At the end of the 19th century, an archaeologist named Arthur Evans began excavating a site on modern-day Crete called Knossos. During his excavations over the decades he and his team unearthed an immense trove of inscriptions. The texts they found could be classified into three distinct types, which came to be called Cretan heiroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B. Half a century later the aging Evans brought a collection of these inscriptions to a museum in England and personally led a tour of students from a local boys’ school. In that tour group was a 14-year-old by the name of Michael Ventris. Something about those tablets hypnotized this kid, and when he learned that Linear B was as yet undeciphered, he became obsessed.
Michael Ventris went on to become a navigator for the Royal Air Force in WWII, and became an architect by profession, but he never lost his passion for Linear B. For decades he wrestled with the script, and corresponded with others who were doing the same; eventually he started a sort of newsletter in which he compiled his own and others’ working notes, and distributed this compilation to the handful of scholars working on the project for critique and ideas. Many people contributed vital theories and insights – Alice Kober in particular had a very important breakthrough.
In my experience, architects are predisposed to attention to minute detail and resolute focus, as well as a sometimes overwhelming obsession with seeing a project through to the finish. I’ve seen this happen (I married an architect!) – some people cannot be moved from their spot hunched over papers, pen gripped tightly, no matter how many other things they have to do or how long it’s been since they ate last or how many days they’ve gone without sleep. The story goes that on one particular day Michael Ventris, having worked his whole adult life on this project, felt that he was very close, and he was so wrapped up in his project that he forgot to leave his home office to join his wife – and the dinner party they were throwing. Many hours later he emerged – and I imagine him looking bleary-eyed with disheveled hair – and calmly announced that he had just deciphered Linear B. One of his dinner party guests happened to work for the BBC Radio, and she insisted he make the announcement on the air at once.
Normally this would be the part of the story where I would say something like “And the rest is history,” but the story doesn’t quite end there. Though Ventris had, in fact, finally cracked the code, there was still a lot of work to do, a great many inscriptions to translate and a great many scholars and hobbyists who wanted to confirm and tweak the findings. Michael Ventris wrote a book. A few weeks later, while driving home late at night, his car slammed into a parked truck, killing him instantly. He was 34 years old. He didn’t live long enough to see his decipherment at last truly confirmed, when new Linear B tablets were discovered and successfully read using his findings.
John Chadwick, Ventris’s chief scholarly partner and another scholar who contributed greatly to the eventual decipherment, published a book called The Decipherment of Linear B, which I’ve recommended before. It’s fascinating to see just how everything worked, and it is really rather inspiring to see all of these brilliant people cooperating and dedicating their time to this project, even in the midst of personal hardships, without any thought to petty territorial squabbles or bragging rights.
Today would have been Michael Ventris’s 90th birthday. As you might have noticed, I admire this man quite a bit, and for his birthday I would like to acknowledge and say thank you to all of the people who work very, very hard to help us understand a little bit more about our languages and our history – and therefore, ultimately, ourselves.