Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

May 28, 2004

Seldom can a textbook be said to have defined a new academic discipline, but Documents in Mycenaean Greek , first published in 1956, did just that for Mycenaean studies.

Michael Ventris announced his decipherment of the Linear B script - discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900 - on BBC radio on July 1 1952.

Within days of the broadcast, he and John Chadwick formed a partnership to develop the decipherment, and just three years later they completed this comprehensive survey. Tragically, Ventris never saw the book in print; he died in September 1956, a few weeks before its publication.

In 1983, I bought a copy of the second edition of Documents . As an undergraduate and then postgraduate, I found the book invaluable in guiding my first steps and early research in the study of Linear B, and I have turned to it regularly ever since for clearly presented and carefully considered interpretations of key texts in this newly discovered historical corpus.

Documents - which is dedicated to Heinrich Schliemann, "the father of Mycenaean archaeology" - has a foreword by Alan Wace, then emeritus professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge University and an opponent of Evans' Cretocentric view of cultural developments in the Bronze Age Aegean. First books in new fields rarely offer a comprehensive and balanced picture of their subjects, but Documents is an exception; hence its continuing value and rarity on the second-hand market.

It contains an overview of the Aegean scripts, the decipherment and the value of the clay tablets as historical documents for the Aegean Late Bronze Age, followed by a detailed commentary on a selection of 300 key texts (of about 4,000 then known) ranging in subject from personnel to land tenure to textile production and military equipment. Finally, there is a glossary of Linear B words - in effect the first Mycenaean Greek dictionary - plus a bibliography and index.

The second edition, published in 1973, was dedicated to Ventris and edited by Chadwick alone. Rather than reset the whole text, Cambridge University Press inserted a substantial "Additional commentary" by Chadwick that was keyed to the existing text so that the original interpretations could be compared with the new.

All those who study the Aegean Late Bronze Age have long felt the need for a third edition of this superb text, and I am delighted to say that one is under way, this time produced by a team of specialists under the joint editorship of an Oxford and a Cambridge scholar, Anna Morpurgo Davies and John Killen. And here I have to declare an interest, for I am one of the team. Without the first and second editions of this book, I might never have entered the field.

John Bennet is professor of Aegean archaeology, Sheffield University.

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