The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris

Overview

“Highly readable . . . a fitting tribute to the quiet outsider who taught the professionals their business and increased our knowledge of the human past.”—Archaeology Odyssey

More than a century ago, in 1900, one of the great archaeological finds of all time was made in Crete. Arthur Evans discovered what he believed was the palace of King Minos, with its notorious labyrinth, home of the Minotaur. As a result, Evans became obsessed with one of the epic intellectual stories of ...

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The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris

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Overview

“Highly readable . . . a fitting tribute to the quiet outsider who taught the professionals their business and increased our knowledge of the human past.”—Archaeology Odyssey

More than a century ago, in 1900, one of the great archaeological finds of all time was made in Crete. Arthur Evans discovered what he believed was the palace of King Minos, with its notorious labyrinth, home of the Minotaur. As a result, Evans became obsessed with one of the epic intellectual stories of the modern era: the search for the meaning of Linear B, the mysterious script found on clay tablets in the ruined palace.

Evans died without achieving his objective, and it was left to the enigmatic Michael Ventris to crack the code in 1952. This is the first book to tell not just the story of Linear B but also that of the young man who deciphered it. Based on hundreds of unpublished letters, interviews with survivors, and other primary sources, Andrew Robinson’s riveting account takes the reader through the life of this intriguing and contradictory man. Stage by stage, we see how Ventris finally achieved the breakthrough that revealed Linear B as the earliest comprehensible European writing system.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Sun
“Mr. Robinson has given us a glimpse of genius at work, making significant connections between the work and the life.”
The Boston Globe
“Intrinsically fascinating. Robinson . . .has done more than retell the tale, albeit in a more accessible form than ever before.”
Michael D. Coe
[A] fascinating biography....a book as gripping and readable as a detective story.
New York Sun
Robinson has given us a glimpse of genius at work, making significant connections between the work and the life.
New Yorker
"Not quite the Greek you taught me," wrote Michael Ventris to his old classics teacher after decoding an ancient Aegean script that had baffled experts for years. In The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, Andrew Robinson narrates the short, brilliant career of a self-effacing amateur, an architect who spoke at least ten languages and learned Swedish in two weeks. In Lost LanguagesRobinson places Ventris's work alongside two other famous decipherments -- that of Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone and the ongoing decipherment of outrageously complex Mayan glyphs -- before moving on to ancient scripts that have yet to be cracked, including Rongorongo, a script from Easter Island that looks as if Keith Haring might have designed it. Undeciphered scripts, one veteran of the field says, are "powerful kook attractors," while another cautions that "the simplest, most mundane and least surprising explanation of any inscription, is likely to be the correct one."

The reasons a language gets written down in the first place seem to vary. In the Mediterranean, says Andrew Dalby in his Dictionary of Languages the impetus was a need for reliable accounting. Bookkeeping, in other words, preceded books. However, David Crystal warns in Language Death that "when a language dies which has never been recorded in some way, it is as if it has never been." Many scholars believe that the coming century will see the death of half of the six thousand or so languages currently spoken -- about one language every two weeks. Crystal's most piquant insight into the problem comes in a South African taxi whose driver speaks all eleven of his country's official languages but whose chief ambition is "to earn enough to enable all his children to learn English." (Leo Carey)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780500289983
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson
  • Publication date: 4/1/2012
  • Pages: 168
  • Sales rank: 825,949
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Robinson is the author of numerous books on popular science and the history of science and the arts, including The Man Who Deciphered Linear B and The Story of Writing.

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