Michael Ventris

Michael Ventris

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Michael George Francis Ventris, OBE (12 July 1922 – 6 September 1956) was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 architect and classical scholar who, along with John Chadwick
John Chadwick
John Chadwick was an English linguist and classical scholar most famous for his role in deciphering Linear B, along with Michael Ventris.-Early life and education:...

, was responsible for the decipherment
Decipherment is the analysis of documents written in ancient languages, where the language is unknown, or knowledge of the language has been lost....

 of Linear B
Linear B
Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, an early form of Greek. It pre-dated the Greek alphabet by several centuries and seems to have died out with the fall of Mycenaean civilization...


Ventris was educated in Switzerland
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

 and at Stowe School
Stowe School
Stowe School is an independent school in Stowe, Buckinghamshire. It was founded on 11 May 1923 by J. F. Roxburgh, initially with 99 male pupils. It is a member of the Rugby Group and Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The school is also a member of the G20 Schools Group...

. (Stowe is an 18th century country house
Stowe, Buckinghamshire
Stowe is a civil parish and former village about northwest of Buckingham in the Aylesbury Vale district of Buckinghamshire, England. The parish includes the hamlets of Boycott, Dadford and Lamport....

; by contrast, his Polish
thumb|right|180px|The state flag of [[Poland]] as used by Polish government and diplomatic authoritiesThe Polish people, or Poles , are a nation indigenous to Poland. They are united by the Polish language, which belongs to the historical Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages of Central Europe...

 mother, Dorothea
-Saints:*Dorothea of Alexandria , a martyr*Dorothea of Caesarea , a martyr, patron saint of florists*Dorothea of Montau , Roman Catholic saint, hermitess and visionary-Aristocracy:...

 (Dora) Ventris (born Anna Dorota Janasz), lived in Berthold Lubetkin
Berthold Lubetkin
Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin was a Russian émigré architect who pioneered modernist design in Britain in the 1930s. His work includes the Highpoint housing complex, London Zoo penguin pool, Finsbury Health Centre and Spa Green Estate.-Early years:Berthold Lubetkin was born in Tiflis into a Jewish...

's Highpoint modernist apartments in Highgate
Highgate is an area of North London on the north-eastern corner of Hampstead Heath.Highgate is one of the most expensive London suburbs in which to live. It has an active conservation body, the Highgate Society, to protect its character....

.) He could speak six European languages and read Latin and classical Greek. He enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture
Architectural Association School of Architecture
The Architectural Association School of Architecture, more usually known as the AA, is an architectural school in London, United Kingdom...

 in 1940 and graduated in 1948, after interrupting his training to serve as a navigator in the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

. Ventris was awarded an OBE in 1955 for "services to Mycenaean paleography." A few years after deciphering Linear B in 1951-1953, Ventris, who lived in Hampstead
Hampstead is an area of London, England, north-west of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden in Inner London, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland...

, died in a car crash, aged 34.

Linear B

At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologist
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

 Sir Arthur Evans
Arthur Evans
Sir Arthur John Evans FRS was a British archaeologist most famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete and for developing the concept of Minoan civilization from the structures and artifacts found there and elsewhere throughout eastern Mediterranean...

 began excavating Knossos
Knossos , also known as Labyrinth, or Knossos Palace, is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and probably the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace appears as a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and store rooms close to a central square...

, an ancient city on the island of Crete
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the thirteen administrative regions of Greece. It forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece while retaining its own local cultural traits...

. In doing so he uncovered a great many clay tablets inscribed with an unknown script. Some were older and were named Linear A
Linear A
Linear A is one of two scripts used in ancient Crete before Mycenaean Greek Linear B; Cretan hieroglyphs is the second script. In Minoan times, before the Mycenaean Greek dominion, Linear A was the official script for the palaces and religious activities, and hieroglyphs were mainly used on seals....

. 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
Minoan civilization
The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization that arose on the island of Crete and flourished from approximately the 27th century BC to the 15th century BC. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of the British archaeologist Arthur Evans...

 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
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

, despite some hints that this was the case.

Ventris' initial theory was that Etruscan
Etruscan language
The Etruscan language was spoken and written by the Etruscan civilization, in what is present-day Italy, in the ancient region of Etruria and in parts of Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna...

 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
Alice Kober
Alice Kober was an American classical scholar and archaeologist best known for laying the groundwork for the decipherment of Linear B....

 noted that certain words in Linear B inscriptions had changing word endings — perhaps declensions in the manner of Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 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
Mycenae is an archaeological site in Greece, located about 90 km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. Argos is 11 km to the south; Corinth, 48 km to the north...



Further reading

Fiction on the untimely demise of M. Ventris during his effort to decipher Linear A as a Hellenic language

External links