King Minos's Modest Scribe

Andrew Robinson | Posted on 01/01/10

The late spring of 1953 was an extraordinary time for human endeavour in three utterly different fields. In Asia, two mountain climbers, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, made the first ascent of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. In Europe, two scientists collaborating at Cambridge University, Francis Crick and James Watson, published in the journal Nature their discovery of the “double helix” structure of DNA, the basic molecule of life, and speculatively outlined its far-reaching genetic implications. In the very same month, the amateur classicist and professional architect Michael Ventris’s tentative 1952 decipherment of Europe’s earliest writing — clay tablets from Crete written in the script Minoan Linear B during the middle of the second millennium BC, predating the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Ramses the Great — was sensationally confirmed by archaeologist Carl Blegen’s discovery of a new tablet equivalent to the Rosetta Stone. To general surprise and excitement, the Minoan language behind the mysterious signs of Linear B turned out to be an archaic dialect of ancient Greek, some five hundred years older than Homer and a thousand years older than Plato.

Britain’s leading newspaper, The Times, ignored the double helix (unthinkable now!) but ran a leader article about the climbing of Everest titled “Men and mountains.” This hailed “a story that will live as long as courage and comradeship are honoured.” Just beneath it was a second leader, “On the threshold?” about Linear B. This spoke of the potentially imminent revelation of an ancient language and culture predating the Trojan War, “as distant from the Greek of Homer as is the English of Chaucer from that which we speak today.”

Experts dubbed Ventris’s decipherment “the Everest of Greek archaeology.” An American classicist remarked, “Mr. Ventris would have no trouble getting a job as scribe for King Minos.” A French scholar noted, “Devant les siècles son oeuvre est faite.” (“In the centuries to come his reputation is secure.”) Today, his achievement ranks above even the nineteenth-century reading of Egyptian hieroglyphic and Babylonian cuneiform, or the late twentieth-century reading of the Mayan glyphs of Central America, as the greatest intellectual triumph in archaeological decipherment.

All three of the above achievements involved a combination of perseverance, imagination, and risk-taking — physical or intellectual — common to nearly all breakthroughs. But the decipherment of Linear B required also a generous measure of a quality that is perhaps less obvious in the work of geniuses, whether in the sciences or the arts: humility. Ventris had an exceptionally open mind, an unusual eagerness to learn from his mistakes, and a rare absence of egotism. Immediately after his breakthrough, he told a fellow researcher, Cambridge classicist John Chadwick, “I don’t feel very strong copyright in the suggested solution, because every other day I get so doubtful about the whole thing that I’d almost rather it was someone else’s. In fact, I’d like as many people as possible to be thinking about the problem on these lines, as there are so many loose ends still dangling.”

In the half century prior to 1953, a score of well-established academic specialists in Europe and the United States had tried hard to crack the code of Linear B, beginning with the dominant Minoan archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered the script at ancient Knossos in 1900. Having made some useful progress, all of them eventually got stuck.

Ventris first encountered Linear B as a wonder-struck fourteen-year-old schoolboy visiting Evans’s London exhibition on the Minoan world in 1936. He never attended a university, and he worked on the problem at home, essentially alone, unconnected with any institution. Rather than a conventional academic training, what clinched his success was his willingness to share his thoughts selflessly with other researchers, to test his many imaginative theories against the evidence of the clay tablets with analytical detachment, and finally to admit to himself and to other scholars that his initial, cherished hypothesis about the identity of the language of Linear B — Etruscan — must be wrong. First published in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1940, when its unknown author was a mere eighteen years old, the Etruscan hypothesis was abandoned by Ventris in 1952 with the frank admission: “Though it runs completely counter to everything I’ve said in the past, I’m now almost completely convinced that the tablets are in GREEK.” Openness and self-criticism were integral to Ventris’s approach. Even after his breakthrough had been accepted by the majority of scholars, he nonetheless chose to caution a spontaneously cheering audience of professional classicists at an international conference in 1954: “Ten people can be just as wrong as one.”

If there is one word that sums up Michael Ventris, it is unconventional. Almost everyone who knew him remarked on the ease and charm of his company, but he could also be exceptionally withdrawn and uncommunicative. He was a dazzling polyglot who took pride in speaking most major European languages, yet he felt close to hardly anyone, and those few were mainly English-speakers. As an architect and decipherer he believed firmly in cross-fertilization of ideas and methods, yet he kept his many personal relationships in remarkably separate compartments. His tastes in architecture were thoroughly modern and anti-classical, but his interest in Linear B required an intimate knowledge of the classical world. He had a substantial private income, but he was not interested in living the lifestyle of the rich and had socialist tendencies. Physically, he looked much more like a tanned, glamorous sportsman (he was an avid skier) than an etiolated scholar, a City gent far more than an absent-minded professor. It would be easy to continue with this list of paradoxes. Above all, Ventris showed a modesty that verged on diffidence — “almost alarmingly so,” according to an architect friend — despite having as much (indeed more) to boast about than many more famous than he. Even his tragically premature death in 1956, at the age of thirty-four, was unconventional; no one knows whether it was due to a car accident or to suicide.

Without a shadow of doubt, this freedom from orthodox thinking and attitudes was the key to Ventris’s success as the decipherer of Linear B. However, it is difficult — despite the hundreds of immensely detailed pages of his “Work Notes” that he freely circulated to other scholars in the early 1950s — to pinpoint exactly how such a key unlocked the ancient symbols. John Chadwick, who became Ventris’s academic collaborator in applying the decipherment to the Linear B tablets in the months and years after he had achieved his breakthrough, made a stab at explaining the working of the magic, long after Ventris’s death. “The achievement of the decipherment,” he wrote, “required painstaking analysis and sound judgement, but at the same time an element of genius, the ability to take a leap in the dark, but then to find firm ground on the other side. Few discoveries are made solely by processes of logical deduction. At some point the researcher is obliged to chance a guess, to venture an unlikely hypothesis; what matters is whether he can control the leap of imagination, and have the honesty to evaluate the results soberly. Only after the leap has been made is it possible to go back over the working and discover the logical basis which provided the necessary springboard.”

The decipherment was certainly not a triumph of logical deduction. In an otherwise excellent book on cryptography, The Codebreakers, author David Kahn writes that the Linear B decipherment “shines with a clean Euclidean beauty. In it, man thinks more purely rationally, depending less upon external information and more upon logical manipulation of the data to derive new conclusions, than perhaps anywhere else in the humanities.” But this is nonsense, comforting though such an ideal may be to those who seek at least a few refuges of pure rationality outside the “hard” sciences. In reality, the decipherment was something much more fascinating.

The myth that science proceeds only by the “scientific method,” in which irrefutable knowledge of the physical world accumulates from the gradual accretion of experimental observations, dies hard, but die it should. One hesitates to quote Einstein here, given his iconic reputation as a rationalist, but he knew very well that science works through many kinds of mental activity. Meditating on the mystery of how Kepler discovered that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits (a geometrical form that was itself a discovery of the ancient Greek geometers), Einstein wrote: “It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things. Kepler’s marvelous achievement is a particularly fine example of the fact that knowledge cannot spring from experience alone but only from a comparison of the inventions of the intellect with the facts of observation.” Ventris, I believe, would have entirely agreed with this. Inventing was what he was doing in February 1952 when he guessed that three adjacent sign groups visible in the Cretan tablets might contain the name of a particular Minoan town, such as Knossos or its port Amnisos, followed by the word for its male inhabitants, followed by the word for its female inhabitants. His painstaking comparison of this hypothesis with the actual sign groups fitted the facts and suggested that the language was Greek. His hypothesis about Etruscan names in the tablets did not, and as a “scientist” Ventris abandoned it, albeit very reluctantly.

“Whom the gods love dies young,” said the ancient Greek dramatist Menander a millennium after the disappearance of Linear B around 1200 BC. Michael Ventris, one cannot help but think, notwithstanding his personal lack of religious feeling, offers another instance of this famous proverb. His formidable intelligence, his generosity to others, and his humility in the face of the unknown have endowed the decipherment of Linear B with a unique and enduring aura for both scientists and humanities scholars alike