The race to decode a mysterious language - Susan Lupack
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The decipherment of Linear B has proved a fascinating topic, partly because of the ancient Mycenaean Greek culture that it revealed, and partly because, in contrast with Egyptian hieroglyphs, there was no Rosetta Stone that served to unlock its secrets. The decipherment of Linear B was achieved through a combination of analytical reasoning and amazing leaps of mental insight – along with a lot of perseverance and hard work of course. The story of the decipherment is also made exciting by the different personalities and stories of Evans, Kober, and Ventris. But others were involved as well, among whom Emmett Bennett (who served during WW II as a codebreaker) deserves particular recognition: working with the tablets from Pylos, Bennett was first able to discern the system of weights and measures used to keep track of the goods that were recorded. But Bennett’s most valuable contribution was his definitive list of the individual syllabograms – like today, the scribes had their own handwriting, and telling which symbols represented entirely different syllabograms from those that were different forms of the same one (even though they looked a bit different), took years to figure out. Without this foundational knowledge, Kober could not have accurately traced how often the symbols appeared.
The other scholar that contributed to the decipherment is John Chadwick, who heard Michael Ventris give his historic interview on BBC Radio 4 on 1 July 1952, in which Ventris first told the world how he deciphered Linear B, which you can listen to here:, and became so excited that he got in touch with Ventris right away. Chadwick was a Classics scholar, while Ventris was an architect, and so Chadwick was able to work with Ventris to fully set out the Greek vocabulary and grammar used on the tablets. Both Bennett and Chadwick are also responsible for furthering the field of Mycenaean studies, as many of their students (and grand-students – like Susan Lupack, the educator of this lesson) are continuing to do research in this exciting and still relatively young field. Believe it or not, new tablets and Mycenaean treasures are still being found! One of the most exciting recent finds is the shaft grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos, which you can read about here:
If you would like to read about the decipherment in more detail, the books by Chadwick and Fox are both very fun to read. And if you would like a brief but scholarly account, try Judson’s article. Also, this hour-long talk by Fox clearly discusses the discovery of the tablets, the steps to decipherment, and the personalities of those involved.
Chadwick, J. 1967. The Decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge University Press.Fox, M. 2013. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, Ecco.Judson, A. 2017. “The Decipherment: People, Process, Challenges.” In Codebreakers and Groundbreakers, eds. Y. Galanakis, A. Christophilopoulou, and J. Grime, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
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