Michael Ventris and the Decipherment of Linear B: How an “Amateur” Shocked the World

Many people shrink from fear when it comes to challenging the “experts,” especially in intellectual fields. We’ve previously met Heinrich Schliemann, who, especially in his early career, was so eager to win the approval of “experts” that he abruptly (if temporarily) abandoned many of his ideas which would prove correct. 80 years on from the man who discovered the Greek Bronze Age, another amateur would step into his place, and vindicate him in a manner even he didn’t entirely believe was possible. This man was the young architect Michael Ventris, and his decipherment of Linear B would irrevocably change how western civilization viewed itself.

The World of Michael Ventris

Michael Ventris was born in England in 1922. From an early age, he showed a proficiency for languages, learning French, German, Swiss German, and Polish before he was 10 (he would learn seven more, including Greek, in his adulthood). Soon, this talent would interact with ancient forces. At the age of 14, Michael Ventris attended a lecture being held by the esteemed archaeologist, Arthur Evans. In 1900, Evans excavated the site of Knossos on Crete, unearthing a sophisticated palace civilization that stretched back 4,000 years. This was the Minoan civilization, completely unknown before Evans’ work. The find was a sensation and instantly made “Arthur Evans” a household name.

Yet, Arthur Evans couldn’t easily bask in his glory, because there was a great deal of controversy about the last phase of the palace civilization, which came to an abrupt and violent end around 1200 B.C. Evans originally believed, much as Schliemann would have, that the last phase of the palace showed a transition from a Cretan culture to one dominated by elements from the mainland, as seen at places like Mycenae. The conclusion wasn’t hard to draw – the original “Minoan” civilization was conquered by those living on the Greek mainland in the Late Bronze Age.

As Michael Wood makes so clear, however, Evans quickly changed his mind. He viewed the Minoans as having ruled over the mainland, and the last phase of the palace as being an “age of decadence.” Thus, there could be no Trojan War as Homer understood it.

Arthur Evans Palace of Minos
Evans with a replica of the “Throne of Minos” at Knossos.

Many of Arthur Evans’ peers, most notably Carl Blegen, disagreed with this view, but Evans held such dominance that his became the accepted theory. Now the young Ventris was in the same room with this giant. Arthur Evans was elderly by this point, but energetic as ever, and he showed the students in his midst the Linear B tablets that he had found while excavating Knossos. These baked clay tablets were strange indeed, carrying what must have seemed like alien hieroglyphics to the young Michael Ventris. He was told that nobody knew what the tablets meant. Yes, Arthur Evans had identified the Linear B tablets as carrying a syllabic script, along with some pictograms and punctuation, but he couldn’t actually read the words. Others had worked at the problem and made important observations, but they too, had failed to crack the code.

Michael Ventris, all of 14 years old, determined then and there that he would be the one to figure it out.

Most of us aren’t lucky enough to have our Great Work revealed to us at so early an age. Michael Ventris made the most of the opportunity.

Delayed, but Not Denied

Unfortunately, the work on the decipherment of Linear B would have to wait. In the first place, Arthur Evans hadn’t found a big enough sample to do the work (and indeed, most of what he did find wouldn’t be published until after his death in 1941). Carl Blegen greatly assisted in the effort by discovering the palace at Pylos and its massive archive of Linear B tablets in 1939.

Unfortunately, that was also the year World War II broke out, only five months after Blegen’s excavations, postponing any publication of the archives indefinitely. Like everyone in his generation, the war came for Ventris, and he would serve in the Royal Air Force. There, he was a navigator on a bomber which flew missions over Germany. To add to the hardship, he had lost both of his parents a couple of years earlier, his mother committing suicide.

But life moves on, as it always does, and he didn’t let these tragedies ruin him. When the carnage ended, he began working as an architect, but the Linear B tablets were never far from his mind. In fact, Ventris had been invited by Sir John Myers, who was impressed by his early work on Linear B, to help him finally publish Arthur Evans’ tablets. Yet, he panicked and backed out of the venture, feeling overwhelmed as an “amateur” in this world of distinguished scholars. This all too human reaction reminds us just how important self-confidence is and that breakthroughs can happen from the most unexpected places.

Once Evans’ and Carl Blegen’s finds were finally published, Michael Ventris, though an “amateur” in this world of “experts,” got to work on them, despite his earlier panic attack.

The Decipherment of Linear B

Decipherment of Linear B

Like his contemporaries, Michael Ventris originally doubted that the Linear B tablets were written in Greek. He began with the idea that they were written in a language related to Etruscan, but this turned out to be a dead end. Fortunately, he wasn’t entirely in the dark.

Regaining his confidence, he sent out questionnaires to the scholars working on the Linear B tablets, establishing some sort of loose collaboration. It risked the glory, but he was more interested in solving the problem. Emmett L. Bennett Jr. established that there were a total of 89 signs in the Linear B script (in contrast to the 26 letters in our alphabet), showing the size of the language to be deciphered.

Alice Kober demonstrated that the language showed inflection, with differences in the endings of words to establish properties like gender or number. She created a series of tables of similar words that differed by only one consonant (a modern example might be a word with a masculine or feminine ending), zeroing in on the words that shared respective consonants and vowels. This was an important breakthrough. Unfortunately, Kober would soon die of cancer. Michael Ventris was determined to take up the work.

In a real show of dedication, he put his architectural work (and income) on hold to devote all of his time to cracking the code.

In another breakthrough, he discovered that some of the wording on the Pylos tablets differed from that on the Knossos tablets. This would make sense – if the wording reflected local geography. Making this assumption, he established that some of the Knossos tablets referred to just that place, and from there, more and more of the text came to be unlocked. It sounds simple, but it took him over a year, and the result surprised both him and the world.

His announcement of his finding was rather nonchalant, masking his private joy.

He had only just turned 30. His painstaking work had vindicated Homer and Schliemann, the latter of which would have been as overjoyed as he was. In fact, Schliemann (at least publicly) believed that Phoenicians had built Mycenae and other sites, because the scholarly opinion during his time was that no Greek or European civilization could have existed that early!

John Chadwick, who was far more familiar with ancient Greek dialects, would join Ventris soon thereafter, and the two would collaborate from there on, accelerating the pace of the translation, and releasing their finds in their great book, Documents in Mycenaean Greek.

Unfortunately, he would soon lose his life in a car accident, but much like the heroes whose world he had just unlocked for posterity, his name would live on. No one who encounters Homer and the Trojan War will not know about him.

By having the confidence to step into the world of the “experts” and defy them where necessary, he had secured immortality.

Now think about your own world. Is there a talent you have that you can apply to shake up a field that’s ossified? Or is there some new ground that you can break entirely with your talent? Look at places where stale thinking, or even groupthink, rules the day. Look at a problem no one’s managed to solve. Think of how you can apply your talent to it. Michael Ventris used his talent for linguistics and organization to break up Arthur Evans’ psuedo-monopoly on the Bronze Age Aegean, contrary to even his own belief before he solved the unsolvable problem.

This essay is featured in and expanded as part of Lives of the Luminaries. Read it because you’ll want to get the most out of the lessons on work ethic, overcoming shyness, and other virtues that Michael Ventris provides.

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