Book Review: The Man Who Deciphered Linear B

Andrew Robinson has written a clear and concise biography of Michael Ventris, the English architect who solved one of archaeology’s most vexing problems. In 1900, archeologists discovered clay tablets on the island of Crete containing a strange script. The tablets dated to c. 1450 BC, about two centuries before the Trojan War. The writing was utterly unintelligible—no one even knew what language it was in.

For fifty-odd years the tablets were undecipherable. More tablets with the same script, dubbed Linear B, were discovered on mainland Greece, at Pylos in 1939 and at Mycenae in 1950. Unlike Champollion’s decryption of Egyptian hieroglyphics a century before, there was no Rosetta Stone for Linear B, no bilingual inscriptions that pointed the way.

In the first half of the century, archeologist Arthur Evans, who discovered the first Linear B tablets, made minute progress. He determined that most of the tablets were storeroom inventories from the palace at Knossos and he identified the numerals in the script. He also determined that the script was syllabic, rather than alphabetic or hieroglyphic, but the bulk of the writing was unintelligible. Evans believed that the language was a previously unknown one that he dubbed Minoan.

A few scholars postulated that the language was an early form of Greek, but they were generally ignored and scholarly consensus agreed with Evans. Linear B characters resembled a later (c. 800 BC) Cypriot script that was known to be a form of Greek, but there were crucial differences. Notably, the letter S, which is the most common final consonant in Greek, did not seem to be found in the final position in Linear B words. The 1939 discovery of Linear B tablets in mainland Greece revived the Greek hypothesis, but still scholars tended to side with Evans’s Minoan hypothesis. The tablets in Pylos could have been from a Minoan outpost on the mainland or the work of Minoan scribes hired by early Greeks who were illiterate.

Michael Ventris was born in 1922, the son of an English army officer and a Polish immigrant. He never attended university, training as an architect instead. He had no background in archeology or linguistics, although he did have an amazing facility for languages—Ventris spoke most modern European languages fluently and could learn a new one in a matter of weeks. He seemed a most unlikely candidate for solving this vexing puzzle, except that he had three qualities that others lacked. He was clearly a genius, he had a dogged determination to solve the mystery of Linear B that bordered on obsession, and he had an inheritance that allowed him to ignore his architecture career in favor of his hobby.

Ventris learned of Linear B at age 14, when he attended an exhibit of Greek and Minoan antiquities. Arthur Evans happened to be present and gave the boys an impromptu lecture on the Minoan civilization and the mysterious Linear B writing. Ventris was hooked.

He published his first scholarly article on Linear B in 1940, when he was just 18 years old. In the paper, he rejected Evans’s Minoan language hypothesis, opting instead for a conclusion that the language was actually an early form of Etruscan. Ventris would believe this hypothesis to be correct right up until he made his breakthrough in decipherment in 1953.

Robinson’s book focuses on Ventris’s methods. It is these methods, and his genius, that enabled Ventris to succeed where so many others had failed. The fact that he was not a practicing academic probably worked to his advantage. He did not attempt to hoard his findings, rather he was very open in sharing his work. Throughout the late-40s and early-50s, he privately circulated twenty different versions of his notes with other scholars working in the field. He seemingly had no ego to boost, nor a professional reputation to gain and maintain.

Unlike scholars like Evans, Ventris did not maintain his hypotheses in the face of mounting evidence against them. While he firmly believed that the language was in fact Etruscan, he willingly abandoned that belief when no longer stood up against the weight of evidence. Whether this was due to lack of confidence from his lack of formal credentials, or whether Ventris was just a man without ego doesn’t matter. He had that rare quality possessed of great scholars—the willingness to be proven wrong.

Ventris’s decipherment was largely his own work. He did, however, rely upon the work of a few others with whom he communicated. He worked especially closely with fellow Englishman John Chadwick and he relied on methods developed by American Alice Kober. (Kober disliked Ventris and considered him a dilettante. She refused to answer his queries, but Ventris gained much of his basic methodology from Kober’s published work.) Chadwick was especially helpful. In addition to being a professor of philology at Oxford, he had also worked as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park during the war. He provided a philological framework for Ventris’s work as well as helpful decoding techniques. Ventris knew all the scholars working in the field and communicated with them all, but in the end, it was he alone who cracked the code.

In the two breakthrough months of May and June 1953, Ventris deciphered the script. He determined that it was indeed an early form of Greek. Kober had identified several three-character words, or triplets, in the Knossos tablets as being of interest. The triplets were absent from the mainland tablets found at Pylos and Ventris made the intuitive leap that these were place names on Crete. Even though he still firmly believed the language to be Etruscan, for the sake of experiment he assumed the language was Greek and using the phonetic values of the some similar characters in the Cypriot script, Ventris tentatively identified the triplets as the names of towns on Crete. From there he began working out the phonetic values of the other characters. He worked out the spelling and grammatical rules that differentiated it from Classical Greek—the final S, for instance, is a later development in the language. In the process he realized that his Etruscan hypothesis had to be wrong and the language was Greek, albeit a much earlier form than had previously been discovered.

One might ask, so what? It seems to be an interesting intellectual achievement—on the par with calculating pi to the nth place, but knowledge of the contents of Minoan storerooms can’t be of great value. Nothing could be more wrong. Ventris’s decipherment revolutionized the historical view of the ancient Mediterranean world. Previously, it had been thought that the Minoans were a separate civilization, predating the Hellenic culture. Ventris conclusively demonstrated that in fact they were Greeks, and that Hellenic civilization was far older than had been thought. Also, the fact that the language was Greek has given historical linguists a wealth of data on language evolution and change. Once Ventris made his breakthrough, there was a continuous line of evolution of the Greek language stretching back some 3,450 years.

Robinson’s book can be a bit dry. He painstakingly describes the process that Ventris used to decipher the script and that is not for everyone. Only those with a real interest in linguistics or cryptography will find great interest within, which is not to say that the book requires formal training to be understood. To the contrary, Robinson writes quite clearly for the lay audience. It’s just that there probably aren’t that many that will be interested enough to wade into the material.

And unfortunately, the book is not relieved by interesting details of Ventris’s life. He led a quite ordinary, suburban English lifestyle. Other than the war years, when he was an RAF navigator, he had little excitement or daring in his life. The only thing different about him was his passions for ancient scripts and skiing (not a common hobby in England of the 1940s and 50s). Ventris died in an automobile accident in 1956, at the age of thirty-four.

But for those who do find such linguistic details interesting or are looking for insight into genius and how the mind works, Robinson’s book is well worth reading. A shorter account of Ventris’s discovery can also be found in Simon Singh’s The Code Book (Doubleday, 1999). Singh’s book is primarily about codes and cryptography, but he devotes half a chapter to Ventris and the decipherment of Linear B.

Hardcover, 176 pages, Thames & Hudson; ISBN: 0500510776, June 2002.

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