CRACKING THE CODE OF LINEAR B (Theodore Nash, 1/18/24, Antigone)

It is one thing to excavate material, but quite another to publish it. Though Evans did produce the monumental Palace of Minos (6 vols, 1921–35), this was more a synthesis of Minoan culture as he had come to understand it than a proper archaeological publication. When Evans died in 1941 (believing, if we can credit Maurice Bowra’s report, that Knossos had just been bombed by the Germans), the vast bulk of the tablets remained unpublished. So responsibility for this material passed to Sir John Myres, the recently retired Wykeham Professor of Ancient History at Oxford. Myres had worked with Evans on Crete as far back as the 1890s, but in his retirement lacked the vigour required for this difficult task.

That Evans had published so few of the tablets in his lifetime undoubtedly delayed the possibility of decipherment. When investigating an unknown script, the greater the quantity of evidence available, the greater the possibility that recurring patterns may become visible, and from these the underlying structures deduced. Alice Kober, a professor at Brooklyn College, embraced this challenge in spite of the limited material, managing to make observations that guided the way to a successful decipherment.

From 1943 to 1950, Kober published a series of articles in which she demonstrated that Linear B was used to spell an inflected language – that is, a language (like Latin and Greek) which changes the endings of words to express their grammatical function. Kober would eventually collaborate with Myres to get the Knossos tablets published, but died in 1950, aged only 43, too early to see flowers blossom in the garden that she had so painstakingly tended.

More significant even than the publication of the Knossos tablets was the beginning of excavation atop the Englianos ridge in Western Messenia in 1939. Here Carl Blegen, returning to Greece after his great excavations at Troy, would uncover the Palace of Nestor at the Homeric “sandy Pylos”. On the first day of excavation he uncovered the palace’s archive room, and in that year alone found some 600 tablets. He entrusted study and publication of these to one of his graduate students, Emmett Bennett, who, after the interruption of war, was able to complete from photographs a study of the Linear B signs in the Pylos tablets. This in 1947: in 1951 he added a full transcription of the same tablets, which would provide a major stimulus to Ventris.

Especially in recent years, which have seen a new celebration of Kober’s work, it is probably Bennett’s achievement which is the most overlooked in popular accounts. But it was he who established which variations were possible within individual signs (as I vs I) and which truly separated two signs (as G vs C). Without this, of course, no attempt at decipherment could stand on steady feet.

It was against this background that a young English architect took an interest in the problem. When Michael Ventris was still a pupil at Stowe School he saw a display of Greek and Minoan art at Burlington House; and by the sort of accident that changes the path of one’s life, was given an impromptu tour by Sir Arthur Evans, who happened also to be visiting. After viewing some tablets, Ventris had to confirm something that he had heard: “Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, Sir?”