Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Decipherment of Linear B

This wonderful little book has been recommended quite a few times by my friend Sho_. Today it arrived from the library, and I'm so happy to have read it. Yes, it's slim and readable; with afterward and appendices less than 150 pages. It's a loving tribute to Michael Ventris, who 'broke the code' of Linear B, then died before his publication presenting it to the word, by his co-author, John Chadwick.

Why a book on such an obscure subject? Yes, it's about Mycenaean Greek! But more important, it's about how a young person with an interest in languages and training in architecture (Michael Ventris) could use this background to crack one of the biggest mysteries revealed by modern archaeology. And he contradicted the leading experts and prevailing opinion that Linear B could not be Greek. When he proved that the Mycenaeans spoke Greek, he pushed the beginnings of European history back many centuries.

Ventris won over the experts by doing careful analysis, and always sharing his work as he proceeded. In fact, after reading all the published research, he began his work by surveying the twelve leading experts with a series of questions. This questionnaire was penetrating enough that he got ten answers. After compiling these answers and adding his own analysis, he sent out the survey results to all the experts. By getting a good grasp of current scholarship, he had built a wonderful foundation on which to build his study of the inscriptions.

Although it has not been proven that Ventris did any code-breaking during the war, his method of analysis certainly owes much to that Bletchley Park work. Also discussed here is Alice Kober, whose early work set Ventris on the right path. Her card catalogue was invaluable to Ventris, after her life was cut short by cancer. Ventris always consulted other experts, and was generous in sharing credit. He never succeeded in proving what he set out to do, which was prove that Linear B was Etruscan. Instead, he put in the hard work of analysis of all the evidence, and followed the trail to the end, proving what he started out believing impossible: Linear B is ancient Greek.

Read this book, and be inspired! Grab it used or get it from the library as I did. Although available for Kindle, the symbols render badly in that edition.