Carved with curious but distinctive signs
February 11, 2024 2:22 AM   Subscribe

June 1, 1952, was Whitsunday, and provided the young Michael Ventris with a convenient break from his duties as an architect. At the end of the day he would write his 20th Work Note on Minoan Language Research, with the somewhat disbelieving title, “Are the Knossos and Pylos Tablets Written in Greek?” Responsibility was disclaimed: this was only “a frivolous digression”, that would “sooner or later come to an impasse, or dissipate itself in absurdities.” It became instead one of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century. from Cracking the Code of Linear B by Theodore Nash
posted by chavenet (16 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I just recently watched an hour-long lecture by Prof. Tom Palaima, an excerpt in Aegean Scripts, about Alice Kober, the other pivotal figure in the decipherment of Linear B. It's a really fascinating story.
posted by Kattullus at 3:20 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]

A fascinating story well told. Truly the Beat of the Web
posted by whuppy at 4:59 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]

How funny! I'm in the middle of reading 1117 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and the Minoans and Mycenaeans figure heavily in the trade relations of that time.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:04 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]

This was super interesting. Dense but with some fabulous examples that make the concepts clear. Thanks for the post and best of luck to this young PhD student!
posted by bluesky43 at 7:59 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Now do Linear A!
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:19 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]

The groundbreaking work of Alice Kober is mentioned here, gratefully, but the linked posting and Margalit Fox's book really spell out how many of the dots she connected.
posted by the sobsister at 8:28 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]

Michael Ventris had really nice handwriting
posted by scruss at 9:16 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]

What a fascinating story. I love the postcard written in Linear B - such an appropriate flourish.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:54 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]

It's interesting because this story involves an incredible amount of skilled and painstaking work by multiple scholars and yet at its center is less a brilliant flash of insight so much as "wow, wouldn't it be amazing if this script happened to represent a form of a very high prestige language nearby?" It makes a weird kind of sense that it was a non-specialist who had the idea, because it's the kind of connection non-specialists often make when approaching long-standing technical puzzles, and it's usually wrong. In this case, it wasn't. I wonder if, had Linear B encoded some obscure dialect of Hittite, the problem would ever have been solved.

I'm glad to see the increased recognition of the value of Kober's work making into the more "popular" press.

At first glance, this article doesn't gesture, as others do, towards the possibility that Ventris killed himself.
posted by praemunire at 10:08 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]

Fabulous story. Thank you.
posted by bq at 9:32 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

From the first picture, one can safely say Michael Ventris certainly had movie star good looks.
posted by y2karl at 10:32 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Mod note: [By the way, this post has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 12:58 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

oooh I missed this yesterday. bookmarked and bookmarked!!! looking forward to digging in. (I have long loved the story of Michael Ventris but never done a deep dive.)
posted by supermedusa at 12:47 PM on February 12

I loved this, thank you for posting it!


Metafilter: “highly condensed, almost unreadable, barely comprehensible, but thoroughly sensational.”
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 3:09 PM on February 13

I love stuff like this--there's also a chapter on it in Simon Singh's The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking, which digresses a bit into deciphering ancient languages.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:53 PM on February 13

I have deciphered Linear A but this margin is too narrow to contain it.
posted by neuron at 9:07 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

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