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Michael Ventris

The story begins in 1900, when Sir Arthur Evans, while excavating at Knossos in Crete, where he becomes convinced that he has discovered the palace of king minos. Mythologised by Homer, and dated to 1700bc. He discovers three scripts, one that he called hierogliphic or pictographic, and 2 others which became known as Linear A and Linear B.

It was pure luck that the tablets survived intact because of being baked in the fire that burned down the palace.

Evans discovered quite a bit about Linear B, including that it had decimal numerals, had punctuation and symbols for man and woman and certain animals, recognising that it was sylabic, and made from words.

For personal reasons Evans decided that these Cretan scripts must belong to and indiginous population, and thus Linear B could not be Greek.

Born 12th july 1922 in Britain, he is famous for cracking the encoding of the early European language Linear B. Both his parents were undergoing yungian analysis.

His half Polish mother Dorothea was a cultured woman who was responsible for his interest in art, and languages. Ventris could speak a number of languages by the age of 10, including French, German, Swiss German and Polish. As an adult he picked up Russian, Swedish, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Some Turkish and Modern Greek

Ventris went to Stowe at the age of 13, which championed the arts instead of athleticism.

Ventris encountered Evans in 1936 at an exhibition of greek and minoan treasures at the royal academy in london when he was 14 years old, and it began a lifelong obsession with Linear B. The same year his parents were divorced.

When he was 15 would use a torch under the sheets to study the few available transcripts of Linear B, which the other schoolchildren found odd.

In 1938 his father died of tuberculocis.

Now financed by her Polish family, Dorothea and Michael moved into Highpoint, in Hamstead, which placed them in the center of bohemian london with many of the brightest and most innovative people of the time.

When the nazi invasion of poland occured, all the family money stopped, and his mother became very hard up for money. Michael had to be taken out of Stowe, but by this time had decided to train to be an architect, and enrolled at the Architectual Association.

However things were not going as well for Dorothea. She became depressed. Her father, a political refugee had just died, her husband was dead, her brother had died in WW1, and her only son (now 17) was eligable for military call up.

In 1939 the American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered 600 fresh tablets of Linear B, at Pylos in mainland Greece. Because Evans believed it was indiginous to Crete, it should not have been anywhere on mainland Greece, and seriously cast doubt upon this theory.

Dorothea was now alone amid some of the smartest people of the time, and felt totally out of her depth. She took an overdose of barbitone in 1940, and the inquest recorded a verdict of suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed.

Ventris handled this in the worst way possible, and just bottled up his feelings, a typically british male attitude at the time. To cope, he threw himself into Linear B research, and in 1940 he wrote a paper which was published in the American journal of Archeological printed without any idea that he was only 18, where he postulates that probably Linear B could be similar to etruscan. It was published under the name M G F Ventris.

In 1942, Ventris was called up, and joined the RAF as a navigator for bombers. When asked why a navigator, he said it was more interesting, a desk job in the middle of the plane, and much more interesting than just flying the plane.

After the war he returned to the Architectual Association, where he had a lot of exposure to group working and brainstorming techniques, which had a lot of influence on his methodology or solving Linear B. This fit in with the perfectionist tendencies which he had.

He met and married a woman called Lois Knox Niven, a fellow student, who was know as betty. A low level society girl who had been to finishing school and had been sent to Europe to learn fine art, languages and skiing. They soon had 2 children, Nikki and Tessa.

After graduating, he went on a grand tour of Europe with Lois and a friend called Oliver Cox, visiting France, Switzerland over the brenner pass into Italy, and back to the south of France. He suddenly called short the trip to take up an offer (based upon his 1940 paper) of helping Sir John Myres to publish the tablets of Linear B left by Evans, but after a few days he realised that he would not be able to do the work because he felt out of his league amid the academics he would have to associate with. Also there was a personalty clash, and myres was to wedded to the discredited ideas of Evans for Ventris to feel comfortable working so closely with him.

Ventris went back to architecture, joining the ministry of education, designing new schools.

In his 20's he sent out a questionaire to all of the eminent scholars of the time telling them of his ideas, and asking detailed questions to establish the breadth of current thinking on the decipherment of Linear B. Because of his own candor, most of the experts responded, and he published their answers as "The Mid Century Report". There were only about 20 experts working on Linear B at the time, none of which were in contact with more than one or two of the others, but they all received this report.

Emmett L Bennet Jr had been worked on the establishing the total number of unique signs used in the language, which turned out to be 89. The size of this signary is crucial in understanding any new script.

Another of the keys to the solution was the work of Alice Kober who laid the real groundwork to the solution when she cleverly established patterns of three signs (which Ventris later called triplets) in the script. This was crucial because it demonstrated that there was inflection in the language. Many languages show such variation in the ending of words which shows the function of the word within the sentence.

Kober summerised her results in the form of a grid showing which signs shared a consonant and which shared a vowel. Although she didn't know what sounds matched the sylables, she was able to show that certain sylables existed. Unfortunately she was unable to to continue the work due to cancer, and died in 1950.

He also managed to design a revolutionary house in Hamstead, where they had the children on the ground floor and the adults upstairs, which is now often done in hotels. It appeared in Country Life magazine under the title "keeping the children under".

Ventris was so excited by these discoveries that he gave up his job and worked full time on Linear B for 18 months. During this time he constructed his own syllabary, writing up detailed and methodical work notes which he sent to academics around the world.

He built upon the work of Kober, finding new sets of inflected words, which he used to identify more consonants and vowels, and extending her system to include these new signs.

The crucial thing he did was to take the triplets and ask himself what they were likely to be, not knowing enough to know that it was not likely to be very helpful, and took the imaginataive leap that they could be towns. He then got lucky when one of the sets could only be one particular town, and no other. This allowed him to fill in the sounds of some of the signs, which eventually showed that it was a very ancient form of greek, 500 years older than homer.

He was so enthused about his discovery that he telephoned Bennet, who was not yet ready to accept that it was the correct answer.

After Ventris gave a talk on BBC radio on July 1st 1952, he was contacted by a young classicist called John Chadwick, an expert in ancient greek reconstructions, who used his knowledge with the values that Ventris had given to find even more words which Ventris did not know about. The two continued to collaborate, coupling Chadwick's grounding in reconstructed greek with Ventris's intuitive leaps to procede very fast towards a solution.

Some of the experts of the time cast doubt upon the possibility of such an untrained amateur solving something that respected professionsals like Evans and Kober had not, but within a year, the American Archaeologist Carl Blegen dug up another 400 tablets at Pylos. As these were new, and unseen by Ventris he used them to check if his results worked for these new tablets.

This easily proved that it was greek, giving him credibiliy at the young age of only 30. He returned to the Royal Academy where he had first seen the tablets as a schoolboy, on the 24th of June 1953 to give a speech about the decipherment. The next day The Times devoted a leader article to the news, and next to it was a piece about Hillary's conquest of Everest.

It revolutionised the understanding of the greeks, giving a voice and context to the heroes of Homer and also permenently discredited the increasingly discredited work of Evens. Although the context has been disparagingly described as laundry lists, it provedes a lot of social context for other pieces of archaeology.

Unfortunately, after solving Linear B, he gets massive credit from his contemparies as a linguistic archeologist, but his life goes to pot. In his last year, he got a job compiling the working library of an architect, but was suffering from classical depression, and later resigned.

His last letter on the 26th of August describes how disillusioned he was with his own intelligence and competance. He died in the middle of September 1956, after crashing into the back of a lorry which was parked in a lay-by. he died instantly.

There has been a lot of discussion on as to if he commited suicide, had an accident while distracted, or just had an accident due to poor night vision, but the truth over his death is unlikely to ever be discovered. The verdict at the time was that it was a sad accident.

His son died young from a heart disease, but put on the record how remote he was from his family. Ventris was not that interested in human relationships, and his relationship with his wife suffered even more because she was passive and he was very active and curious, leading them to grow apart.

There is a book, The Man who Deciphered Linear B by Andrew Robinson (2002) which covers this discovery in much more detail, as does The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick (1990).

You can also see what other stuff about this person is available from amazon In America