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The Scholars Who Deciphered the Ancient Greek Script Linear B

linear b michael ventris alice kober
An example of Linear B script, the earliest known Greek writing. The script was deciphered with the work of many scholars but most prominently Michael Ventris and Alice Kober. Credit: Sharon Molerus, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If not for the incredible determination and talent of two scholars, Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, the ancient Greek script Linear B would likely remain a mystery today.

While many linguists and archaeologists contributed to the decipherment of the script, Ventris’s and Kober’s discoveries were some of the most important.

Linear B is considered the oldest known form of Greek, and the script predates the Greek alphabet by centuries.

It is related to Linear A, an older script that remains undeciphered. Linear A was used to write the language of the Minoans, a Bronze-Age power that was centered on Crete while Linear B has now been linked to the Myceneans, who were present throughout the Peloponnese and Crete.

When first discovered, however, Linear B was also thought to represent the language of the Minoans, not the Mycenaeans. It was only through the work of scholars Kober and Ventris that this link could be established.

Linear B

Mycenaean Greek, the earliest known form of the language, was expressed using Linear B. The earliest writing with the script dates to around 1450 BC.

As a script, Linear B contains eighty-seven syllabic signs, or symbols that represent sounds, and over a hundred ideographic signs, or symbols that represent objects, units of measurement, or commodities. These ideographic signs, also referred to as “signifying signs” do not correlate to a phonetic sound but to a word describing an object.

It seems that Linear B was used only in administrative contexts—not for literature or other endeavors. Fascinatingly, from the thousands of clay tablets upon which Linear B was inscribed, archaeologists have determined that not many different authors wrote the texts.

In Pylos, a Mycenaean center in the western Peloponnese, there seems to have been only forty-five different authors while in Knossos, Crete, there were only sixty-six. Likely, there was a class of scribes that wrote all texts in each Mycenaean palace.

Astonishingly, with the fall of the Mycenaeans during the Bronze Age Collapse, a period during which countless powerful Bronze-Age empires around the Mediterranean fell, the entire Linear B script was forgotten.

During the period that followed the collapse, which is known as the Greek Dark Ages, there is no evidence of writing in the Greek world.

Centuries later, unaware of the existence of Linear B, ancient Greeks developed their own script, the Greek alphabet, to write the same language.

To date, Linear B is the only one of the Bronze Age Aegean scripts to be deciphered.

Michael Ventris, an English architect and self-taught linguist, cracked the code to the mysterious script, which haunted codebreakers, linguists, and archaeologists for decades.

Alice Kober’s incredible contributions to deciphering Linear B

The contributions of Alice Kober, a Hungarian-American classicist from New York, made Ventris’ astounding accomplishment possible.

Kober, who was born in New York in 1906, was always an exceptional student. She attended Hunter College after receiving a scholarship in 1924 and began learning Latin and Ancient Greek there.

After graduating from Hunter College, Kober received her master’s degree and later PHD in Classics from Columbia University.

Throughout her studies, Kober taught at Hunter College and the associated Hunter College High School. Her love of teaching brought her to Brooklyn College, where she began as an associate professor of Classics and remained for the rest of her career.

Beginning as a graduate student in the 1930s, Kober began studying Linear B, which was then undeciphered, on her own.

The dedicated classicist maintained meticulous records on nearly two hundred thousand note cards that she had cut out by hand, and she filled over forty notebooks with her findings.

Kober developed a process in which she hand-punched holes onto each piece of data she recorded, and the hole corresponded to a way that the data could be sorted. This was extremely tiring work that proved essential in deciphering the script, as it made it possible to visualize connections and patterns in the script.

The scholar was an expert in ancient and modern languages, including Hittite, Old Irish, Akkadian, Sumerian, Basque, Chinese, and Sanskrit among many others.

After her work on the script became known in 1946, Kober received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study Linear B full-time. Then, she met English archaeologist John Linton Myres, who helped her gain access to a trove of Linear B inscriptions copied down by Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos.

Kober’s most significant contribution to the struggle to decipher Linear B was her discovery that the language it represented was inflected, or that words in the language changed form depending on their grammatical function.

Although Kober made significant developments in decoding the script, her progress was cut short when she had to return to her teaching position. Much of her time was also taken up by proofreading and correcting Myres’ book Scripta Minoa, for which she received no credit.

Tragically, Kober died in 1950 at the age of just forty-three. A lifelong, heavy smoker, Kober likely died of cancer.

Michael Ventris uses Alice Kober’s discoveries as inspiration

After her death, Michael Ventris, an architect and amateur linguist, built upon Kober’s work, and eventually went on to decipher Linear B.

Ventris, working on a hunch, was the first scholar to determine that the script was Mycenaean Greek.

Born into a military family in 1922, he spent much of his youth studying languages and was fascinated with deciphering codes from a young age.

The scholar’s family moved to Switzerland when he was just a child, and it was there that his passion for learning languages began. The child learned French and German at an unbelievable pace and soon became fluent in Swiss German as well.

He was said to be able to learn a new language in a matter of weeks, an ability that allowed him to become fluent in numerous tongues.

After eight years in Switzerland, Ventris and his family returned to England, and his parents divorced four years later in 1935. The teenager received a scholarship from the Stowe School, where he began studying Ancient Greek and Latin.

Although extremely intelligent, Ventris did not receive good grades in school, as he spent all of his free time studying Linear B, allowing him little time to finish school work.

He became interested in the script after hearing Sir Arthur Evans, the man who excavated Knossos, give a talk about Linear B in 1936, when Ventris was just fourteen years-old.

He developed a theory, one which turned out to be incorrect, that Linear B was linked to Etruscan, a mysterious but known language that was prevalent in ancient Italy until it was overcome by Latin.

At just eighteen years old, Ventris published an article titled “Introducing the Minoan Language” in the American Journal of Archaeology in which he explored the theory.

His mother, who came from a high class and a Polish-Jewish family, supported Ventris’ endeavors, and introduced him to her friends, who were scholars and artists.

Her income was cut off, however, when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, a year after Ventris’ father died. After his grandfather died as well, the scholar’s mother struggled with clinical depression and died of an overdose of barbiturates soon after.

According to his friends, Ventris was so hurt by her death that he never spoke of her. Rather, he became extremely extroverted and excited about any matter he decided to pursue.

In 1942, Ventris was conscripted into the Royal Air Force and became a navigator. Although never confirmed, many suspect that he also worked as a codebreaker.

After the war, he was able to complete his studies as an architect and married his wife, Lois, who was also an architect.

Michael Ventris’ monumental discovery

Ventris soon learned of Alice Kober’s discovery that Linear B was likely an inflected language just like Greek. This sparked the imagination of the amateur linguist, who credited Kober as inspiration.

Following the hunch that Linear B could be a form of Ancient Greek rather than a separate language, Ventris set out to find patterns in the inscriptions available to him.

He soon realized that certain symbols appear only in the texts found on Crete and no where else, and the same applied to those from the Peloponnese.

From this, the scholar guessed that these unique symbols likely represented place names, which was correct.

Using this discovery, Ventris was soon able to work out each element of the script piece by piece. This discovery confirmed the theory that Crete became part of the Mycenaean civilization in the Late Bronze Age.

Ventris’ discovery was monumental and allowed scholars a deeper picture of Mycenaean civilization.

Tragically, however, Ventris died of a car accident at the age of thirty-four in 1956, just a few weeks before the publication of his book Documents in Mycenaean Greek, which was written with English classicist John Chadwick.

The scholar died instantly after colliding with a parked truck late at night while driving home. It was determined to be an accident.

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