Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris

Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris

by Andrew Robinson, Stephen Eisenman
     
 

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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

Overview

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 Based upon hundreds of unpublished letters and other sources, including Chadwick's papers, Andrew Robinson's biography is the first book to tell the story of both the decipherment of Linear B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.

Editorial Reviews

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)

The Boston Globe
“Intrinsically fascinating. Robinson . . .has done more than retell the tale, albeit in a more accessible form than ever before.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780500510773
Publisher:
Thames & Hudson
Publication date:
06/01/2002
Series:
World of Art Series
Edition description:
Older Edition
Pages:
176
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

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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