Michael Ventris

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Michael George Francis Ventris, OBE (12 July 1922 – 6 September 1956) was an English architect and classical scholar who, along with John Chadwick, was responsible for the decipherment of Linear B.

Ventris was educated in Switzerland and at Stowe School. (Stowe is an 18th century country house; by contrast, his Polish mother, Dorothea (Dora) Ventris (born Anna Dorota Janasz), lived in Berthold Lubetkin's Highpoint modernist apartments in Highgate). He could speak six European languages and read Latin and classical Greek. He enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1940 and graduated in 1948, after interrupting his training to serve as a navigator in the Royal Air Force. Ventris was awarded an OBE in 1955 for "services to Mycenaean paleography." A few years after deciphering Linear B in 1951-1953, Ventris, who himself lived in Hampstead, died in a car crash, aged 34.

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Linear B

At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologist Sir 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.

Part of the difficulty stemmed from Evans himself — he had strong opinions about the nature of Cretan civilization and was convinced that Linear B was a language he called "Minoan". A powerful political force in the academic world, he succeeded in cutting off any investigation into the possibility that the language on the tablets was Greek, despite some hints that this was the case.

Ventris' 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.

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 they 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, he 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. This overturned Evans' 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.

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