Michael Ventris - a Strangely English Genius

Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested language form of Greek. The script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries.The oldest Mycenaean writing dates to about 1450 BC. It is descended from the older Linear A, an undeciphered earlier script used for writing the Minoan language, as is the later Cypriot syllabary, which also recorded Greek. Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean civilization during the Bronze Age Collapse. It is also the only one of the three "Linears" (the third being Linear C, aka Cypro-Minoan 1) to be deciphered, in this case by the strangely English genius - the self-taught linguist, Michael Ventris.
Michael George Francis Ventris, OBE (12 July 1922 – 6 September 1956) was an English linguist and architect who, along with John Chadwick and Alice Kober, deciphered Linear B, a previously unknown ancient script discovered at Knossos by Arthur Evans.
A prodigy in languages, Ventris had pursued the decipherment as an avocation since his teen-age years.
After creating a new field of study, Ventris died in a mysterious automobile accident a few weeks before publication of his first definitive work, 'Documents in Mycenaean Greek'.


Ventris was born into a traditional army family then coming to an end.
His father, Edward Francis Vereker Ventris, reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army; he might have gone further had he not contracted tuberculosis and retired. His grandfather, Francis Ventris, was a Major-General who ended his career as Commander of British Forces in China.
Both men served in the Middle and Far East, the younger especially in India. During one of his stays in England, Michael's future father married Anna Dorothea Janasz (Dora), the daughter of a wealthy immigrant landholder from Poland.
Her photographs reveal a slender, dark-haired beauty.
They had one child, Michael. Health was an important family consideration right from the beginning of Michael's life.
He had chronic bronchial asthma. The family resided mainly in Switzerland for eight years, which they could well afford to do.
Switzerland had a reputation for being especially healthy.
A number of health centers, or spas, catered to the physical well-being of those who could afford to attend.
Ventris started school in Gstaad, where classes were taught only in French and German. He was soon reasonably fluent in both languages, learning also the dialect of German spoken in Switzerland.
He had the facility of learning a language within a matter of weeks, which led ultimately to his acquisition of roughly a dozen languages.
His mother must have spoken Polish, as he learned that as well, all before the age of eight.
At that age he was reading Adolf Erman's Die Hieroglyphen in German.
In 1931 the Ventrises came home.
His father's physical condition was visibly worsening year by year.
From 1931 to 1935 Michael attended Bickley Hill School in Stowe.
His parents, unable to live together since 1932, divorced in 1935, when he was 13.

Stowe School
Then he won a scholarship to Stowe School, quartered in an 18th-century stately home.
At Stowe he learned some Latin and classical Greek.
He did not do outstanding work there.
By then he was spending most of his spare time learning as much as he could about Linear B, some of his study time being spent under the covers at night with a flash-light.

Stowe School
When he was not away at school, Michael lived with his mother, before 1935 in coastal hotels, after 1935 (when they were built) in the avant garde Berthold Lubetkin's Highpoint modernist apartments in Highgate.
His mother's acquaintances, who frequented the house, included many sculptors, painters and writers of the day.
The money for her sophisticated life style came from the Polish estates.
Young Adult Michael's father died in 1938 when Michael was 16 years old.
Dora became administrator of the estate.
Hard times, however, lay ahead.
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 the family holdings in that country were gone, and all income from there ceased.
In 1940 Dora's father died.
The family became practically destitute.
Michael lost his mother to clinical depression and an overdose of barbiturates.
He never spoke of her, assuming instead an ebullient and energetic manner in whatever he decided to do, a trait which won him numerous friends.
At the same time they noted that he had a dark and mysterious side as well, associated with feelings that he was a fraud, and not a true genius.

Naum Gabo
A friend of the family, Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, took Michael under his wing.
Michael later said that Gabo was the most family he had ever had.
It may have been at Gabo's house that he began the study of Russian.
He had resolved on architecture for a career.
He enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture.
There he met and married Lois, who preferred to be called Betty.
Her social background was similar to what Ventris's had been: her family was well-to-do, she had travelled in Europe, and she was interested in architecture, in addition to which she was popular and was considered very beautiful.
He did not complete his architecture studies, being conscripted in 1942.

Handley Page Halifax
He chose the Royal Air Force (RAF). His preference was for navigator rather than pilot, and he completed the extensive training in the UK and Canada, to qualify early in 1944 and be commissioned.
While training, he studied Russian intensively for several weeks, the purpose of which, if any, is not clear.
He took part in the bombing of Germany, as aircrew on the Handley Page Halifax with No. 76 Squadron RAF, initially at RAF Breighton and then at RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor.
After the conclusion of the war he served out the rest of his term on the ground in Germany, for which he was chosen because of his knowledge of Russian.
His duties are unclear.
His friends all assumed he was completing intelligence assignments, interpreting his denials as part of a legal gag.


After the war he worked briefly in Sweden, learning enough Swedish to communicate with scholars in it.
Then he came home to complete his architectural education with honors in 1948 and settled down with Lois working as an architect.
He designed schools for the Ministry of Education.
Then he and his wife designed a home for themselves and their family.
He had two children, a son, Nikki (1942–1984) and a daughter, Tessa (1946–). Concurrently he stepped up his effort on Linear B, discovering finally that it was Greek, a revelation to an academic public that had more or less given up on the mysterious script.
No one, not even Ventris, suspected that it is the earliest known form of Greek.
Ventris was awarded an OBE in 1955 for "services to Mycenaean paleography."

Michael Ventris
The upshot of this triumph turned into tragedy for Ventris.
He was still in his early 30,s and the world was at his feet: but which way should he go ?
The academic world did not entice such a free spirit, so he returned to architecture.
But at the end of six months, he was becoming disenchanted.
On 5 September 1956, he left his new house in Hampstead late at night and driving fast down the Barnet bypass, crashed into the back of a stationary lorry and was killed instantly: he was only 34.
The suspicion remains that if it was not exactly suicide, it was something close to it.
Should one recall perhaps that another frustrated classicist, Lawrence of Arabia, was also killed on his motorbike ?
And, of course, both men were deeply emeshed in the shadowy world of British Intelliigence.
Perhaps Ventris knew too much, or could not be trusted ?


Evan's Reconstruction of Knossos
Arthur Evans
At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating Knossos, an ancient city on the island of Crete.
In doing so he uncovered a great many clay tablets inscribed with an unknown script. Some were older and were named Linear A.
The bulk were of more recent vintage, and were dubbed Linear B. Evans spent the next several decades trying to decipher both, to no avail.
In 1936, Evans hosted an exhibition of Cretan archaeology at Burlington House in London, home of the Royal Academy.
It was the jubilee anniversary (50 years) of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, contemporaneous owners and managers of the Knossos site.
Linear B
Evans had given the site to them some years previously. Villa Ariadne, Evans's home there, was now part of the school.
Boys from Stowe school were in attendance at one lecture and tour conducted by Evans himself at age 85. Ventris, 14 years old, was present and remembered Evans walking with a stick.
The stick was undoubtedly the cane named Prodger which Evans carried all his life to assist him with his short-sightedness and night blindness.
Evans held up tablets of the unknown scripts for the audience to see.
During the interview period following the lecture, Ventris immediately confirmed that Linear B was as yet undeciphered, and determined to decipher it.
Ventris's initial theory was that Etruscan and Linear B were related and that this might provide a key to decipherment.
Although this proved incorrect, it was a link he continued to explore until the early 1950s.

Reconstruction of the Interior of the Palace at Knossos
Shortly after Evans died, Alice Kober noted that certain words in Linear B inscriptions had changing word endings - perhaps declensions in the manner of Latin or Greek.
Using this clue, Ventris constructed a series of grids associating the symbols on the tablets with consonants and vowels.
While which consonants and vowels these were remained mysterious, Ventris learned enough about the structure of the underlying language to begin guessing.
Some Linear B tablets had been discovered on the Greek mainland, and there was reason to believe that some of the chains of symbols he had encountered on the Cretan tablets were names.
Noting that certain names appeared only in the Cretan texts, Ventris made the inspired guess that those names applied to cities on the island.
This proved to be correct.
Armed with the symbols he could decipher from this, Ventris soon unlocked much text and determined that the underlying language of Linear B was in fact Greek.

Reconstruction of the Palace at Knossos
This overturned Evans's theories of Minoan history by establishing that Cretan civilization, at least in the later periods associated with the Linear B tablets, had been part of Mycenean Greece.
Linear B itself is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested language form of Greek.
The script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries.
The oldest Mycenaean writing dates to about 1450 BC.
It is descended from the older Linear A, a still undeciphered earlier script used for writing the Minoan language, as is the later Cypriot syllabary, which also recorded Greek.
Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean civilization during the Bronze Age Collapse.
The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, provides no evidence of the use of writing.
It is also the only one of the three "Linears" (the third being Linear C, aka Cypro-Minoan 1) to be deciphered. Linear B consists of around 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs.
These ideograms or "signifying" signs symbolize objects or commodities.
They have no phonetic value, and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence.
The application of Linear B appears to have been confined to administrative contexts.
In all the thousands of clay tablets, a relatively small number of different "hands" have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete).
From this fact, it could be thought that the script was used by only a guild of professional scribes who served the central palaces.
Once the palaces were destroyed, the script disappeared.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the discovery that Linear B was Greek. Hitherto the general assumption had been that the Greeks had invaded Greece in the Dark Ages in a series of invasions, first the Dorians, followed by the Ionians, bringing with them the different dialects of Greek.
Suddenly this was all wrong. The Greeks were already in Greece, and Greek becomes the world’s prime example of a long lived language. There was also the further implication that Minoan Linear B was not essentially Minoan at all but Mycenaean, and represented a Mycenaean takeover of the Minoan palaces in their final stages and that Minoan Linear A, which is still undeciphered but is generally considered to be non-Greek, represents the original Minoan language.

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