Linear B decipherment: credit where credit is due

LINEAR B is an ancient Greek language used by the Mycenaeans from mainland ‘Greece’ in the 2nd millennium BC. Although it was found at Knossos in Crete it is not a Minoan language (‘Minoan’ is Sir Arthur Evans’ name for ancient Cretans). Linear A is most likely Minoan but we do not know what that language is. The reason so much Linear B has been found at Knossos is because the Mycenaeans took over there around 1450BC. The clay tablets inscribed with Linear B have survived because, although originally sun dried, they were hardened, and so preserved, by the fire that destroyed Knossos (and also Pylos on mainland Greece).

Linear B

Linear B is a combination of pictogram and linear signs. The former were relatively easy to identify (well, some of them). Alice Kober (see below) was able to interpret male from female animals.

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 Pictograms – using the bottom one (sheep, etc) and the numbers’ code below, see if you can decipher some of the Co 903 Linear B tablet below (answer at the end)

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Linear B tablet Co 903 from Knossos (1450 BC)

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Sir Arthur Evans excavated at Knossos from 1900 and discovered three different types of ‘writing’. He called them hieroglyphics (engraved pictures on sealstones), Linear A and Linear B. Linear A was limited in number so undecipherable but Evans had some 2000 Linear B tablets from Knossos and he was determined to decipher them himself but to no avail. Unfortunately, in his determination to be the first to discover the language he refused to allowed anyone else to see the tablets (other than a small number – see below) during his life-time.

Painting of Arthur Evans (from the Ashmolean Museum)

On the 1st July 1952, Michael Ventris (an architect), after years of study, announced on the radio that he had deciphered Linear B as ancient Greek. There is no doubt that Ventris was a genius but he would not have made his discovery so soon had it not been for the America classicist, Alice Kober. She had been privately working on Linear B since the beginning of the 1930s and was also a bit of genius herself. As with Ventris, she was good at learning languages and, whilst holding down a full-time job as a teacher at Brooklyn College, she learnt ancient Hittite, Old Irish, Akkadian, Tocharian, Sumerian, Old Persian, Basque, Chinese and Sanskrit. She felt she needed these languages to prepare herself for the study of Linear B. She also taught herself braille so she could teach classics to the blind.

MichaelVentris

Michael Ventris

Her main problem was the lack of tablets she had available to her to study. She only had about 200 – around 150 of which Evans had published and another 38 which Johannes Sundwall had published, without permission, having seen them at a museum in Crete – much to Evans’ annoyance. On Evans death in 1941, Kober had a breakthrough – Evans’s executor, Sir John Myers, allowed her to see Evans’s drawings of all his Linear B finds. She visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where they were kept and had 6 weeks to copy as many as she could.

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Alice Kober 

Not long afterwards, the American archaeologist, Carl Blegen, unearthed many more Linear B tablets at Pylos on the west of mainland Greece. Kober wrote to him to ask if she could see them but he declined. At this time she was working with Emmett L. Bennett Jnr. It was Bennett who worked out that there were 89 syllabic signs to Linear B – this repertoire of signs was crucial to both Kober’s and Ventris’ work.

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Emmett L. Bennett Jnr.

Kober worked on a card system database and end up with some 180,000 cards plus around 40 notebooks. Perhaps her main contribution was the vastly important discovery that Linear B made use of inflection. This means it has a different ending to the word depending on gender and/or declension – like Greek and Latin (remember amo, amas, amat … at school?). She discovered this by finding a group of three different endings to the same beginning of a word – Ventris called it her ‘triplets’. She then drew up a grid showing the relationships among the characteristics in the abstract – a phonetic pattern of consonants and vowels (which signs shared a consonant and which signs shared a vowel). Syllabic patterns were beginning to emerge. Sadly she died, probably of cancer (she was a heavy smoker), in May 1950 at the age of 43, before she was able to conclude her work. This was left to Ventris.

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Kober’s ‘triplets’ – first two characters are the same  but with different underlined endings: inflection

It was this grid and knowledge that Linear B was inflected that Ventris worked from and realised that the endings were not grammatical but derivational (extending the size of words – e.g. just add ing on to an English word). He decided that Kober’s triplets might be place names and this led him to identify words such as the town of Amnisos (a-mi-ni-so) and from here the derivation fitted in: a-mi-ni-si-jo  meaning  ‘men of Amnissos’. The same then applied to Knossos (ko-no-so) and so forth. Simples! Linear B was Greek. He had cracked it!

hurray

However, in finally deciphering the language he gave Kober little credit for it on his first radio broadcast and only occasionally mentioned her involvement thereafter.

Even after his announcement Ventris was still in doubt, as were some academics. It wasn’t until Blegen came across 400 more tablets at Pylos in the Summer of 1952 that Ventris’ theory was confirmed and the sceptics faded. After studying the tablets in Spring 1953, Blegen obligingly sent his report to Ventris and one tablet in particular, the ‘tripod’ tablet, ta 641, stood out (see picture below). This tablet, using Ventris’ decipherment, contained the words ti-ri-po-de and ti-ri-po (dark and light blue rectangles on picture below) meaning, in Greek, two tripods and tripod respectively, with a picture of a tripod associated with each ‘sentence’ further along the tablet (red squares on picture below) [1].   On the line below, using Ventris’ decipherment, were the words di-pa  me-zo-e  qe-to-ro-we (green rectangle) meaning, in Greek, large four-handle goblet  and next to that a picture of a large four-handle goblet (yellow square); then the words  di-pa  me-zo-e  ti-ri-we-e (brown rectangle) meaning large three-handle goblet with a picture of a large three-handle goblet next to it (purple square). It all fitted!

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Linear B ‘tripod’ tablet Ta 641: top line, in dark blue rectangle, ti-ri-po-de (two tripods), light blue rectangle ti-ri-po (tripod), in red squares a tripod with the number of them next (vertical dash);  middle line, in green rectangle, di-pa  me-zo-e  qe-to-ro-we (large four-handle goblet), in yellow square a large four-handle goblet; in brown rectangle,  di-pa  me-zo-e  ti-ri-we-e (large three-handle goblet), and in purple square a large three-handle goblet

Ventiris first set eyes on Linear B when he was aged 14. Some of the tablets were on display at Burlington House in London and he was visiting with his school group from Stowe. Evans was there and told Ventris and his chums that it had not yet been deciphered. From that day Ventris was determined to have a go at it. It had been his ‘life-time’ ambition, but now, in 1952, having done it, he was at a loss as to what to do next. He wasn’t interested in the language itself, just cracking its ‘codes’. He returned to architecture but soon lost interest and suffered depression. Then, in September 1956, aged 34, he crashed his car and was killed. Some speculate it was suicide (his mother had depression and committed suicide), others put it down to a tragic accident. We’ll never know.

So, when we talk about Linear B decipherment, Michael Ventris’ name always comes to the fore. Although credit must go to him for finally breaking the ‘code’, some credit must go to Emmett L. Bennett Jnr and a great deal of credit must also go to Alice Kober. So there you go.

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Footnote

[1] The full reading of the left-hand tripod in the picture is: ti-ri-po-de  a(i)-ke-u  ke-re-si-jo  we-ke  II (2)  meaning ‘two tripods cauldrons of “Cretan” workmanship’ The full reading of the right-hand tripos is: ti-ri-po  e-me  po-de  o-wo-we I (1)  meaning ‘one tripod cauldron of “Cretan” workmanship’.

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Further info:

On Ventris, see YouTube video A Very English Genius – 7 parts; Click here for Part 1  (see Part 4 for Bennett and Kober)

Reading: A good book on Evans’, Kober’s and Ventris’ contributions to Linear B is Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Profile Books, 2014; on Linear B see John Chadwick’s Reading Linear B and related scripts, The British Museum Press, 2001 (Chadwick was a great help to Ventris after his announcement that he had deciphered the script).

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Next week: Back to Hollywood and fact or fiction – Spartacus

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Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

Dr Quentin St John Balacava appeared late for our meeting. He said:

“My dear Artemus, profound apologies old boy, but I just could not find a parking space. Got one eventually. I Looked up to heaven and said, ‘Lord take pity on me.  If you find me a parking place I will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of my life and give up Whisky.’ Miraculously, a parking place appeared. So I looked up again and said, ‘Never mind Lord, I found one.”’

Art Smth

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