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What Was Greek to Them?

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Tony Blau/Camera Press/Redux
Michael Ventris copying Linear B inscriptions from Arthur Evans’s Scripta Minoa, 1953

For a start, there were plenty of professional scholars who simply did not accept that Ventris was right—either that the language of the tablets was Greek, or (if it was) that the precise details of his decipherment were correct. In the years before his death, he lived through what became known as “the Great Ventris Controversy.” Ventris was now collaborating with John Chadwick, a linguist in Cambridge, but the opposition to him was led by Arthur Beattie, professor of Greek at Edinburgh (known fondly as “Linear Beattie”), who ran his own “anti-decipherment” seminar, entirely devoted to proving Ventris wrong. Some of his arguments were strictly academic, but after Ventris’s death they became bitterly personal—he accused Ventris of fraud, and of fiddling his data.

Beattie was, of course, as fanatically obsessed by Linear B as either Kober or Ventris had been, and he had even less sense of perspective than either of them. But he was, for a time at least, followed by a good number of much more balanced specialists. As late as 1957, Sinclair Hood—the far from fanatical director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens—remained hesitant about Ventris’s work. Appearing in another of what were to be many BBC radio broadcasts on the subject, Hood cautiously observed, “The results of the decipherment are now in controversy. I myself wonder very much whether the language of the script is really Greek, but with every reservation.”

The reasons for this scholarly hesitation are clear enough. First, although the idea that the language of the tablets is Greek is now more or less universally accepted, Ventris certainly did make errors. His initial breakthrough did not open up everything at a stroke. Intemperate as he was, Beattie was right to point to some mistakes in Ventris’s interpretations; in fact even now, half a century later, there are still ongoing arguments about what some of the Linear B words are—and even more about what they mean.

Second, and more important, were the serious problems that came with identifying the language of the tablets as a form of Greek. For that radically overturned one standard picture of the prehistoric Aegean in the second millennium BC—and one standard view of when, where, and how Greek speakers arrived on the scene. The implication of Ventris’s interpretation, in other words, went far beyond anything to do with the economic infrastructure of the “palaces,” and how many cattle they had, or how they made their textiles. His claims that Greek was the language of Linear B potentially demanded rethinking the established broad sweep of Aegean prehistory, as well as the relationship between its two most famous cultures: the Minoans of Crete and the Mycenaeans of the mainland. It is not surprising that people might be reluctant to face all that, just on the basis of an ambitious piece of code-breaking.

The standard view (though it had its rivals) was that the “Greeks” did not arrive in Greece until after the prehistoric palaces—in Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, and other places—had collapsed, toward the end of the second millennium BC. That is to say, the “coming of the Greeks” into Greece fell between the end of “prehistory” in around 1100 BC and the beginning of what would become “classical Greece,” starting from the Homeric epics in the eighth century BC. The indisputable fact that, before the fall of the prehistoric palace culture (quite how long before the fall would prove controversial), scribes were writing in an early form of the Greek language made that picture completely untenable. But what followed from that? Was Greek culture really a more or less unbroken continuum, based on a single language, from the second millennium BC onward? If so, then some of the crudest and most jingoistic claims of modern Greek nationalism seemed to have been proved right.

Moses Finley, who had arrived in England from Rutgers—escaping pursuit by the House Un-American Activities Committee—in 1955, in the middle of the Great Ventris Controversy, was one who urged caution. By now teaching ancient history in Cambridge, and speaking in the same radio broadcast as Sinclair Hood in 1957, he insisted:

The most striking thing about Mycenaean society is that it was not Greek. Some members of that society spoke and wrote the Greek language…but the civilization was not in any significant or proper sense that which we know as Greek. Like “English,” the word “Greek” describes three different things: a language, a nationality and a culture. The three may coincide…[but] the criss-crossings and combinations which exist among these separate elements in many parts of the world are quite intricate.

For Finley, the prehistoric palace societies of Crete and mainland Greece had, in their social and organizational life, much more in common with their Near Eastern equivalents, Hittite or Babylonian. “We must stop being mesmerized by the Greek language.”

All the same, the pressing question still remained: Even if we are not talking about cultural continuity, when—and how—did Greek speakers first come to what we call Greece? This raised all kinds of highly technical questions, many still not resolved. Some archaeologists tried to pin their arrival to the beginning of the characteristically Mycenaean civilization, in around 1600 BC. Others argued for a date up to seven hundred years earlier (when there are clear archaeological traces of disruption in Greece). The most judicious, if somewhat disappointing, modern answers now tend to shelve the big problem, by suggesting that the Greeks never “came” to Greece, in the sense of a mass movement of peoples, at all; but a Greek-speaking community “was formed” there, by persons and processes unknown, maybe through a gradual amalgamation of incomers and the “native” population.

And there was just as tricky a question about the relationship of the prehistoric civilization on Crete (the Minoans, whom Evans had wished to represent as rather gentle, arty, and trading types) and that on the mainland (the tough, warrior Mycenaeans). If they were both writing the same language in the same script (as the discoveries on Linear B on several mainland sites proved), what did that say about the links between the two cultures? There were clear signs in the material remains at Knossos of a period of Mycenaean influence from sometime around 1400 BC. Had the Mycenaeans conquered Crete? Had they just taken advantage of some natural disaster, like an earthquake, to move in? Or were there merely much closer links than we had imagined between the elites across the Aegean? We still do not know for sure. But it does seem likely that Linear B was an adaptation of the earlier Linear A system of writing on Crete, designed to be a way of inscribing the new language of Greek—and that Linear B spread back from there to the mainland.

But this is where precise dating comes to be an issue—and where the last great public controversy about Linear B arises. Evans had dated the tablets he discovered in Knossos to around 1400 BC; those from the mainland seem to be about two hundred years later. But how likely is that discrepancy, given the very clear similarity of the writing patterns? Did they really stay the same over centuries?

In July 1960, Leonard Palmer, the professor of comparative philology at Oxford, had a front-page scoop in a British Sunday newspaper, The Observer: “The Truth about Knossos,” it was headed. In it he argued, with a panoply of archaeological details, that the tablets found at Knossos, and deciphered by Ventris, were a couple of centuries later than Evans had suggested (that is, circa 1200 BC, not circa 1400 BC, and so more or less contemporary with those of the mainland); that Evans had been desperate to assign the tablets to the heyday of Minoan civilization as he saw it, rather than to its final phase; and that he had falsified his excavation reports to support that claim.

The resulting storm was driven by a violent combination of scholarly disagreement, a desire to defend Evans’s probity, and a snobbish distaste for washing dirty academic linen in the Sunday papers. The Times Literary Supplement (expressing uncharacteristically popular sentiments, in characteristically donnish terms) swiftly published an editorial defending Palmer’s use of The Observer:

We have recently witnessed the shock and shame of some professors when another professor [i.e., Palmer], having read a learned paper to a learned society, failed to keep the profani decently procul, and turned an honest copper by selling his stuff to the popular press before it was unveiled in a specialist journal. We see the hands of horror raised…. But who is not a vulgarizer?

And it goes on to extol famous “vulgarizers” from Darwin to Leavis. The jibe was not lost on Finley (who had attacked Palmer’s article and his overall thesis). Along with Geoffrey Kirk, the Homeric scholar, he wrote to the TLS to explain that he was all for “high vulgarization,” but “not of the kind of oracular presentation with which Professor Palmer has obscured both the issues and the reputations of other scholars.”

Many others piled on to support Evans’s honesty, including John Boardman of Oxford—who had at one stage been engaged on a collaborative project with Palmer, to investigate the notes of Evans’s excavation. The curious problem is—seen now at a distance of fifty years—that Palmer’s main contention about the date was not exactly right. But it was not exactly wrong either. The date of the Knossos tablets (and the question of whether they are all of the same date) continues to be disputed, and it was almost certainly later than Evans thought.

What Kober or Ventris would have made of all this we can only imagine. Ventris did at least have one foot in the world of “vulgarization” (if not, he would hardly have announced his discovery on BBC radio); Kober, so far as I know, had none. But the disputes that Ventris, and behind him Kober, launched are surely just as much part of the story of the decipherment of Linear B as what led up to the first proud announcement in July 1952. We can only understand the story if we extend it to a few years after the heroic moment when the code was first cracked—where there is still much to be understood.

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