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Monday, July 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Deciphering Europe’s Earliest Scripts

The Man who Deciphered Linear B by Andrew Robinson. London, Thames and Hudson, 2002, 168 pages, $19.95.

As we look back at the achievements of the twentieth century, there can be little doubt that the two most significant advances in ancient Greek studies were the revelation of the oral origins of Homeric poetry and the decipherment of Linear B. We are indebted primarily to an American scholar, Milman Parry, for the former, and to a British architect, Michael Ventris, for the latter. The work of these two giants of modern classical scholarship had a tremendous influence on all subsequent work on Homeric and Aegean Bronze Age studies. Their lives are still inadequately known. Oddly, they had much in common. Both did their most important work around the middle of the century and both died young, in violent and rather mysterious circumstances. Until now, those interested in Ventris’s life had, for the most part, to content themselves with the rather sketchy details provided in John Chadwick’s excellent book, The Decipherment of Linear B. As the title of this fascinating new book suggests, Robinson focuses as much on the man as on the decipherment. The decipherment remains, however, the most interesting part of Ventris’s life and it is on this aspect that the present review will focus. Robinson’s new study, besides putting Ventris’s great achievement in the context of a rather unconventional life, corrects Chadwick’s account on some points and offers important new insights into the process of decipherment.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Evans’s excavations at Knossos provoked great excitement. They revealed an elaborate and sprawling palace complex and abundant evidence of a religion in which bulls played a conspicuous part – proof enough, many thought, that the Cretan myths about the labyrinth and the Minotaur were founded on some kind of reality. More generally, the excavations revealed a sophisticated culture on Crete that appeared to predate and give shape to the mainland civilization that centered on Mycenae. This Cretan civilization, which Evans called Minoan, showed a high degree of artistic skill, and, more important, unlike the mainland, was literate. Evans had found large numbers of clay tablets inscribed with mysterious symbols that clearly represented an early form of writing. Only much later did archeologists start finding similar tablets on the mainland. Careful scrutiny of the tablets showed that there were two rather similar but clearly distinct scripts. Evans called the script that came from the earlier deposits Linear A and the script from the later deposits Linear B. Since the Linear B tablets were much more numerous, they held out greater hopes of decipherment.

Michael Ventris (1922-56) was born in England but spent much of his childhood in Switzerland, where he quickly learned French and German in addition to the Polish he had picked up from his half-Polish mother. As a youngster, he showed a precocious interest in scripts and archeology, reading at the tender age of seven a scholarly study in German of Egyptian hieroglyphics. When he continued his secondary education at an English public (that is, private) school, he naturally excelled at modern languages but also at Latin and Greek. Ventris first learned of the Linear B tablets, it is widely believed, at a public lecture given in 1936 by the 85-year-old Evans. In fact, Robinson tells us, the encounter was more personal. Ventris was among a group of schoolboys visiting a Minoan exhibition at Burlington House, London, when Evans, who happened to be there at the time, offered to show the group around. When they came to a case with the tablets, Evans said that no one had been able to read them. At this point, the 14-year-old Ventris piped up, “Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, sir?” From that moment on to the end of his life, the problems posed by those unprepossessing but fascinating tablets were never far from Ventris’s thoughts.

The first steps toward decipherment were relatively easy and had been taken by Evans himself. It was clear, for instance, that the tablets were inventory lists, for they contained numerous pictograms – drawings of such things as swords, spears, horses, and chariots – usually accompanied by what were clearly numeric symbols. Sometimes the items in the list were totaled at the bottom. It did not take Evans long to figure out which signs meant 1, 10, 100, and 1,000. It was also fairly clear that the 89 non-pictographic signs probably represented syllables (di, so, ku, etc.), for 89 was too many for an alphabet and too few for a language such as Chinese, where each word had its own symbol. Another clue was provided by the later Cypriot script, which had some eight symbols that were virtually identical to eight Linear B symbols. The Cypriot script was syllabic and was used to write Greek. But beyond these relatively straightforward deductions, it was very difficult to make much headway. It was anyone’s guess what language lay behind these strange symbols. Greek, it was widely agreed, was an unlikely candidate. One reason for this view was that the Cypriot script used the symbol se to represent the sigma that is frequently found at the end of Greek words. Thus, the Greek word, polos, would be written in Cypriot script, po-lo-se, and the vowel in se was just suppressed. Now, it so happened that the Cypriot symbol for se was one of the eight that closely resembled Linear B symbols, but the corresponding Linear B symbol seldom occurred at the end of a word. Thus, if the Cypriot script had borrowed symbols and spelling conventions from Linear B, as Evans had assumed, the language of the tablets could not be Greek.

Ventris’s first study on Linear B was published in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1940, when he was only 18. In this article, Ventris proposed that the language of Linear B, which Evans had dubbed “Minoan,” was in fact “a dialect closely related to Etruscan.” Even as his knowledge of Linear B broadened and deepened over the next 15 years, Ventris stuck to his Etruscan theory until close to the end, when, quite unexpectedly, he realized that the tablets were speaking to him in Greek. Later in the 1940s, two American scholars, Emmett Bennett, Jr., and Alice Kober, published important articles on Linear B that helped lay the groundwork for its decipherment. Bennett’s careful work corrected mistakes that had been made by Evans; for example, he showed that some symbols that Evans had taken to be pictograms were in fact phonetic. It was Kober’s studies, however, that provided the methodology that ultimately enabled Ventris to crack the code. She pointed out that certain words recurring in similar contexts had different endings, and she inferred from this that the language of Linear B was inflected like Latin or Greek. Thus, the Latin word for “master” appears in the forms dominus, domini, or domino, depending on its grammatical function in the sentence. If written in a syllabic script, these forms would be do-mi-nu(s), do-mi-ni, do-mi-no. In each case, the final vowel is different, but the consonant remains the same. In this way, Kober was able to draw up small groups, usually of three words, whose final symbols shared the same consonant but had different vowels. Inevitably, these came to be known as “Kober’s triplets.”

Using the same approach, it was possible to draw up other groups of syllabic signs that shared the same vowels but had different consonants. When these groupings were written out in grid form, a basic tool for eventual decipherment was established. In the partial grid below, I have substituted phonetic values for the Linear B symbols that Ventris and other scholars used. This has the advantage of showing the methodology more clearly, but it must be borne in mind that it became possible to assign phonetic values to the symbols only at the final stage of the decipherment. The usefulness of the grid lay in the fact that once the phonetic value of one symbol became known, then this revealed the vowel for all the symbols in the same column and the consonant for all the symbols in the same row.

  Vowel 1 Vowel 2 Vowel 3 Vowel 4 Vowel 5
cons. 1 (ba) (be) (bi) (bo) (bu)
cons. 2 (da) (de) (di) (do) (du)
cons. 3 (ka) (ke) (ki) (ko) (ku)
cons. 4 (ma) (me) (mi) (mo) (mu)

In 1951, the Linear B tablets that Carl William Blegen had discovered in 1939 at Pylos on the Greek mainland were published. Ventris noticed that, though the language of the Pylos tablets was clearly the same as that of the Knossos tablets, the specific words that Kober had singled out to illustrate her “triplets” theory did not actually appear on any Pylos tablet. He inferred from this that they might be place names in Crete. Focusing on one of the triplets and using educated guesses for two of the symbols, he came up with the word A – (?) NI – (?). This looked rather like the way Amnisos, the port of Knossos, might be spelled in syllabic script – A-MI-NI-SO(S) – if one assumed that the final “s” was simply dropped in Linear B, rather than rendered by se as in Cypriot. If Ventris’s hunch was correct, the final syllable (so) gave him both the “o” column and the “s” row. He now turned to another of “Kober’s triplets” that also ended in so. The so ending was preceded by two other symbols in the “o” column, the second of which was in the same row as ni. It followed therefore that the word was xO-NO-SO, where “x” was an unknown consonant. It was not hard to guess that this was Knossos written in Linear B as KO-NO-SO.

This was the breakthrough that Ventris had been waiting for. The precise date of the discovery is unclear, but it appears to have happened in late May or early June 1952. Ventris realized immediately that the language of Linear B might well be an early form of Greek after all, although he could not be certain, since Knossos and Amnisos were, of course, proper names. On July 1, 1952, he broadcast his findings on the BBC in a talk entitled, “Deciphering Europe’s Earliest Scripts.” Many scholars, however, remained skeptical. Startling confirmation of the decipherment came in May 1953, when Blegen sent a copy of a tablet he had recently discovered at Pylos. This tablet had a clear pictogram of a three-footed caldron and beside it a word, which, using the values from Ventris’s grid, read TI-RI-PO-DE. The same tablet also had pictograms of goblets showing four-handled and three-handled goblets, as well as a goblet without handles. Beside each pictogram was the appropriate designation in words that were unmistakably Greek: “goblet with four ears,” “goblet with three ears,” and “goblet with no ears.” This new evidence convinced most scholars that Ventris was right and that the language of Linear B was indeed Greek. For some years, a number of stubborn skeptics remained. Today, Ventris’s decipherment is almost universally accepted. Indeed, it is often regarded as perhaps the greatest achievement of its kind – far greater, although, ironically, less well known, than Jean-Francois Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian, for Ventris had no Rosetta Stone to point the way.

After solving the major problem of the decipherment, Ventris took little interest in the content of the tablets. It was clearly the puzzle itself that had intrigued him, not what the tablets could tell us about a lost civilization. Throughout his life, Ventris had made repeated attempts to free himself from his obsession with Linear B and to return to architecture. His efforts were never successful for long. The obsession had clearly hurt his marriage. With the great puzzle solved, Ventris clearly had difficulty in picking up the threads of a more normal existence. On August 22, 1956, when he was out driving at one o’clock in the morning north of London, he collided at high speed with a truck parked in a lay-by and died instantly. Whether it was an accident, as the jury found at the inquest, or, as some suspected, suicide, no one can say.

Robinson’s book is more accessible to the layman than Chadwick’s because the account of the decipherment is interlarded with biographical narrative. Chadwick’s book remains, however, a brilliantly lucid account of what was a very complicated process, and readers who want more on the decipherment are well advised to turn to it, enlightened and cautioned by Robinson’s new findings. What emerges from both books is an unconventional and diffident genius, who saw the struggle to make the tablets speak to us as a cooperative rather than a competitive venture. He generously shared his ideas about the tablets, as they developed, with other scholars in the field and encouraged them to do likewise.

David A. Traill is professor of classics at the University California at Davis. He has published many articles on Greek and Latin literature and written extensively about the archeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
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