Three systems of ancient Cretan language are known, only one of which has been partially deciphered. The earliest of the three forms of Cretan writing is a kind of picture-writing similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then followed two simpler systems, called Linear A and Linear B. The Cretans wrote their accounts on soft clay tablets, which were accidentally baked hard by the fire which destroyed Knossos (see Cretan civilization), and so were preserved. The English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans found a great number of them at the turn of the 20th century.


In 1936 Evans gave a talk in London about his discoveries, mentioning that no one had yet been able to read these tablets. Listening in the audience, fascinated, was a 14-year-old schoolboy called MIchael Ventris, who was so interested in this problem that he decided to make it his hobby.


Not much remains of either pictographic or Linear A script, but more Linear B was discovered on the mainland of Greece, at Pylos in 1939, and at Mycenae in 1952. Ventris used the methods of cryptography (the science of secret codes) on Linear B, and so hard and patiently did he work that by June 1952 the brilliant amateur had succeeded where professional scholars had failed.


The language of Linear B, he discovered, is a very early form of Greek, at least 500 years older than Homer. The rulers of Knossos for some years before its fall spoke Greek, unlike its earlier rulers whose (Linear A) language is certainly not Greek.