Monday, 17 August 2015

Coded Lives : The Code of King Minos

Picture two couples – an older man and a youth in each. Picture them among the trees away from the city. Now picture them separated by 4,000 years and 1,684 miles. One thing connects both couples, and that is an undecyphered alphabet discovered in 1893.

The most recent of these couple are Arthur Evans and George Cook, both arrested in Hyde Park on 29th January 1924 for a “violation of public decency”. Arthur was fined and George ordered to leave London. A week later after his arrest Arthur – the well-known archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) – gave his personal estate on the island of Crete to the British School at Athens. The estate consisted of a huge archaeological site.

Now, let’s go to that other couple several thousand years earlier. The older man is also well-known – King Minos of Crete – and the youth with him among the trees is Ganymede. The most common version of the story of Ganymede involves his kidnap by the god Zeus, but this older version may have been inspired by the Cretan ritual of kidnapping a youth to establish a sexual relationship.

The Cretan ritual consisted of the consensual “kidnap” of a youth or boy by an older, aristocratic man, who took the youngster into the woods for a period of “getting to know you”. A sexual relationship developed and this is said to be the origin of the practice of man-youth sex found in all the gymnasia and army barracks found throughout Ancient Greece.

The undecyphered alphabet belonged to the Cretans, a civilisation Sir Arthur Evans named Minoan after King Minos, and it was the reason the archaeologist went to Crete in the first place.

The son of another noted antiquarian, Sir John Evans, Arthur’s interest in archaeology was with him from a very young age.

It was in 1886 when he was Director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that Arthur was given a seal stone, a small stone used to impress a design or writing into clay or wax. It was inscribed with marks that looked like Mycenaean, the early alphabet of the Greek mainland, In 1893 Arthur purchased more of these small stones that were being sold as antiquarian souvenirs in Athens. Try as he could he was unable to read the inscriptions. He realised they must be in a language hitherto unknown and his quest to decode this language began.

Arthur was told that seal stones could be found in great numbers on the island of Crete so in 1894 he set off to find more. He had no difficulty finding them as they were all over the place. They were even being worn as amulets by the local women.

There was an abandoned archaeological site on Crete called Knossos, discovered in 1878. Sectarian conflict in the area led to the excavations being halted. When the dispute was resolved by the island becoming a Greek possession in 1899 it was safe to resume. Arthur was keen to prevent political interference of his own excavations at Knossos by buying the whole site. In 1900 full excavations began.

Just like his hero Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, Arthur was keen on rediscovering the sites mentioned in the ancient myths and legends. As he dug his site Arthur began to be convinced that Knossos, with its labyrinthine passages and many images of bulls, was the palace of King Minos and the inspiration behind the legend of the Minotaur. It was a civilisation much older and a lot different to the Mycenaean mainland.

Arthur found more examples of the mysterious writing on clay tablets, and realised that there were actually two distinct versions. Because the writings consisted mainly of straight lines he called them Linear A and Linear B. In Arthur’s mind these coded scripts were the precursors of the Greek alphabet and quite vehemently defended his opinion. It has emerged since his death that Linear A existed on the Greek mainland also and may have been a shared alphabet.

Arthur Evans spent the rest of his trying to decode the Linear alphabet without success. When he died in 1941 he was no nearer discovering what they said and what they revealed about the Minoan civilisation than he did on the day he picked up his first seal stone. Other archaeologists were just as mystified and many of them tried to decipher the Minoan code.

With Linear B being a later version of Linear A and consequently nearer in form to more recent alphabets it was easier to find some structure to the writing. An archaeologist called Alice Kober managed to construct a list of symbols in Linear B which corresponded to syllables in words based on phonetics. However, no-one knew how these phonetic syllables were pronounced. A kind of breakthrough was made when it was suggested that Linear B might contain the names of important Cretan cities.

You could say there was a “Rosetta Stone” moment. The Rosetta Stone was the means by which the Egyptian hieroglyphics were decoded using names of kings written in one script that were identified in the hieroglyphics. Linear B contained the names of towns, and once these were identified the whole alphabet could be unravelled.

Through the hard work of modern archaeologists the lost language of the Minoans was revealed. Unfortunately there is little in Linear B that works when applied to Linear A. They seem to be very different languages. More than 60 years after the death of Sir Arthur Evans we’re no nearer discovering what Linear A says, or of decoding the secret language of King Minos and the Minoans.

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