Michael Ventris

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Michael Ventris
Blue Plaque for Michael Ventris - geograph.org.uk - 884994.jpg
Ventris' home, 1952–1956, which he and his wife, Lois, also an architect, designed
Born (1922-07-12)12 July 1922
Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire
Died 6 September 1956(1956-09-06) (aged 34)
Hatfield
Residence 19 North End, Hampstead, London NW3, a home designed by Ventris
Citizenship United Kingdom
Nationality British
Fields Architecture, Archaeology, Linguistics
Alma mater Architectural Association School of Architecture
Known for Decipherment of Linear B
Influences Arthur Evans, Alice Kober, John Chadwick, Emmett Bennett
Influenced Historiography of Aegean civilization
Notable awards University of Uppsala Honorary Doctorate, 1954
Order of the British Empire, 1955
Spouse Lois (Knox-Niven) Ventris

Michael George Francis Ventris, OBE (12 July 1922 – 6 September 1956) was an English linguist and architect who, along with John Chadwick and Alice Kober, deciphered Linear B, a previously unknown ancient script discovered at Knossos by Arthur Evans. A prodigy in languages, Ventris had pursued the decipherment as an avocation since his teen-age years. After creating a new field of study, Ventris died in an automobile accident a few weeks before publication of his first definitive work, Documents in Mycenaean Greek.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Ventris was born into a traditional army family then coming to an end. His father, Edward Francis Vereker Ventris,[1] reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army;[2] he might have gone further had he not contracted tuberculosis and retired. His grandfather, Francis Ventris, was a Major-General who ended his career as Commander of British Forces in China. Both men served in the Middle and Far East, the younger especially in India.[3] During one of his stays in England, Michael's future father married Anna Dorothea Janasz (Dora), the daughter of a wealthy immigrant landholder from Poland. Her photographs reveal a slender, dark-haired beauty. They had one child, Michael.

Health was an important family consideration right from the beginning of Michael's life. He had chronic bronchial asthma. The family resided mainly in Switzerland for eight years, which they could well afford to do. Switzerland had a reputation for being especially healthy. A number of health centers, or spas, catered to the physical well-being of those who could afford to attend. Ventris started school in Gstaad, where classes were taught only in French and German. He was soon reasonably fluent in both languages, learning also the dialect of German spoken in Switzerland.[4] He had the facility of learning a language within a matter of weeks, which led ultimately to his acquisition of roughly a dozen languages. His mother must have spoken Polish, as he learned that as well, all before the age of eight. At that age he was reading Adolf Erman's Die Hieroglyphen in German.

Stowe today

In 1931 the Ventrises came home. The senior Ventris's physical condition was visibly worsening year by year. From 1931 to 1935 Michael attended Bickley Hill School in Stowe. His parents, unable to live together since 1932, divorced in 1935, when he was 13. Then he won a scholarship to Stowe School, quartered in an 18th-century stately home. At Stowe he learned some Latin and classical Greek.[4] He did not do outstanding work there. By then he was spending most of his spare time learning as much as he could about Linear B, some of his study time being spent under the covers at night with a flashlight. When he was not away at school, Michael lived with his mother, before 1935 in coastal hotels, after 1935 (when they were built) in the avant garde Berthold Lubetkin's Highpoint modernist apartments in Highgate. His mother's acquaintances, who frequented the house, included many sculptors, painters and writers of the day. The money for her sophisticated life style came from the Polish estates.

Young adult[edit]

Michael's father died in 1938 when Michael was 16 years old. Dora became administrator of the estate. Hard times, however, lay ahead. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 the family holdings in that country were gone, and all income from there ceased. In 1940 Dora's father died. The family became destitute. Michael lost his mother to clinical depression and an overdose of barbiturates. He never spoke of her, assuming instead an ebullient and energetic manner in whatever he decided to do, a trait which won him numerous friends. At the same time they noted that he had a dark and mysterious side as well, associated with feelings that he was a fraud, and not a true genius. A friend of the family, a Russian sculptor, Naum Gabo, took Michael under his wing. Michael later said that Gabo was the most family he had ever had. It may have been at Gabo's house that he began the study of Russian. He had resolved on architecture for a career. He enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. There he met and married Lois, who preferred to be called Betty. Her social background was similar to what Ventris' had been: her family was well-to-do, she had travelled in Europe, and she was interested in architecture, in addition to which she was popular and was considered very beautiful.

Halifax in flight, 1942

He did not complete his schooling immediately, being drafted in 1942. He chose the Royal Air Force (RAF). His preference was for navigator rather than pilot, for which he underwent extensive training in Canada, to qualify as an Air Navigator with the rank of Sergeant in 1944. While training, he studied Russian intensively for several weeks, the purpose of which, if any, is not clear. He was in time for the bombing of Germany, serving on the Handley Page Halifax with No. 76 Squadron RAF, initially at RAF Breighton and then at RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor.[5] After the conclusion of the war he served out the rest of his term on the ground in Germany, for which he was chosen because of his knowledge of Russian. His duties are unclear. His friends all assumed he was completing intelligence assignments, interpreting his denials as part of a legal gag. No such assignments have turned up, however, even after these many decades since his service. There is also no evidence that he was ever part of any code-breaking unit, as was Chadwick, even though the public readily believed this explanation of his genius and success with Linear B.[6]

Architect and palaeographer[edit]

After the war he worked briefly in Sweden, learning enough Swedish to communicate with scholars in it.[4] Then he came home to complete his architectural education with honors in 1948[7] and settled down with Lois working as an architect. He designed schools for the Ministry of Education. Then he and his wife designed a home for themselves and their family.[8] He had two children, a son, Nikki (1942–1984) and a daughter, Tessa (1946–).[9] Concurrently he stepped up his effort on Linear B, discovering finally that it was Greek, a revelation to an academic public that had more or less given up on the mysterious script. No one, not even Ventris, suspected that it is the earliest known form of Greek. Ventris was awarded an OBE in 1955 for "services to Mycenaean paleography."[8] A few years after deciphering Linear B in 1951–1953, Ventris, who lived in Hampstead, died instantly in a late-night collision with a parked truck while driving home, aged 34. The death was ruled accidental, though some[who?] have speculated, on no evidence except personality, that it was suicide. The work of his lifetime was about to come to fruition.[8]

An English Heritage blue plaque commemorates Ventris at his home in Hampstead.[10]

Decipherment[edit]

At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating Knōssos, an ancient city on the island of Crete. In doing so he uncovered a great many clay tablets inscribed with an unknown script. Some were older and were named Linear A. The bulk were of more recent vintage, and were dubbed Linear B. Evans spent the next several decades trying to decipher both, to no avail.

In 1936, Evans hosted an exhibition of Cretan archaeology at Burlington House in London, home of the Royal Academy. It was the jubilee anniversary (50 years) of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, contemporaneous owners and managers of the Knossos site. Evans had given the site to them some years previously. Villa Ariadne, Evans's home there, was now part of the school. Boys from Stowe school were in attendance at one lecture and tour conducted by Evans himself at age 85. Ventris, 14 years old, was present and remembered Evans walking with a stick. The stick was undoubtedly the cane named Prodger which Evans carried all his life to assist him with his short-sightedness and night blindness. Evans held up tablets of the unknown scripts for the audience to see. During the interview period following the lecture, Ventris immediately confirmed that Linear B was as yet undeciphered, and determined to decipher it.[11]

Ventris' initial theory was that Etruscan and Linear B were related and that this might provide a key to decipherment. Although this proved incorrect, it was a link he continued to explore until the early 1950s.

Shortly after Evans died, Alice Kober noted that certain words in Linear B inscriptions had changing word endings — perhaps declensions in the manner of Latin or Greek. Using this clue, Ventris constructed a series of grids associating the symbols on the tablets with consonants and vowels. While which consonants and vowels these were remained mysterious, Ventris learned enough about the structure of the underlying language to begin guessing.

Some Linear B tablets had been discovered on the Greek mainland, and there was reason to believe that some of the chains of symbols he had encountered on the Cretan tablets were names. Noting that certain names appeared only in the Cretan texts, Ventris made the inspired guess that those names applied to cities on the island. This proved to be correct. Armed with the symbols he could decipher from this, Ventris soon unlocked much text and determined that the underlying language of Linear B was in fact Greek. This overturned Evans's theories of Minoan history by establishing that Cretan civilization, at least in the later periods associated with the Linear B tablets, had been part of Mycenean Greece.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Unit Histories
  2. ^ Great Britons: Twentieth-century lives, Harold Oxbury, 1985
  3. ^ Current Biography Yearbook 1957. New York: HW Wilson Company. 1958. p. 338. 
  4. ^ a b c Chadwick 1990, p. 2.
  5. ^ "Royal Air Force (Volunteer Reserve) (RAF(VR)) Officers 1939-1945". Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  6. ^ Palaima 2000, p. 1.
  7. ^ Oxbury, Harold (1985). Great Britons: twentieth-century lives. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. p. 338. 
  8. ^ a b c chadwick 1990, p. 3.
  9. ^ ohk (2006), The Ventris Papers, School of Advanced Studies, University of London 
  10. ^ "VENTRIS, MICHAEL (1922-1956)". English Heritage. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  11. ^ Chadwick 2000, p. 1.

Bibliography[edit]

By Ventris alone or jointly[edit]

  • Ventris, Michael (1950). The languages of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations: mid-century report. London: Michael Ventris. 
  • —— (1951). A preliminary analysis of the language contained in the Mycenaean Archives from Pylos in Messenia. 
  • ——; Chadwick, John (1953). "Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean Archives". The Journal of Hellenic Studies 73: 84–103. 
  • —— (1954). King Nestor's Four-handled Cups: Greek Inventories in the Minoan Script. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 
  • ——; Chadwick, John (1956A). Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Cambridge: Second edition (1974). Cambridge UP. ISBN 0-521-08558-6. 
  • —— (1956B). Mycenaean furniture on the Pylos tablets. Uppsala: Eranos förlag. 
  • ——; Sacconi, Anna (1988). Work notes on Minoan language research and other unedited papers. Incunabula Graeca, 90. Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo. 

By others[edit]

External links[edit]