In 1953, a young British architect gave a widely attended lecture at the Society of Antiquaries of London. Michael Ventris’ subject was his recent decipherment of a mysterious ancient script, Minoan Linear B, discovered by Sir Arthur Evans. Its language, he demonstrated, was an archaic dialect of Greek half a millennium older than Homer’s, dating from about 1450 BC – making Linear B the oldest readable writing from Europe. The Times promptly dubbed the decipherment ‘the Everest of Greek archaeology’ – to the considerable embarrassment of Ventris.
As a boy, Ventris was far from deeply interested in the classical world. He did show, however, extraordinary ability in both classical and modern European languages. In 1936, on a school trip to a London exhibition on the Minoan world, by chance he met the aged Evans, who showed the boys undeciphered clay tablets. Ventris was transfixed. In 1940, he published a teenage article in the American Journal of Archaeology, wrongly suggesting that Linear B’s language might be related to Etruscan. It attracted the attention of Sir John Myres, Evans’ executor, who asked for Ventris’ help in publishing the Minoan scripts, and introduced him to classicist Alice Kober, author of important Minoan analyses that would influence his work.
Ventris never attended university. In the 1940s, he trained as an architect, with a break for war service. His training and lack of conventional academic education contributed to his success in decipherment. In 1949, while beginning architectural practice, he started intense Minoan study. His breakthrough occurred with three similar-looking Linear B sign groups, which Ventris had (jokingly) dubbed Kober’s ‘triplets’, that apparently demonstrated the existence of grammatical inflection. Ventris hazarded they might be the names of Cretan towns and their ethnonyms, for example ‘Knossos’, ‘Knossian men’, ‘Knossian women’. His guess enabled him to allot phonetic values to the triplets’ sign groups, which allowed him to identify the phonetic values of other sign groups. The resulting transliterations were recognisable as words written in archaic Greek. As he excitedly informed Myres: ‘though it runs completely counter to everything I’ve said in the past, I’m now almost completely convinced that the [Linear B] tablets are in GREEK.’ Shortly after, on 1 July 1952, Ventris boldly announced his preliminary results in a historic BBC radio talk.
It was heard by John Chadwick, a specialist in early Greek. In 1953-1956, with the willing cooperation of others, Ventris and Chadwick rapidly published papers and a seminal book, Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Ventris, who had returned to architectural practice in early 1956, spurning all offers of an academic career, was killed in a car crash just as this magnum opus appeared.
Andrew Robinson is the author of The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: the story of Michael Ventris, published by Thames & Hudson. He is giving talks on Ventris for the centenary of his birth at the British Museum, London (11 July), and at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (12 July).
Images: reproduced courtesy of the Ventris Archive, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London; Garry Todd/Flickr [CC0].