Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventrisby Andrew Robinson, Stephen Eisenman
The decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris some fifty years ago is the equivalent in the humanities of Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA. Today it belongs in the same rare class as Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the nineteenth century. The earliest European writing system that we can understand, Linear B dates from the middle of the second millennium BC. It was rediscovered by Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who excavated clay tablets bearing this ancient script at Knossos in Crete in 1900. Obsessed with cracking Linear B, Evans kept the tablets to himself for some forty years but made little progress. After his death, other scholars tackled the decipherment, but it wasn't until 1952 that the secret was penetrated. Linear B was not an unknown language such as Minoan or Etruscan but actually an archaic dialect of Greek, more than five hundred years older than the Greek of Homer. Michael Ventris's later collaborator, the Cambridge classicist John Chadwick, told the story in his famous book, The Decipherment of Linear B (1958). But what of the man behind the decoding? Here Chadwick's book is exceptionally reticent, because in truth he hardly knew Ventris. Based upon hundreds of unpublished letters and other sources, including Chadwick's papers, Andrew Robinson's biography is the first book to tell the story of both the decipherment of Linear B and the man who broke the code. His research reveals a most intriguing person: a dazzling polyglot with an unorthodox upbringing and socialist tendencies who was also extremely private and lacking in confidence, and who died in a mysterious car crash in 1956 at the age of thirty-four.Ventris trained successfully as an architect, and his design methods shaped his decipherment work. But it was his hobby, Linear B, that would make him immortal. 20 b/w illustrations.
Author Biography: Andrew Robinson, a King's Scholar at Eton, holds degrees from Oxford University and from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
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)
Meet the Author
Andrew Robinson has written more than twenty-five books on the arts and sciences. They include Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts, India: A Short History, and Earthshock, which won the Association of Earth Science Editors Outstanding Publication Award. He is also a regular contributor to magazines, such as Current World Archaeology, History Today, The Lancet, Nature, and Science. A former literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, he was also a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge.
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