How do you go about deciphering the script of a wholly different language that was lost more than 3,000 years ago?
Linguist and archaeologist Dr Brent Davis says it’s like walking out on a tightrope anchored at just one end and supported by nothing but thin air, hoping you find something to stop you from falling.
“It’s extremely difficult. It really demands that you just take a leap of faith every time you venture out there.”
Dr Davis is talking about solving Linear A, the undeciphered language of the ancient Minoan civilisation of Crete that flourished around 1700 BCE to 1490 BCE.
The Minoans live on in popular culture as people of the land of King Minos who kept the half bull, half man Minotaur in a labyrinth below his palace at Knossos.
They are also possibly the oldest civilisation of Western Europe, and their language could reveal more about a people and culture that was the foundation on which Ancient Greek and (ultimately) Roman culture were built.
Dr Davis, a lecturer in Archaeology and Ancient Egyptian at the University of Melbourne, is one of only a handful of people around the world to have made any significant headway on solving Linear A in the last 50 years.
He established for the first time the word order of the language as being Verb-Subject-Object, like ancient Egyptian. So rather than ‘Minos has a minotaur’, a Minos would write ‘has Minos a minotaur’.
Linear B, a slightly later but closely related script found in Crete and mainland Greece, was famously cracked by the eccentric English architect Michael Ventris in 1952.
He discovered that Linear B was actually a very early form of ancient Greek – Mycenaean – and his finding extended the origin of ancient Greek civilisation back a further 500 years earlier than first thought.
The Linear B tablets were fortuitously preserved when the dried clay they had been written on was fired as a result of palaces and other buildings burning down during natural and man-made calamities.
The information they revealed proved to be largely inventories of people, produce, accounts, offerings, and other goods, giving us glimpses of people and their occupations.
Read more: Pursuit