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The Life of Michael Ventris

Michael Ventris, 1922 - 1956: Architect and Decipherer of Linear B

Michael Ventris was born on 12 July 1922 to an Indian Army officer and the daughter of a wealthy Polish landowner. He was educated on the continent and at Stowe School in England. He spoke several languages at an early age and showed a precocious interest in ancient scripts, having bought a book on Egyptian Hieroglyphs – written in German – when he was seven.

His interest in Linear B began in 1936 when he went with a school group to an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the British School at Athens. Sir Arthur Evans, then 85 years old, happened to be present in the gallery and showed the boys his finds from Knossos, including the Linear B documents. His teacher remembers Ventris asking: “Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, Sir?” Thus began a life-long fascination with “the Minoan problem”.

Ventris wrote to Evans — who kindly wrote back — and soon published his first article on the subject, arguing that the language of Linear B was likely to be related to Etruscan, a pre-Roman language of Italy: this came out in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1940, when Ventris was just 18. The same year, Ventris began a course at the Architectural Association School in Bedford Square to embark on his chosen profession as an architect.  

In 1942 Ventris married Lois (‘Betty’) Knox-Niven, a fellow student at the Architectural Association. Later that year, he was called up and joined the Royal Air Force. After a training course in Canada in 1943, he served as a navigator, but throughout his war service, he never forgot the Linear B problem. Evans had died in 1941 — just in time to be spared news of the occupation of Crete — and Ventris corresponded thereafter with Sir John Myres, who had been entrusted by Evans with the publication of the Linear B tablets of Knossos in Scripta Minoa II.

When the war ended, instead of being demobilised Ventris was sent to Germany because of his excellence with languages. In addition to German he spoke Russian, and helped liaise with the Russian Army. He was finally demobilised in 1946 and immediately on his release visited Myres in Oxford, where he was invited to help publish the Knossos tablets. Ventris was too busy with architecture at the time, so declined the offer but stayed in touch with Myres.

Ventris finished his architectural degree in 1948, and was again invited to help with Scripta Minoa II. Myres had at this point also brought in the American scholar Alice Kober, and Ventris went to meet both of them in Oxford in August. The meeting was not a great success, and Ventris again withdrew, although he still corresponded with Myres. It has been said that Ventris withdrew because, as an amateur, he was intimidated by academia. While this may be partly true — and by all accounts, many academics themselves found Kober and Myres rather formidable! — a crucial factor was disagreement over how the tablets should be classified. Great progress on this was being made by another American scholar, Emmett L. Bennett, who was publishing the Pylos tablets found in 1939, and Ventris felt that if Scripta Minoa II did not adopt Bennett’s scheme, the publication would be obsolete almost as soon as it appeared. In this he was justified, and a new set of transcriptions were later prepared by himself, Chadwick and Bennett.

In 1950 Ventris sent a questionnaire to Linear B scholars around the world, asking their opinions on the current state of research into the script; he then wrote up their answers, together with his own thoughts, and circulated this as the “Mid-Century Report” on Linear B, which he intended to be his last work on the subject. But the problem would not leave him alone, and he soon gave up his architectural job to work full-time on Linear B. His progress was recorded in a series of “Work Notes” which, like the Mid-Century Report, he circulated to scholars in various countries who were also working on the script.

Ventris was well on what would turn out to be the right track by February 1952, when he wrote to Myres about a possible reading of place-names in the tablets from Knossos; and yet, until a very late stage, he remained convinced that the language behind Linear B was related to Etruscan, just as he had first argued in 1940. But over the next few months, as the code began to “break”, it became increasingly clear that, to his astonishment, the Linear B documents were, after all, written in Greek. (For a fuller account of the decipherment, click here.)

Ventris had been invited to give a talk on the BBC Third Programme about Myres’s publication of the Knossos tablets. He took the opportunity to announce his decipherment and it was broadcast to the world on 1 July 1952. The talk was heard by John Chadwick, a newly-appointed lecturer in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, who, after getting a copy of Ventris’ material from Myres, was the first to write to him with congratulations, offering his help “if there is anything a mere philologist can do”. Ventris wrote back that “I’ve been feeling the need of a “mere philologist” to keep me on the right lines” and the two began to collaborate, first on the publication of the decipherment (‘Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean Archives’, published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies in 1953) and then on their joint book, Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956) – a book still of great importance for Mycenologists today.

Ventris’s work with Linear B kept him busy, but he did not altogether neglect architecture. He designed a house for the family in Highgate, and in January 1956 began an Architectural Research Fellowship, working on the classification of data for architects. He also worked as an archaeological draughtsman for the British Excavations at Emporio, on Chios, in 1954 and 1955, under the directorship of John (now Sir John) Boardman.

Tragically, just weeks before the publication of Documents in Mycenaean Greek, Ventris died in a car accident on 6 September 1956.

Ventris was awarded an OBE and an annual award in his honour, the Michael Ventris Award, was established in 1957. These awards, given to young Linear B scholars and architects, continue to the present day, under the auspices of the London Institute of Classical Studies and the Architectural Association, where Ventris took his degree.

 

Sources:

  • J. Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (Cambridge, 1992)
  • A. Robinson, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: the story of Michael Ventris (Thames & Hudson, 2002)

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