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What Was Greek to Them?

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Ashmolean Museum, Oxford/Art Archive at Art Resource
The Queen’s Megaron room at Knossos; watercolor, early twentieth century. It was at the Knossos site that Arthur Evans found tablets covered with a script he called ‘Linear B.’

Stories of code-breaking and decipherment usually end at the moment the code is finally cracked, or the once-mysterious language demystified and translated. The narrative thrill is in the chase, in the rivalries between the various would-be code-breakers, and if possible (for this adds another dimension to the excitement) in the vested national interests at stake. The British still like to fancy that Egyptian hieroglyphs were first deciphered by their own polymath, Thomas Young. The French, of course, know that it was all done by Jean-François Champollion.

There tends to be a “tortoise-and-the-hare” element to the tales too. Will the winner be the brilliant maverick who cuts corners, but has the lucky hunch? Or will it be the low-key, patient systematizers, hunched over their boxes of file cards? Is successful code-breaking a collaborative enterprise, on the wartime Bletchley Park model? Or is it a job for a lone—and obsessive—genius? In fact, for the general public, one of the most appealing sides to these stories of decipherment is that the heroes and heroines so often turn out not to be highly trained, narrow specialists, but “outsiders” of different kinds. Linda Schele, for example, who was a key figure in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, had a background in studio art. Michael Ventris was an architect by day; cracking Linear B, the most important script of prehistoric Greece, was his hobby, for evenings and weekends. In our fantasies we can all become code-breakers.

But then what? The sequel to the decipherment is little more than a final, self-evident coda to most of these stories. “Enigma” is broken, so the Allies win the war; hieroglyphs are decoded, so the culture of pharaonic Egypt is revealed to us. What this conceals, however, are all the further disputes and rivalries that regularly follow the successful cracking of the language or of the code. Just how correct was it? And, if it was, what does it tell us about the culture concerned, or the history of the period? Whose theories are now confirmed or disproved? These controversies can be just as exciting and bitter as those leading up to the decipherment, and probably more significant. But we rarely get to hear about them before the heroic tale ends.

Margalit Fox’s account of the decipherment of Linear B—The Riddle of the Labyrinth—falls into the classic pattern of a code-breaking story. She briskly introduces Arthur Evans, who in the early years of the twentieth century first discovered tablets covered in this mysterious script during his excavations of the prehistoric “palace” at Knossos in Crete and who coined the term “Linear B” (to distinguish it from an earlier and still largely impenetrable system of writing that he called “Linear A”). Then, after a few frankly lightweight pages on the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, she brings on her two rivals in the race to crack Linear B.

First: the nervous, chain-smoking, and outwardly “unprepossessing” American Alice Kober, who taught general classics at Brooklyn College, but whose research passion was the Linear B tablets. Second: the British architect and amateur philologist Michael Ventris, who in 1952, just two years after Kober’s early death, solved the puzzle by working out that this strange syllabic script was actually a form of written Greek. It is a woman versus man, American versus British tale (with elements of class and privilege thrown in—Kober, “the upstart…daughter of working-class immigrants” to the US, Ventris, the well-connected son of an army officer, with a public, i.e., private, school education).

Kober plays the part of the careful, patient systematizer—though during postwar austerity, in place of file cards she was forced to make do with cut-up church circulars and library slips, and to store them in used cigarette cartons (in the archive at Austin, Texas, they apparently still exude “a faint whiff of midcentury tobacco”). She deplored any bold speculation or leap of the imagination. In fact, when Ventris, in a gesture of collaboration, circulated a questionnaire to others he knew to be working on the script—including such questions as “What kind of language is represented in the Linear B inscriptions, and to what other known languages is it related?”—Kober was one of only two recipients not to complete it. “I have no intention of answering the questionnaire,” she wrote to Ventris in 1950. “In my opinion it represents a step in the wrong direction and is a complete waste of time.”

For Kober any speculation about what the language might be was useless until the script had been properly catalogued, each symbol inventoried, and its relationship to all the other symbols fully analyzed. Her work consisted in producing grid after grid, attempting to show—with no preconception about the identity or even “family” of the language concerned—how each little squiggle related to the others. It is grimly austere stuff, but on this Fox is at her best. She explains Kober’s analysis of Linear B brilliantly and with a sense of excitement, despite the fact that for most readers this is a still-incomprehensible script of a language they don’t understand.

Indeed, I know of no other account of any decipherment that gives a clearer idea for nonspecialists of how some of the detailed technicalities of the process actually work. But Fox wants to do more than explain the methods. She is also a powerful and partisan advocate of Kober’s critical part in the cracking of Linear B, as rivaling, or even outstripping, that of the more famous Ventris. In her words, he was standing “on the small, round shoulders of an unheralded American giant.”

In her introduction to The Riddle of the Labyrinth, she hints that we should see the Brooklyn classicist rather in the mode of Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist whose critical contribution in the 1950s to the discovery of the structure of DNA was almost entirely written out of the story—as her male colleagues, Francis Crick and James Watson, were given (or took) the credit. There are, it is true, several similarities. Both, for example, died very young (Kober at forty-three), which made it easier for them to be overlooked. Both suffered the kind of discrimination against women in academic life typical of the mid-twentieth century (the sad story of Kober’s failure to secure a research position at the University of Pennsylvania should be recommended reading for any twenty-first-century female professor who would like to count her own blessings). But in the end, it is not clear that Kober’s contribution—in comparison to Ventris’s—was quite as important as Fox would like us to think.

Some key advances toward the decipherment of the script were, in fact, made independently by both of them. They had each worked out—Kober, to be fair, slightly before Ventris—that a little “button” symbol on the tablets must represent the sign for “and” (placed after the word it was linking, like the Latin -que). But as Fox herself concedes, as impressive and rigorous as Kober’s methods were, some of her conclusions were technically incorrect—even if they pointed in the right direction. In particular, she believed that she had demonstrated that the language of the tablets was inflected. Indeed it was inflected, but she had not quite shown that. As Ventris came to realize, the arrangements of symbols that Kober believed to be the signs of inflection were actually different forms of the ending of place names.

As often in the history of decipherment, proper names proved to be the key to unlocking the code. Ventris’s interest in Linear B had started as a schoolboy, and for many years he had cherished the idea that the language of the script was some version of Etruscan. (Kober was right to think that this was completely daft.) By the early 1950s—when many more Linear B tablets had been discovered outside Knossos, from different prehistoric sites in mainland Greece—he began to change direction. He spotted that some of the distinctive groups of symbols that Kober had isolated were found only in the tablets from Knossos. “What sort of words, Ventris wondered, might be particular to one place but not another?” His hunch was that they might be local place names. After all (to use Fox’s modern analogy), people who live in New York now tend to have in their possession many more documents that include the words “City of New York” than “State of California.”

His next step, Fox explains, was a wild experiment. There was later evidence from the island of Cyprus of Greek being written in a syllabary—a system of writing in which each syllable rather than each sound or phoneme has its own sign; and it had long been recognized that this syllabary included symbols that looked rather like some of those used in Linear B. In this case, however, the sound values of the symbols were known. Ventris’s experiment—to oversimplify somewhat—was to match up as closely as he could the symbols in Kober’s distinctive Linear B groups with those from Cyprus. Hey presto, three “words” emerged that sounded much like “Knossos,” “Amnisos,” and “Tulissos”—three well-known Greek place names on the island of Crete.

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An example of Linear B from the Knossos tablets

With a few sound values for Linear B script now tentatively assigned, and with a hint that the language of the script might be Greek, Ventris was able to move ahead relatively quickly to decode more symbols and to convince himself that he really was dealing with an early form of Greek. It was a discovery that he first announced in a BBC radio broadcast on July 1, 1952, opening with a proud comparison of himself to Champollion. Kober’s hard, patient, nonspeculative work had certainly helped; but the final decipherment was made by Ventris in one “great intuitive leap.”

Maybe. But in addition to such speculation, Fox also follows the story of Ventris a little further, to its tragic sequel. For after a few rather unhappy years (in which he drifted apart from his wife and family, and failed to reestablish his architectural career) he was killed in 1956, at the age of thirty-four, when the car he was driving crashed into a parked truck. Like others before her, Fox suspects—though there is no proof whatever—that he may have committed suicide; that the celebrity he won from the decipherment had, in some way, ruined his life. Maybe. But she also, usefully, includes a final chapter reflecting briefly on what the decoding of Linear B has actually told us about the culture of the prehistoric Mediterranean.

It had been long been suspected, simply from their form and layout, that the tablets were not likely to contain any lost prehistoric literature (no ancestors of Homer, for example), but consisted essentially of lists, tabulations, and other administrative documents. And so it proved to be. What we have are bureaucratic records, compiled by the scribes of the so-called “palaces” of prehistoric Greece in the second millennium BC—lists of produce stored and exchanged, inventories of furniture, precious metals, and livestock, details of gifts given to the gods. Though it may have been disappointing to those who might still have held out hope for some primitive epic poetry, the deciphered tablets have given us a clearer idea than we could ever have imagined of the infrastructure underlying the proto-states of the prehistoric Mediterranean.

But it is a pity that Fox has nothing to say on the bitter and very public controversies that followed the decipherment, which became, at the time, even bigger news than the code-breaking itself. For it is misleading to imply that Ventris’s radio announcement in July 1952 was somehow the end of the Linear B story. In rather more interesting ways, it was the beginning.

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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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