Obituary: John Chadwick

Jean Aitchison
Friday 04 December 1998 01:02

"I RECEIVED a note in the post this morning about a new tablet from Pylos. I'll write it up on the board for you." This typical start to a Cambridge University lecture on Mycenaean Greek gives some idea of the excitement of John Chadwick's lectures in the heady years following the discovery that the puzzling symbols on small clay tablets from Crete and mainland Greece dating from the second millenium BC were hiding a form of early Greek.

Chadwick's role in Mycenaean studies was a major one. Linear B - as the once unknown script was originally labelled - was initially deciphered by an architect, Michael Ventris, who in a BBC programme in 1952 suggested that Linear B was Greek.

Chadwick had recently been appointed to a lectureship in Classics at Cambridge, and was busy writing lectures. But after hearing Ventris's broadcast, he checked out the proposed solution with his usual thoroughness and caution. He realised after four days' work that Ventris was probably right. He then wrote - with typical modesty - to offer his services as a "mere philologist". Ventris accepted gratefully. Chadwick's close collaboration with him lasted until 1956, when Ventris was suddenly killed, aged 34, in a road accident.

With Ventris, Chadwick published an account of the decipherment, "Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean archives" in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1953) which broke Hellenic Society records when 1,000 offprint requests were received. This was followed by Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), an account of the Mycenaean writing system and language, together with a transcription and translation of 300 tablets from Knossos, Pylos and Mycenae. This has deservedly become a classic.

Chadwick was born in 1920 and educated at St Paul's School, then at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In the Second World War, he was involved in cryptography. His first academic post was as a lexicographer on the Oxford Latin Dictionary, and he retained a lifelong interest in lexicography: he compiled a lexicon of Swedenborg's Neo-Latin, and his latest book was entitled Lexicographica Graeca (1996). At Cambridge, he lectured in Classics from 1952, and was a Fellow of Downing College from 1960. He was the Perceval Maitland Laurence Reader in Classics 1969-84.

He lectured clearly and competently on all Greek dialects. But his work on Mycenaean is his major legacy to the Classical world, and a final volume of the Corpus of Mycenaean Inscriptions from Knossos (a collaborative effort led by him) will be published next year.

Chadwick was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1967, and was much in demand at international conferences. He received numerous honours from universities abroad: fittingly, his main recreation, he claimed, was "travel". Even after his retirement he continued working hard, and was recently (in October this year) given a major international award, the Italian Feltrinelli Prize of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

He was an exceptionally lucid and coherent lecturer, though he avoided eye contact with his audience, partly out of shyness, partly because the detailed "meatiness" of his lectures required attention to notes. Yet he was able to write and broadcast at a more popular level: The Decipherment of Linear B (1958), The Mycenaean World (1976) and Linear B and Related Scripts (1987) provided lucid, well-written surveys for non-specialists, and these works have been translated into numerous languages.

He had a good sense of humour, and showed a lighter side to those who knew him. Some traces of this came across in his work, as in a light-hearted evening talk on ancient Greek food and wine: if a mouse was found floating in a vat of wine, it had to be cremated, then the ashes scattered in the vat to purify it, we were told. His books also showed some hints of this quiet sense of humour: "we suspect something has gone wrong here," he commented when a potential translator of an inscription from Crete suggested including the line: "supreme - of the eggs the white".

John Chadwick was a warm-hearted person, who took great pains with his students, whether at undergraduate or research level. I remember him patiently and thoroughly going over points of detail when, as a student, I questioned him about a lecture I had missed. As a young researcher, I asked his advice about research topics: he talked through various possibilities at times when (I now realise) he must have been very busy.

He remained in touch with many of his old students - and they with him. He usually responded by return of post if, in later years, I wrote and asked his advice or opinion about any point of language. We once had a correspondence about whether "different from" in English was based on Latin, for example. When I was appointed to my current Oxford post, he gave me his Oxford gown, a typically generous gesture. His warm-hearted kindness will long be remembered by those who knew him.

John Chadwick, classical scholar: born 21 May 1920; Editorial Assistant, Oxford Latin Dictionary, Clarendon Press 1946-52; Assistant Lecturer in Classics, Cambridge University 1952-54, Lecturer in Classics 1954-66, Reader in Greek Language 1966-69, Perceval Maitland Laurence Reader in Classics 1969-84 (Emeritus); Collins Fellow, Downing College, Cambridge 1960-84, Honorary Fellow 1984-98; FBA 1967; married 1947 Joan Hill (one son); died 24 November 1998.

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