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The Decipherment of Linear B (1958)

by John Chadwick

Other authors: Pierre Vidal-Naquet (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5321132,267 (4.04)34
The languages of the ancient world and the mysterious scripts, long undeciphered, in which they were encoded have represented one of the most intriguing problems of classical archaeology in modern times. This celebrated account of the decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris was written by his close collaborator in the momentous discovery. In revealing the secrets of Linear B it offers a valuable survey of late Minoan and Mycenaean archaeology, uncovering fascinating details of the religion and economic history of an ancient civilisation.… (more)
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» See also 34 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Mycenean script shown to be Greek
  ritaer | Mar 16, 2020 |
Slightly dry, but thorough, account of how the "Linear B" language of ancient Crete (and certain parts of nearby Greece proper) was decoded by a part-time linguist, in conjunction with a professor of linguistics. Even though the book is supposedly pitched at a "popular" audience, according to the first chapter, it does get very technical toward the later third of the book, as the author describes the particular methods used to break into the language. David Kahn's account in "The Codebreakers" is somewhat easier to digest, though Kahn had the advantage of writing a decade later. For specialists only, in my view, or those keen on Greek language or history. ( )
  EricCostello | Sep 1, 2018 |
If you want to read about the decipherment of Linear B then this book is the motherlode. The author was a Bletchley Park code-breaker who worked with Ventris on the decipherment, so this is a first hand account. The central part of the book where he describes the breakthrough reads almost like a memoir. Some (most) of the linguistics went over my head, but even if the fine detail of the argument is missed you can still follow it and the story.

He also gives an overview of Mycenaean studies pre-decipherment and discusses the implications of what was found written on the tablets. It was still a controversial topic when this book was published and I particularly enjoyed how he would dismiss the opinions of other experts as 'absurd'.

A quick note on editions. There are two, the second being published in 1967 with corrections and a postscript so get that one unless you're a first edition junkie. ( )
  Lukerik | Jun 19, 2018 |
Linear B, a mysterious unknown language written almost solely on clay tablets, was first unearthed from palace ruins on Crete during archaological digs in the late 19th Century. This here is the intriguing story of Linear B and its decipherment by Michael Ventris in the 1950s, written by his close collaborator John Chadwick.

We are told how Ventris as a 14-year old school boy first encountered the tablets during a talk at the British Museum by their elderly discoverer Arthur Evans, who had himself dug them up decades before. Becoming hooked on the problem of deciphering them Ventris worked away at this throughout his tragically short life, corresponding with various academic experts in ancient languages from around the world. Many false leads on the decipherment were followed by both Ventris and the international experts prior to the correct solution, with everyone believing it was anything but Greek until it was conclusively proven so.

The difficulty in decipherment lay in the fact that Linear B did not resemble any known alphabet, and still does not. Indeed it was not an alphabet as such, but it was discovered that each character represented a syllable, with around 90 characters making up the complete repertoire. It was also not known which spoken language these unknown syllables represented, and no equivalent of the Rosetta stone existed to make the job easier with the same text written in different languages side by side. Thus the task of decipherment involved a lot of ingenuity, and the special mind of Ventris, who was something of a prodigy with languages from an early age.

When Ventris finally deciphered Linear B, he showed that the syllables made up Greek words, albeit a dialect of Greek older than any known from existing texts. This was a shock, as the Greek language already had a known alphabet, and Linear B bore no resemblance to it – firstly in that each character was a syllable and not an individual consonant or vowel, and secondly that there was no explanation as to why a second way of writing the same spoken language would have come about. Also, the characters in Linear B did not look anything like the characters of the Greek alphabet, so an evolution from one writing system into the other did not seem likely. The explanation seems to be that Linear B was a precursor script to record the same spoken language, which was eventually replaced by the alphabet now known as Greek, which does not share any scriptural relation. The earliest Linear B tablets come from around 1450 BC, which predates the oldest known writing in the ancient Greek alphabet by around 600 years, and Plato by over a millenium.

This is an interesting account for several reasons – it shows the excitement and the actual intellectual process of solving a very difficult problem, and the subject matter is intrinsically interesting from an historical and cultural point of view. I had not previously taken a lot of interest in languages compared to other academic areas, however this book is contagious in its excitement of discovery and the fascination of ancient languages. ( )
  P_S_Patrick | Feb 21, 2018 |
What appeared to be a dry read instead brought alive the amzaing personality of Michael Ventris. ( )
  ambrose_rex | Feb 3, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Chadwickprimary authorall editionscalculated
Vidal-Naquet, PierreIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ruffel, PierreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Veer-Bertels, E. van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature; even the least curious mind is roused by the promise of sharing knowledge withheld from others.
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