The Canon: Documents in Mycenaean Greek. By Michael Ventris and John Chadwick

July 30, 2009

When I was born on 6 October 1951, a 29-year-old British architect was working away in a flat in the Highpoint apartments in Highgate, London. He was finally seeing glimmers of the light at the end of a long, half-century-old tunnel in which he had stumbled along for a dozen years.

On 1 July 1952, Michael Ventris announced on the BBC that he thought he had deciphered the Linear B syllabary and that he could read the clay tablets from the 14th-13th centuries BC that archaeologists, beginning with Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, had discovered on Crete and the Greek mainland.

Ventris' achievement was pronounced, by those with enough sophistication to grasp what he had done, the Everest of decipherments. It has since been compared, without hyperbole, to the contemporary discovery of DNA. But very few classicists, Homerists, Greek archaeologists, ancient historians or linguists then had any understanding of non-alphabetic scripts. The spelling system, explained by Ventris as a catechism of rules - eg, s and n before stop consonants such as t, p and k are not written - seemed arbitrary. Some sceptics played schoolboys' games, writing lines of the Aeneid in Linear B and then "deciphering" their lines as Achaean records, proving absolutely nothing. Others stood by the rightly great Sir Arthur's long-prevailing ideas that the language in the Linear B tablets would turn out not to be Greek and denied the validity of the decipherment. When a newly found tablet confirmed Ventris' decipherment, the stupidest or vilest even claimed that Ventris had had prior knowledge of the tablet and had rigged his decipherment to make sense of its text.

His knowledge of the Linear B script and texts was so advanced that he was impatient with scholars struggling to catch up. Yet between the summers of 1954 and 1955, he collaborated with Cambridge linguist John Chadwick in producing what we now call the bible of Linear B: Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Documents presented clear translations of and commentaries on 300 sample texts, organised by subject (eg, personnel, tribute and offerings, land use and management, metals and military equipment). Documents explained the state of the Greek language more than 400 years before our earliest alphabetic records. It listed over 50 names used by real people in the Greek Bronze Age, names that we thought had been invented by the oral poets who produced what we call Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

After careful editing by Chadwick, Documents was published in 1956, shortly after Ventris died in a tragic automobile accident. A second edition appeared in 1973, my first year in graduate school. A third edition, now in the making, has required the efforts of a large international team of specialists. Without Documents our field would have remained as impenetrable as average students find cuneiform studies or Egyptology. Because of Documents, it is virtually impossible for any scholar to write about Homer or Aegean prehistory without thinking of the Linear B evidence. Michael Ventris not only climbed Everest, he set down a path, called Documents, for others to hike up after him.

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