The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, by Andrew Robinson

The decoding of a fascinating human story
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A bearded sage leaps from his bath shouting "Eureka!" A boy sits in an orchard watching an apple drop. In Paris, a scholar staring at hieroglyphs leaps up crying "Je tiens l'affaire!" ("I've got it") and falls into a dead faint.

The sudden perceptions of those towering geniuses – Archimedes, Newton, Champollion – are all iconic moments of insight of the kind included by Roland Barthes in his essay on "The Brain of Einstein". And here is a new one: the story of Michael Ventris. The legend goes as follows: baffled scholars are trying to decipher a mysterious script, "Linear B", inscribed on clay tablets which Sir Arthur Evans has excavated at Knossos. Suddenly, Ventris has a brilliant insight. The language is Greek. This proves to be true and the secrets of the tablets are revealed.

Except that this is the mythologised version. As Andrew Robinson's excellent study reveals, the real story was more complex.

Ventris was the son of a part-Polish mother who brought him up in a block of flats designed by Lubetkin, amid Picasso paintings. As a schoolboy he was with a group shown around an exhibition by the 85-year-old Evans. They stood before a cabinet containing some tablets, and Evans remarked that no one had been able to read them. A little voice piped up, "Did you say the tablets haven't been deciphered, Sir?"

This was the moment of serendipity which brought together Ventris and his quest. Yet at first, like Evans and all other scholars, Ventris followed a misleading assumption. They believed the language could not possibly be Greek. It seems obvious now that Greek should have been their first presumption, and the reasons for its rejection are instructive. Evans thought that Minoan civilisation was vastly superior to that of mainland Greece, and so must have a distinctive language.

Ventris himself believed at first that the language was some form of Etruscan, and later understood the reasons for the bias. The scholars were deliberately rejecting Nazi cultural doctrine, which saw the Etruscans as prototypes of non-Aryan vices and the Greeks as embodying all racial virtues.

Ventris's originality, his determination and his gift for languages eventually overcame his preconceptions and led him to the truth: that Linear B is a form of Greek from five centuries before Homer. If we can pick out Ventris's equivalent of the bathwater or the apple, it was probably when he woke up his wife one summer night in 1952 with what she described as "a long story about symbols for chariots".

Four years later, Ventris, who had been suffering from severe depression, was killed in a car crash at the age of 34.

Robinson understands how to make the complexities of pictograms clear to the non-expert. The book gives many examples, and would appeal to anyone interested in crosswords, codes and cyphers, but it also tells a fascinating human story.