Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B
Greek, was a remarkable linguist, in the sense of one who speaks languages, though he was not a linguist
in the academic sense. Part of his schooling was spent at Gstaad
, where he picked up the local Swiss German
as well as standard German and French. At the age of six he learnt Polish
. At seven he read a German book on Ancient Egyptian
. This sparked his interest in the ancient cultures, and seven years later, on that day in 1936 at Burlington House
when he heard the venerable Sir Arthur Evans
lecture on his discoveries at Knossos
, he learnt there was an undeciphered
language in the palace archives
, and resolved to decipher
He never even attended university: born on 12 July 1922, he went from Stowe School to the Architectural Association School in London, served as a navigator in the RAF during the War, resumed practice as an architect, and joined the Ministry of Education. Working on Linear B was only a hobby, he didn't expect to succeed as suddenly as he did, he couldn't as an amateur expect whole-hearted cooperation from the professionals, and perhaps most remarkably, most of the time he worked on it he had completely the wrong idea.
At eighteen, concealing his age, he published 'Introducing the Minoan Language' in the American Journal of Archaeology of 1940. He thought the language would turn out to be related to Etruscan. So did everyone else - or Hittite, or Semitic, or Basque, or anything but Greek. No-one believed it could be Greek, and he himself wrote that the idea involved a 'deliberate disregard for historical plausibility'. In 1950 he circulated a questionnaire to the leading Minoan scholars of the world, and of the ten who replied, most thought it would be something Anatolian like Hittite, and others thought something like Etruscan.
Sir Arthur Evans had discovered Linear B at Knossos on Crete in 1900. The American Carl Blegen discovered a comparable archive at Pylos, legendary home of Homer’s King Nestor, in 1939, the first mainland discovery apart from a few pots that could be explained away by trade. Blegen's very first trench hit the jackpot: the palace archive room. In 1952 a smaller number of Linear B tablets were found at Mycenae. Much credit is also due to Emmett Bennett, who worked out how many signs there were and which were mere variants, and deciphered the system of weights and measures; and to Alice Kober, who between 1943 and her death at the age of 43 in 1950 tabulated all the signs by their places of occurrence and co-occurrence.
It was Kober's tables that provided the key for Ventris, who began serious work on the problem in 1951. Although he didn’t know what the language was, he could recognize where it had masculine and feminine, case endings such as locative, and adjectival forms of place names. The basic kind of content of the texts was often clear: they were inventories, tax returns, censuses: lists and repetitive formulae so that this kind of grammatical information could be extracted by pure cryptography.
The Linear B script superficially resembled a known one, used almost a thousand years later in Cyprus to write Greek. Attempts at cracking Linear A, Linear B, and another Cypriot script had naturally tried applying this, but though some syllables did match, they were few enough to be frustratingly misleading. Another vaguely plausible source of phonetic values was on general principles of frequency: signs that occurred mainly initially were likely to be vowels, and if they occurred medially they would be the second element of diphthongs, and the most common vowel would be a.
In June 1952 he plugged some phonetic values into what looked like place names. He got ko-no-so: Knossos. He had the key. And it was Greek.
Ventris had been circulating 'work notes' to other scholars. Work Note 20, in June 1952, was entitled 'Are the Knossos and Pylos tablets written in Greek?', and described as a 'frivolous diversion', but, even if he was reluctant at first, the evidence was overwhelming. It took the archaeological world by storm: most scholars were convinced immediately, because they could read the tablets themselves using the Greek values: Blegen especially, with his Pylos collection published in 1951. Ventris announced the solution to the world at large in a radio talk on the BBC's Third Programme:
During the last few weeks I have come to the conclusion that the Knossos and Pylos tablets must, after all, be written in Greek - a difficult and archaic Greek, seeing that it is 500 years earlier than Homer and written in an abbreviated form, but Greek nevertheless.
He had a gentle, careful voice. A few days after noding this I happened to hear the recording of the above passage.
For Ventris the archaic Greek was a stumbling-block, for he was not philologist enough to understand all the variations from known Greek. John Chadwick was, and saw them as spectacular confirmation of what until then had been hypotheses and reconstructions: Linear B showed w, labiovelars qw gw, and medial h, all of which had been completely lost even in Homer's time. Chadwick wrote to Ventris in July and their friendship and collaboration began.
Their first joint article was a compact twenty pages in the Journal of Hellenic Studies of 1953, called 'Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean Archives', a modest and cautious title except for pinning their colours to the mast by calling the Cretan culture Mycenaean. This meant the Greeks of the mainland ruled Crete at that time, having displaced the old Minoan empire.
Ventris lectured in London on 24 June 1953, around the time of the Coronation and the ascent of Everest. It was, in its own field, quite as important an achievement. Blegen provided them with more decipherments in May. Michael Ventris was awarded the OBE. Chadwick worked with him for the rest of his life: on the night of 6 September 1956 Ventris's car collided with a lorry on the Great North Road near Hatfield, in Hertfordshire.
Too many culture heroes were taken away from us suddenly in the 1950s, at the height of their powers: Kathleen Ferrier, Dennis Brain, Alan Turing, Dinu Lipatti, and the architect Michael Ventris.
Sources. John Chadwick's 1958 book The Decipherment of Linear B, still reprinted by Cambridge, is the definitive account, a tribute to his friend, and well worth reading. I have also used The Greek Language by L.R. Palmer (an early supporter of the Greek theory), Faber & Faber, 1980, in case any major revisions were needed; but essentially the story given by Chadwick as it had just broken is still correct.