Michael Ventris and Linear B

Michael Ventris was a linguistic genius. At a young age he could speak English, French, German and Polish. But no one guessed what he was destined to achieve.

One day, some time in the 1930s when he was a boy, Michael's school class went to see an exhibit of Minoan artefacts. Minoan civilization on Crete had been uncovered by Sir Arthur Evans. By sheer coincidence. Sir Arthur himself happened to be at the exhibit that day. He came across the school excursion and took the group behind the scenes to show them the writing of Minoan times. There were two scripts, called Linear A and Linear B. Linear B was obviously evolved from Linear A, and seemed to denote a different language, but no one knew how to read either.

In what proved to be the leading question of the century, as Sir Arthur showed the boys the enigmatic scripts, young Michael said to Sir Arthur, "Did you say the tablets have not as yet been deciphered sir?"

Sir Arthur tried hard but he never did decode the scripts. Nor did he ever learn their secret, because he died before the young boy he'd met by chance went on to break Linear B. Sir Arthur was however still alive when stacks of Linear B tablets were discovered at Pylos on the mainland of Greece, which surprised him. Mycenaean civilization was taking off at this time, and Crete had begun its slow decline. So what was a Cretan language doing outside Crete?

Michael Ventris was obsessed by Linear B from that day on. By the age of 18, he'd written a paper in which he attempted to prove Linear B was related to Etruscan, another ancient language which no one could read. Ventris become an architect by trade, but his real vocation was the attack on Linear B.

Here's a hint if you're ever called on to decode an utterly unknown ancient script: count the symbols. If there are hundreds, you're looking at a hieroglyphic script. If there are more than 40 to 70, you're probably looking at a syllabic script, where each symbol denotes a single sound, usually as consonant-vowel pairs. If there are 30 or less symbols you're looking at an alphabet, like in English. Combinations are common too. Our letters are an alphabet, but our digits 0 to 9 are hieroglyphs.
Linear B had enough symbols that it was almost certainly a syllabic script. So Ventris, by this time a young man, created sheet after sheet of tables like this, which I've taken from the BBC:

Since every symbol was a consonant-vowel pair, down the left are consonants, and across the top are vowels. Which is really quite clever because every symbol should have its own cell, but symbols will share common consonants and vowels. Now all Ventris had to do was work out what were the consonants, what were the vowels and which symbol went where, all based on a script for which no one had any idea what anything said. What could be simpler?

Ventris spent years fiddling with this.

Another scholar named Alice Kober was also attacking Linear B. Ventris and Kober did try to work together for a short while, but apparently she was rather hard to get on with and they went their separate ways. Kober made two important discoveries: she proved that the endings of some Linear B words changed in a regular pattern, which suggested the language was inflected, and more importantly, she noticed that there were some words which appeared on tablets found in Crete but never on tablets from the mainland.

That last observation proved the trick. As soon as he heard it, Ventris made the inspired guess that the words which only appeared in Cretan tablets were place names. He threw those words at his clever sound charts, then shifted consonants and vowels back and forth until he had a few place names he could recognize. Ventris had been sure Linear B would turn out to be Etruscan. What fell out, to his utter shock, was extremely early, ultra-archaic Greek.

Now that he had some sound values that he knew for sure were right, and a pretty good idea that he was looking at Greek, Ventris was able to decipher sufficient other words that he could make sense of some Linear B texts.

On 1st July, 1952, Ventris announced on the BBC that he could read Linear B. A classics professor at Cambridge called Chadwick happened to be listening. He instantly called Ventris and offered to help with the remaining work. Chadwick was the perfect ally. Not only was he a classics expert, but he'd spent WW2 working as a code breaker for the Royal Navy. Ventris and Chadwick published Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Not the catchiest title ever, but an incredible book (and highly readable btw). Michael Ventris had done something which no one before in history had ever done: he'd decoded an ancient script without any idea what any of it said.

In a single stroke, Greek had become the world's second oldest living language, after Chinese. The discovery also totally rewrote the prehistory of Europe. Up until that time, it was thought that the first Greeks were the people who invaded centuries later, and brought down Mycenae. Linear B proved the Greeks had arrived in waves, and the first wave had brought down Minoan civilization and founded Mycenae. In the process Greek had subsumed the original Cretan language of Linear A, and the Linear A symbols had been (poorly) adapted to cope with the new tongue.

Weirdly, the later Greeks had no idea their language had once been written down. When what we know of as the Greek alphabet came by about 600 years later, they thought it was the first time.

To this day no one knows how to read Linear A. Ventris died in a car accident three years after his great achievement. He was only 33. If he'd lived, he might have gone on to break Linear A, or Etruscan, but now we'll never know. But at least we have Linear B to read, and if Sir Arthur Evans hadn't run into the school group and Ventris at the exhibition, it might never have happened.


Amalia Dillin said...

This was a great post. I didn't realize we still couldn't read Linear A, though I probably should have known. Now that I think about, I can hear the resounding lack of translations.

I didn't realize the history of how Linear B came to be cracked though-- maybe we just need to advertise the fact that Linear A hasn't been decoded more loudly to attract the brilliant code-breaking geniuses from their hiding places. Someday, maybe! Although, I hope when/if Linear A is broken, it has some good gossip. That would be icing on the cake.

L. T. Host said...

How freaking interesting. You never fail to teach me something new. :)

Language has always fascinated me, and I have only admiration for those who have deciphered lost/dead languages based on writing alone.

Unknown said...

So that's why teachers insist on field trips.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Very interesting!

Loretta Ross said...

Fascinating, as your posts always are! In terms of Greek history, this is all way over my head. I have a couple of purely uneducated questions about it.

First, do we know (or even suspect) where these waves of ancient Greeks came from before they overran Crete etc.?

Second, it's odd that the later Greeks thought they'd invented their alphabet. Some of the symbols in Linear B look to me to be very similar to later Greek letters. Is this just coincidence, do you think, or cultural survival? Specifically, I'm looking at v5 (tau), c3/v1 (delta-tau combo?), and c4/v1 (chi).

Of course, a couple of the symbols also look Russian to me. (c5/v5 second symbol and c7/v1).

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia,

I thought you'd like this one, since it relates to so many of your characters.

No, even knowing the sound values of the very similar Linear B symbols, Linear A has proven extremely tough to crack.

I have a strong suspicion that crytanalysts at NSA and probably also GCHQ have attempted some of the ancient scripts in their spare time.

Gary Corby said...

Hi LT, I've scheduled a post on Indo-European too. If you liked this, you'll like that.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taryn,

The story of the school excursion seemed so chancy that someone later tracked down the (long since retired) teacher who took the kids to the exhibit. The teacher confirmed it all happened, and it was he who remembered Ventris' words to Evans.

Gary Corby said...

Glad you liked it Vicky. The breaking of Linear B is one of my favourite stories. It all seems so impossible when you consider what they had to achieve.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta,

The Greek alphabet comes direct from the Phoenicians. If you put them side by side it's quite easy to see, and even the sound values are virtually the same. Linear A & B was a dead-end as far as I know.

As to where the Greeks came from, from north of Greece is the simple and vague answer. The more detailed one is a guess, but given that Greek is Indo-European, the answer is probably from somewhere around Southern Russia. That relies on linguistic analysis and a certain amount of guessing.

Sean Wright said...

I'll file this one away for when when I need to convince students of the need to go and walk through museums instead of googling everything.

Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Gary - lucid, interesting, revelatory. I was in the Ashmolean recently looking at tiny tablets of hieroglyphs and marvelling at the fact that people had unlocked all their secrets. I wish we read more about this sort of research in our daily media than about the latest refinements in weapons technology.

Stephanie Thornton said...

This post is totally fascinating- reminds me a bit of Champollion and the Rosetta Stone. I'm intrigued by languages- one of my greatest regrets is not learning another one.

Now we just need someone to crack the ancient Meso-American scripts!

Gary Corby said...

I don't think much of your chances of getting students off Google, Sean, but if they're boys, you might try telling them it's a good place to meet girls.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Bill, lovely to hear from you! Now that you mention it, the Ashnmolean should be chock-a-block full of Linear B. Evans used to be its director.

I think it's a toss up between weapons research and hollywood starlets.

Gary Corby said...

It's not too late, Stephanie. You could still learn a language or two!

Compared to Ventris, I reckon Champollion's effort was too easy. Champollion had a crib to help him so he already knew what was the right answer.

LQQinSpace said...

Hi Garry,
I love you blog for posts like this one - interesting details from the past, and the occasional tips for MS Word – which mostly work in Open Office too I've found.
I bet Dan Brown is reading this blog and has just scribbled Linear A onto a note pad then underlined it twice in red.

Jane Finnis said...

How fascinating, Gary. I only knew the Linear B story in roughly outline, and it's the details of the code-breaking that are so intriguing. I remember first hearing about Ventris' work while reading Mary Renault's THE KING MUST DIE - still one of my favourite books of all time. Maybe this just shows I had good teachers at school, or maybe Renault was influenced by Ventris and Chadwick's work? Do we know whether there's a direct connection?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Seth, glad you like it.

You're dead right, both Linear A and Etruscan would make excellent Dan Brown food. Especially since the time frame of Linear A & B is also associated with...try not to groan when I say this...Atlantis.

Gary Corby said...

Jane, Mary Renault surely was familiar with Linear B, and I even wouldn't be surprised if she learned to read it.

I doubt it helped her though. People went scouring through all known Linear B texts in search of the ancient myths, and what they mostly came up with were farm accounts and the ancient equivalent of laundry lists. There were however a few surprise words that fed into the Iliad.

Jane Finnis said...

Laundry lists! LOL! Reminds me of the Major-General from "Pirates of Penzance": "I can write a washing-bill in Babylonic cuneiform and tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform..." I always thought that was a neat rhyme.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jane. Seriously! Almost everything recovered from Linear B has been lists of stuff. There were a few distant connections though to the Iliad which I'll post about some time.

Unknown said...

The important point to Michael was that anyone should dicipher linear B. The thing that touched him was the fact that it was unsolved, not so much the solving it himself. He shared his findings as he went. When he received the recognition for linear B he didn't want that; it was peace of mind he was looking for.
Some people just can't let go, he was like that. Actually his passion lay elsewhere.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks for the comment Saffron, and welcome to the blog.

Forgive me, but your surname has overwhelmed my manners so I must ask, are you by any chance a relative?

Valdas said...

Ventris must be a Lithuan-Polish-Ruthenian name. Litvak, akin to another genius child from Belostok, who concepted a genome of language

Valdas said...

Ventris must be a Lthuan-Polish-Ruthenian surname, probably Litvak, like the other genius child from Belostok who concepted a genome of language mechanism

Major Major said...

The Ventris family seems to have been thoroughly British. Michael's father Edward was an Indian Army officer, his grandfather Francis was a British officer, and his great-grandfather Edward was a Church of England priest. Hard to get from Lithuania to England then.

That table of Linear B characters looks like an enciphering table. Hence the comment on NSA and GCHQ.

Since this was originally posted a fabulous history of the efforts of Evans, Kober, and Ventris has come out: The Riddle of the Labrynth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox Fox argues that Ventris was afraid of working with Kober because she was a professor in Classics with a doctorate and he was an amateur.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks for letting us know about the book, Major. I'll be reading that!

Why would Ventris be intimidated by Kober's qualifications, but not Chadwick?

Major Major said...

Maybe it was the way they came on. Chadwick was impressed by Ventris's work and said so. Also, by then, he had actually done something.

Kober visited Britain in 1946-7 and again in 1948, when she met Ventris. She seems to have put him down as a "rich dilettante". To be fair, Kober had to deal with a number of such people, including one man who wrote long letters full of assumption upon assumption promoting the theory that Linear B was a script for a Polynesian language. It could make one unwilling to tolerate anyone from outside the academic field.