Anatolia in the Bronze Age, as Niemeier asserts; that seems clear. But how could we possibly be sure that it was the only language that was spoken there, and that the language(s) of Linear A were not? In fact, if the later evidence is anything to judge by, there would have been many languages spoken in western Anatolia. And, given that Linear A isn’t deciphered, how can we use the presence of a script to prove the introduction of a different language? We also have no evidence for the Greek language prior to the Linear B tablets, the earliest of which date to Knossos: Jan Driessen has convincingly (although there are still some critics) shown that the earliest Linear B documents from Knossos come from the Room of the Chariot Tablets, which dates to LM IIIA1 (ca. 1400 BC). Of course, it’s very likely that Greek was being spoken on the mainland, but (a) we don’t have direct evidence of that until LH IIIA2 (ca. 1390/70-1330/15 BC) and (b) we cannot know, nor should we suspect, that Greek was the only language being spoken on the mainland.

I suspect what’s happening here is a kind of model of the Bronze Age that corresponds to a model of a nation-state: one language, one people. Thus, Minoans speak “Minoan” (an often-used place-holder for the unknown language of Linear A), Mycenaeans speak Greek. But as Mike Galaty and Bill Parkinson have asked me more than once: if Linear B was invented on Crete, what makes it a mainland phenomenon? Or, as Tom Palaima has queried:

We have hypothesized that Minoan scribes most likely invented and first taught the art of writing. Who were their pupils? Could we imagine that Minoan scribes were in charge at the beginning of the Mycenaean administration in Crete and that the knowledge and use of the script was transmitted from fathers to sons or nephews within their family lines? … Might this mean that the professional skill of writing always stayed within extended families who were of Minoan ‘ethnicity’ in origin?

I don’t see any need to talk about a Minoan ethnicity that is purely hypothetical, and not useful, in that it’s not really what Tom is talking about here anyway. He’s actually talking about communities of speaking and writing. These “Minoan scribes” are really just writers and readers of Linear A texts, and speakers of some language, and it’s possible, even likely, that many of our Linear B texts, written in Greek, were written by members of this community. Of course there must have been plenty of Greek speakers in places where Linear B was written. But there’s really no good evidence that wherever we find Linear B, those communities were entirely composed of Greek speakers who understood themselves as belonging to a Mycenaean ethnic group, or that wherever we find Linear A, those communities were “Minoans” who all spoke “Minoan.” The material record of the Late Bronze Age clearly shows intense contacts and influence. There’s no reason to put the people who made and used these objects into well-defined boxes of our own invention.


1 thought on “Languages in the prehistoric Aegean

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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