Gems on the back of an old postcard

Minoans - The Decipherment of Linear B and the Ventris-Chadwick Correspondence
April 2, 2004

Just over 100 years ago, in April 1900, Sir Arthur Evans commenced his excavations at the palatial site of Knossos on Crete. Although not the first at Knossos (Minos Kalokairinos had excavated there in 1878), Evans' excavations and his resultant multivolume magnum opus, The Palace of Minos at Knossos , published between 1921 and 1935, set out a pervasive view not just of Knossos, but also of the civilisation Evans named "Minoan". His vision dominated the field in the English-speaking world for much of the 20th century.

Perhaps surprisingly, there have been relatively few attempts to bring Minoan archaeology as a whole to a wider public. John Pendlebury's The Archaeology of Crete (1939) and Sinclair Hood's The Minoans: Crete in the Bronze Age (1971) stand out as notable exceptions in a small field. One reason for this is a feeling that progress in the field is measured primarily by the acquisition of more data and the pace of discovery cannot adequately be reflected in book-length treatments but is best managed by publication in academic journals.

The arrival of the 21st century brought a moment for reflection on Minoan archaeology, seen, for example, in Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking Minoan Archaeology , edited by Yiannis Hamilakis. Hamilakis' volume seeks new approaches to Minoan archaeology, not simply new data. Lesley Fitton's book subscribes to a different view of Minoan archaeology, outlined in her preface: "Minoan society is incompletely understood, but that should not mean that it becomes a source for wild reconstructions or outlandish interpretations.... [W]e must let the facts speak for themselves." Not an attempt to rethink the field, then, Fitton's book nevertheless offers a considered and balanced overview of the grand sweep of Minoan archaeology, from the first permanent colonisation of Crete by humans c. 7000BC to the end of the Bronze Age six millennia later, taking full account of recent discoveries. For the general reader, to whom the theoretical debates in the field may seem less relevant, this book offers a timely addition to the limited popular literature on Minoan archaeology.

Fitton follows a reassuring path. After setting out her view of archaeology's role, she offers a concise account of the physical nature of the island in "Geography, landscape and chronology". Her narrative then progresses in rigorously chronological fashion from: "Crete before the palaces", a 4,000-year tour from Neolithic colonisation to the end of the early Bronze Age, to "Protopalatial Crete", the period of the first palatial structures, and to "Neopalatial Crete", the period many, including Fitton, consider the pinnacle of Minoan achievement.

The past 20 years have seen many changes in our understanding of how the "Neopalatial" period ended and its aftermath. In "From the final palace period to the end of Minoan civilisation", Fitton describes how the eruption of Thera did not directly precipitate neopalatial collapse and, for a few generations, we know from Linear B documents discovered at the site by Evans, Knossos dominated much of the island in a period now called the Final or Third Palace period, before political power fragmented towards the end of the Bronze Age.

Given Fitton's successful earlier historiographical foray into the study of Greek prehistory, The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age (1995), her final chapter on "The mythological legacy and the reception of Minoan Crete" is a welcome coda. Here, she briefly charts the "afterlife" of Minoan Crete and brings interest in the island and its rich cultural heritage nicely back to the present. Her book offers a balanced and up-to-date, if slightly cautious, survey of the state of affairs in the study of the Minoan culture of Crete, generously illustrated with the author's own photographs.

While Minoan archaeology is just over a century old, its younger sibling, Mycenaean studies - the study of the late Bronze Age of Minoan Crete and mainland Greece through documents written in the Linear B script - is only just moving into later middle age. This generation gap reflects the fact that it took more than 50 years for Linear B to be deciphered, as it was in 1952 by Michael Ventris, the decipherment being at least partly facilitated by the discovery of more documents in the mainland site of Pylos in the southwestern Peloponnese.

Lisa Bendall's catalogue accompanied an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2003, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first academic publication, in the Journal of Hellenic Studies , of the decipherment by Ventris and John Chadwick, his Cambridge collaborator.

This catalogue draws on selected items from the correspondence between Ventris and Chadwick and the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum to re-tell the story of the decipherment and to give brief sketches of the contributions by the major players.

The catalogue is arranged in short sections corresponding to the information panels in the original exhibition. These range from background information on Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece and the Aegean scripts, to progress in the decipherment and the intense period of collaboration between Ventris and Chadwick that culminated in Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), their masterful summary of the state of knowledge published only four years after Ventris announced his decipherment. Documents, photographs and objects illustrate Ventris' (sadly short) academic life post-decipherment, the origins of Mycenaean studies as an international academic discipline, Ventris' death and an overall account of the decipherment outlining the contributions of Sir John Myres, Emmett L.

Bennett Jr, Alice Kober and Ventris himself. There are some gems, notably a postcard - written in Linear B - from Chadwick to Ventris announcing the delivery of their book and an extract from a letter on the geography of the Pylos kingdom in Ventris' characteristic hand containing a sketch of the Messenian coast to illustrate his points.

Although much of the narrative is available elsewhere and there are lengthier scholarly accounts of the decipherment, Bendall has selected some previously unpublished delights from the collaboration between Ventris and Chadwick that contribute to an excellent companion to the 2003 exhibition.

John Bennet is professor of Aegean archaeology, Sheffield University.

Minoans: Peoples of the Past

Author - J. Lesley Fitton
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 224
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 0 7141 2140 1

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