On Crete, a southern island of Greece, is Knossos, one of the most important Palaces of Minoan civilization. It is important not only in its historical features, but also in its mythological background, as well as being the location of some fascinating linguistic artifacts, some of which remain a mystery even today.
Ancient Greece, with Crete in the south
In ancient times, Knossos was the seat of the legendary King Minos. It lies 5 kilometers southeast of Heraklion, in the valley of the river Kairatos, which runs through Knossos before spilling into the Minoan harbor, Katsabas. During Minoan times, the river flowed year round bringing life to the surrounding hills, which were covered in oak and cypress trees.
The first palace was built and occupied, along with other houses and structures, between the 19th and 17th centuries BC, although the very first settlement in the Knossos area was established circa 7000 BC, during the Neolithic Period. It was the economic, social and political development of the settlement which eventually led to the construction of the Palace of Knossos.
After the first Palace was destroyed circa 1700 BC, it was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by fire in 1350 BC. The area around the Palace was converted into a sacred grove for the goddess Rhea, and never inhabited again. It was a monumental symbol of the Minoan civilization, not only because of its size, but also its use of materials, design, and advanced building techniques.
Knossos became settled after 1450 BC by Mycenaeans from the Greek Mainland. It again flourished during the Hellenistic period and in 67 BC, it was captured by the Roman Quintus Caecilius Metelus Creticus.
Palace ruins at Knossos
In 1878, the first large-scale excavation of Knossos was begun by a wealthy Cretan merchant and antiquarian named Minos Kalokairinos.
He conducted the first excavations at Kephala Hill, which led to the discovery of part of the storage rooms in the west wing and a section of the west facade, as well as many large pithoi (storage pots).
Crete was still under Turkish occupation at the time, however, and the local authorities prevented any further digging by Kalokairinos, for they feared that the finds would be expropriated by the Turks and taken to Istanbul.
Sir Arthur Evans
In 1894, Kalokairinos showed his finds to Arthur Evans, who had come to the island in search of information about the strange inscriptions he had seen on some tablets in Oxford and Athens. Evans had been busy deciphering script on seal stones on Crete, and when the island was declared an independent state in 1900, he purchased the site of Knossos and began his excavations of the palace ruins. It was then that they were named "Minoan" by Evans, after the legendary king of Crete.
Mythology and the Ancient Minoans
Crete is the setting for many stories in Greek mythology, though whether these were created by the Minoans themselves or by the Greeks later, it is hard to tell. It was these myths that brought Evans to Knossos, and fueled his eagerness to uncover the history.
Fanciful image of
In the myths, Minos was a son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman, Europa (Zeus fathered many children with mortals). Minos married Pasiphae, herself the daughter of the Greek sun god Helios. In reality, "Minos" may have been a title or the name a of a dynasty of rulers.
One of the most famous stories involves a terrible beast, with the body of a man and the head of a bull, called the Minotaur. According to legend, King Minos refused to sacrifice a certain bull. Poseidon, god of the sea, punished him by making his wife Pasiphae fall in love with the animal, and she eventually gave birth to the man-eating monster.
Daedalus, an Athenian craftsman, designed for King Minos the labyrinth, a large underground maze, in which the king imprisoned the Minotaur. Anyone in the labyrinth could not escape it or the Minotaur.
After Minos' son Androgeus was killed out of jealousy by the King of Athens when he won many events in the Athenian Olympics, Minos deployed the mighty Cretan fleet to attack Athens. Rather than destroying Athens once it was captured it, however, Minos decreed that every nine years, Athens was to send seven young men and seven virgin women, whom Minos would then throw them into a labyrinth where they were sacrificed to the Minotaur.
Theseus, the son of the Athenian King, volunteered to be one of the seven sacrificed men, intending to kill the Minotaur and end the suffering of Athens. If he succeeded in his mission, he told his father he would return with the sails of his ship white instead of the normal black.
Upon arriving at the palace, Theseus fell in love with Minos' daughter, Ariadne. Daedalus had told only Ariadne the secret of the labyrinth, and she in turn helped Theseus by giving him a thread to use as a guide back out of labyrinth. Theseus entered the labyrinth, letting the thread unwind behind him. He killed the Minotaur and found his way back out.
Tragically, in his excitement, Theseus forgot to change the sails to white, and when his father saw the sails, he believed Theseus to be dead. Overcome by grief, he threw himself into the sea and died.
The Fall of Icarus
The events surrounding this myth lead to another, dealing with Daedalus. One story says that King Minos learned that Daedalus had built a wooden cow so that his wife, Pasiphae, could near the white bull she loved safely, and had Daedalus imprisoned, along with this son, Icarus. Another story says that Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth out of rage when Theseus escaped.
Pasiphae helped both the craftsman and son to escape, and Daedalus made them a pair of wax wings so they could fly from Crete and not be recaptured. However, tragedy struck again, and Icarus didn't heed his father's advice about the wings. He flew to high, and the sun melted the wings, causing Icarus to fall to his death. Daedalus managed to escape to Sicily.
Evans uncovered 3,000 clay tablets during excavations and he worked to transcribe them. From the transcriptions, it became clear that the tablets contained more than one script.
Evans spent the rest of his life trying to decipher the inscriptions, but with only limited success. He realized that the inscriptions represented three different writing systems: a "hieroglyphic' script", Linear A, and Linear B. The hieroglyphic script appeared only on seal stones and has still not been deciphered. Linear A is also, as yet, undeciphered, but it is thought to have evolved from the hieroglyphic script. Linear B probably evolved from Linear A, though the relationship between those two scripts remains unclear.
Evans figured out quite a bit about Linear B, including that it contained decimal numerals, punctuation and symbols for man and woman and certain animals. Evans also suggested that the language used inflection. He decided, perhaps more because of his love of the Minoan history than for any scientific examination, that these Cretan scripts must belong to the Minoan culture, and therefore Linear B could not be Greek.
Evans spent the rest of his life trying to decipher the inscriptions, but with only limited success. He realized that the inscriptions represented three different writing systems: a "hieroglyphic script", Linear A, and Linear B.
Among the many scholars that attempted to decode Linear B, it was general agreed that the writing direction of Linear B was from left to right, and that most of the clay tablets were inventory data, which concurred with Evans' own determining of the numerals. The large number of distinct characters that were identified, around 90, indicated a syllabary writing system. While some scholars suspected it was perhaps related to Greek or a Cypriot language, most assumed Linear B was an unknown Cretan language.
Shortly after Evans' death in 1941, an American archaeologist named Alice Kober noted that certain words in the Linear B inscriptions had changing word endings, similar in manner to the declensions of Latin or Greek. This provided a clue to another scholar of Linear B, Michael Ventris.
Ventris had encountered Evans in 1936 at an exhibition of Greek and Minoan treasures at the Royal Academy in London. While Ventris was only 14 years old at the time, this touched off what became a lifelong obsession with Linear B.
|Linear A & B - Lost Minoan|
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|Letter From The Editor - Truth in Advertising|
|Linear A & Linear B - Lost Minoan|
|Edward Sapir - Patterns of Language|
|At the Cinema - Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner|
|Word on the Streets - Norwegian Notables|
|Where Are You?|
|Celebrations - Valentine's Day|
|Languages in Peril - The Rhaeto-Romance Trio|
|Revisited - Proverbs|
|Linguistics Love Song|
|Language Learning Methods - Books|
|Sections - Recordings|
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