Gallery of Philologists
Michael Ventris
12 July 1922 - 6 Sept 1956

Michael Ventris

Ventris is the prime example of how far a philological amateur can go, and what is the psychological cost of going that far. As a child, he had been inward and somewhat unconventional, and he early showed a remarkable aptitude for acquiring languages (French, German, and Schwyzer Deutsch from his Swiss school days; Polish from his artistic mother). Not at his architecturally ordinary English preparatory school, but from his divorced mother, in whose modern apartment he lived, and who was in touch with several of the more advanced artists of the time, he picked up a taste for modern architecture. He later passed up university to train as an architect. But already in his school days, he had heard Knossos discoverer Arthur Evans give an impromptu gallery tour about the undeciphered Linear B script of the tablets. This mystery, this discovery waiting to be made, took possession of him. It grew from an intermittent fascination into an obsession. It finally became a parallel career for which he was not technically prepared, and which usurped creative energies he might otherwise have put into design, for which he was technically prepared.

1940 brought the German raids on London. The war so disheartened Ventris's talented and sensitive mother Dorothea that she committed suicide that July, by an overdose of Barbitone, while staying at a seaside hotel in Wales. Ventris himself went into war service with the RAF in 1943, and became, not a pilot, but a navigator, mapping the unseen on a grid of squares from his little desk high in the night over Germany, from late 1944 until the surrender in April 1945; he stayed on in ground roles (his knowledge of German was in high demand at the time) until August 1946. He rejoined architectural school, formed a group with several like-minded students, and invented a perspective machine to assist in the preparation of architectural drawings. Though attracting the scorn of Le Corbusier, who visited the school just then, this was a valid invention; Ventris subsequently patented it. It was an anticipation of modern computer graphics, and may remind us of the even more prescient work done by Alan Turing and others in deciphering codes. Ventris's mind, though linked with a linguistic rather than a mathematical talent, was apparently of this same general type.

He graduated in 1949, and took a position with the Ministry of Education as part of a development group concerned with the design of new schools. His official career had thus begun, routinely rather than brilliantly, but still, it had begun.

Ventris, as he thought, dutifully and rationally wound up his work on his old obsession, the Mycenaean problem, with a State of the Field questionnaire on Linear B. This, audaciously enough, he distributed to world experts on the problem in 1950. He was then 28 years old. Most of the experts replied. But his intended farewell to the subject did not mark the end of his own work on it. On the contrary, in the months that followed, he plunged further into it.

Ventris at Work on the Grid

He had the advantage of sound preliminary researches by Bennett, who had determined the number of different signs (89, implying a syllabary rather than an alphabet) and by Alice Kober, who had detected a possibly inflectional pattern linking some nearly otherwise identical forms (the Kober "triplets"). He also had the disadvantage of an early conviction that the language of the Mycenaean tablets was Etruscan (replacing an earlier and also mistaken notion that it was Sumerian). But on balance, he set out well equipped on the next step. The next step was to analyze the frequency distribution of the material, and determine which syllabic signs had the same vowel, and which the same consonant. The results of the last investigations Ventris embodied in a series of diagrams called "grids," which brought together the relevant constraints on the phonetic value which could be attributed to any syllabic sign.

Somewhere in June 1952 (the exact date seems to be no longer recoverable, but it was between late May and an 18 June version of the syllabic grid), Michael Ventris decisively grasped the solution of the Linear B problem. In his enthusiasm, he remained overlong in his study and was late for a dinner in his own apartment, hosted by himself and his wife Lois for guests Michael and Prudence Smith. Ventris's accomplishment was all the more remarkable in that, unlike Champollion with Egyptian, he had no parallel inscription, no deciphered sample, to work from. The Linear B decipherment is a triumphant example of allowing the facts, as they slowly emerge, to unseat a working hypothesis.

The solution was that the Mycenaean Linear B tablets were written in Greek — a Greek centuries older than anything previously known. Instant celebrity followed, beginning with a BBC talk on the decipherment on 1 July of that year, and quickly culminating in the 1955 publication, jointly with philologist John Chadwick, of the immortal monograph Documents in Mycenaean Greek.

Documents

Ventris's success undid him. His Mycenaean hobby had drained mental energy from his architectural career. An architectural fellowship, awarded him for a study of information flow in the profession, yielded only recommendations which, like his drawing machine, were at least twenty years ahead of their time; things that computers would later do. Ventris, who himself called the result "cold and dull," resigned the fellowship before its term had run. His marriage had dwindled to irrelevancy; he was not much involved with his two children; he had no temperament for the limelight as such. Unlike his classmates, he had not achieved partner status in an architectural firm. The conventional professional way behind him seemed to have petered out, and the glamorous philological way ahead of him led to a world in which he could not hope to sustain his sensational debut performance, a world in which, or the sit-down version of which, he had not really earned his way. Three years after the the tremendous announcement of the decipherment, around midnight on 5 Sept 1956, Michael Ventris, who for no known reason was out on the Barnet Bypass near Hatfield, north of London, drove his car at high speed into a parked truck, and was killed instantly.

It was tragic, and yet one can see that it was a tragedy at the right time. Georges Dumézil summed it up as well as anyone could have, on hearing the news:

"Devant les siècles, son oeuvre est faite."

Readings

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