GIS 1/3/2013 – Deciphering Linear B after Michael Ventris

Ventris_webpicIt’s not often that we get to listen to a genuine, bona fide genius in the Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar, but that’s just what we were treated to this week. Michael Ventris’s crisp, cut-glass tones played out, announcing his decipherment of Linear B. This was of course a clip from the famous 1952 radio broadcast in which Ventris revealed that h could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the script of the Mycenaean Aegean did in fact render Greek, rather than Etruscan as he’d initially believed or any of the other fanciful suggestions which had been made over the years. This audio clip was met with swoons of delight by some members of the audience. I’d heard it before, but the frisson you get listening to it doesn’t go away. It’s no exaggeration to say Ventris is one of my academic heroes, and the fact that he was barely older than I am now when he made his most famous discovery kind of puts one’s academic contributions into perspective. The fact that he was dead 4 years later only adds to the poignancy.

But the decipherment of Linear B didn’t end with Ventris, as our own Anna Judson explained in her paper ‘Deciphering Linear B after Michael Ventris’. For even after the decipherment of the core signs of the syllabary had been accepted, a large number of signs remained uncertain. Many of these were filled in over time, but even now fourteen signs – around a fifth of the total syllabary – remain undeciphered. Anna took us through one particular case-study: sign *56 and some of the various suggestions which have been made over the years.

Two main proposals exist for this sign, both alternatives for more common syllabograms: pa3 and ko2. These have been made by looking for alternations where different scribes appear to spell the same words in similar contexts using either of the signs. Anna dismissed the latter suggestion on the grounds that the supposed alternation in the personal names ko-ru(-we) and *56-ru-we is not secure, since we can’t prove these were the same person or the same names. The idea that *56 is a variant of pa is more plausible, and indeed is accepted by the vast majority of Mycenologists. Anna finds this much more convincing, but still has reservations, not least because we seem to get individual scribes using both *56 and pa, something which is unexpected. Ultimately, even with this relatively well-attested sign, we don’t have enough good examples of alternation to be sure of the decipherment. This is why these signs are likely to remain undeciphered, at least for the foreseeable future.


*56, and a possible alternation: pa-ra-ku-ja vs. *56-ra-ku-ja.

Anna’s paper stimulated a vigorous discussion covering a wide range of topics, from how Ventris made the original decipherment in the first place, to what the prospects are for uncovering more Linear B tablets in future. Fragments continue to be discovered throughout Greece, and our corpus would likely increase dramatically if only someone could just induce the Greeks to sell up the centre of modern Thebes and let it be bulldozed to allow access to the Mycenaean citadel underneath. This looks unlikely at present, but the way the economy’s going, who knows? These days cultural heritage is increasingly being seen as just another resource to be cashed in to plug financial deficits…

Our Snippet this week came from Sarah Godlewski, who spoke to us about her plans for her MPhil thesis, in which she’ll be looking at the modern poems ‘Memorial’ by Alice Oswald and ‘War Music’ by Christopher Logue and considering them as modern receptions of Homer’s Iliad. This topic too excited much discussion, with some attendees so excited they couldn’t even remain in their seats. Many present disliked Oswald’s poem, finding it superficial and feeling that it failed to engage effectively with the mood, content or style of Homer’s work. We talked about the role of twentieth-century wars in shaping modern reception of Homer, and the significance of war memorials in British culture. Also considered was the difference between reception and translation, and whether it’s possible to ‘translate’ Homer if you can’t read Greek.

Next week will be the last regular GIS of this term, and will include the round-table on supervising issues advertised last time. If you have any questions about supervising, or thoughts about how it might be improved, do come along. We’ll also have a paper as usual.

Finally, the gathering twilight means that this golden reign of your humble yet – let’s face it – rather wonderful consuls is almost at an end. So as Claire and I round up masons to chisel the letters COS. CES. after our names in the rolls of honour and unfurl our maps to pick which provinces we’d like to be proconsuls of, we invite would-be successors to make themselves known.

Applicants will be asked to prove their suitability for the role by stringing a bow and shooting an arrow through a dozen axe-heads.

In the event of a tie, victory will be decided by pankration, according to the traditional ways.

8 thoughts on “GIS 1/3/2013 – Deciphering Linear B after Michael Ventris

  1. Pingback: Awkward Museum Labels: Cypriot Edition | res gerendae

  2. Hello Friend from Richard Vallance, “Linear B, Knossos and Mycenae”, new Blog on WordPress

    I have just added your Blog to the list of sites of interest to our readers.
    I am sure you will find our Blog on Linear B most interesting.

    I am planning to add the following information to the Blog in the near future:

    1. my own new Glossary of Linear B classified by Subject, e.g. Administration,
    Agriculture, Commerce, Produce etc.

    2. a new Linear B grammar, which will be a novelty in the study of Linear B,
    in so far as I intend to reconstruct a relatively full grammar of Linear B,
    extrapolating adjectival, noun, pronoun and verb forms from existing
    forms already found in the tablets.

    I am sure this will be of interest to you.

    And of  course, we can both start posting comments on each others sites.


    Richard Vallance,
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


  3. Is the 1952 radio broadcast available online somewhere? I couldn’t find it anywhere, including the BBC archives.
    Thanks, Roddy.


    • As far as I know the only copy’s in the archives of the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group here in Cambridge. I’m sure they’ll make it more widely available at some point in the future, but I don’t think it is yet. Sorry!


      • I believe the BBC does still have a copy, but I don’t think it’s online. It might be possible to obtain a copy by getting in touch with them, though I don’t know what the rules on distribution are. I’d like to make ours available online at some point in the future, but that depends on a lot of issues like copyright….


  4. Your analysis of the progress on the decipherment characters as yet undeciphered inf Linear B is cogent and highly informative.

    Richard Vallance, Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae (Blog)


  5. Thank you, Philip and Anna for your replies. Anna, those excerpts are fascinating. Amazing sound quality too. For some reason I was expecting it to sound a lot fuzzier. I look forward to hearing the whole thing one day.


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