I believe that Michael Ventris had dozed off when, well after one in the morning of September 6, 1956, his car crossed the center line at high speed and slammed head on into a truck. Micheal was killed, instantly. Clearly, the truck driver was not at fault. The lorry was parked out of the traffic lanes, pulled over in a “lay-by” on the Barnet Bypass, about 20 miles north of London. The driver swore the truck's headlights were on, and clearly visible. Micheal's was just a few miles from his home, at 19 North End, London, NW-3. A coroner’s inquest jury even ruled the tragedy an accident. Yet, to this day, there are many who suggest it was a suicide.
There is no question that Michael George Francis Ventris (above) fit the profile of a person at risk. His upbringing had been coached by the step father to psychoanalysis Carl Jung, who had treated and maybe seduced Micheal's mother, Dorothea. He drilled in to her that “Micheal was not to be touched by anybody. This was to avoid him having complexes,” she said. His father, a gentle and loving man, died of tuberculosis when Micheal was a teenager. While still in college Micheal married a “rich society beauty”. But when Nazi Germany conquered Poland in 1939, his mother lost the income she had inherited from her domineering father. In July of 1940 Dorthea was found dead in a Welsh seaside hotel, having taken an overdose of Barbitone.
Micheal dropped out of college in 1942, and then served three years as a navigator aboard a Royal Air Force bomber - a service which suffered a 44 ½ % death rate. Micheal's son would say decades later, “My father was a private person...In fact he seemed rather remote” That isolation from his family led to his divorce. Three years before his death Micheal Ventris was hailed a having scaled “the Everest of Greek archeology”. But it seems that left him with perhaps the most epic case of post-partum depression in history. His career as an architect had been built promoting team work, but after reaching the linguistic summit of Linear B, there were few colleges now willing to work with him. His new career in linguistics seemed guaranteed, but at 34 years of age he lacked academic credentials in that field. But I still don't think he intended on hitting that truck.
Those who submerse themselves in ancient texts often have a reputation for being emotionally unstable. In the 1870's George Smith, an assistant at the British museum, was the first man in 5,000 years to read the story of the Assyrian holy man Utnapishtim who survived a great flood by building a boat for his family and animals. Smith was so excited by the discovery of what was clearly an early version of Noah's Ark, that he began rushing about his work room, tearing off his clothing. But despite the legends, he was stopped before he got completely naked, and never made it into the hall. Insanity, is not the greatest danger to archaeologists. It is being human.
Arthur Evans (above), the legendary archaeologist who between 1900 and 1906 had uncovered the palace at Knossos, on Crete, had struggled for forty years to read the 5,000 year old language he uncovered scattered about the place. Evans had engaged and encouraged the greatest linguists in the world to examine the 3,000 baked clay fragments recording the culture's language. He was certain it represented something new in history, and referred to the culture as Minoan and the language as “Linear B”. But when Evans died in May of 1941, he had managed to deciphered just one word: “total”,. It appeared at the bottom of many of the tablets.
Next the American, Professor Alice Kober (above) took the lead in the search, and methodically cataloged the 90 plus signs used in “Linear B”, discovering the triple suffixes (as in English “Britain/Briton/British”) which seemed to connect the symbols on the fragments. At first, like Evans, Alice thought the mystery language must be “Minoan”. But near the end of her brief life, Alice decided it could be Etruscan. But when she died in 1950, the problem was still unresolved.
Micheal Ventris had been familiar with Linear B all his adult life. When he was 13 this “pleasant and humorous, if solitary boy” had encountered Evans at a museum exhibit, and impudently asked if it were true the language was not yet deciphered. In 1940, at age 18 he had published his first academic paper on Linear B. In 1948 he got his degree in architecture, but he also met Professor Kober at Oxford University, and briefly corresponded with her. They did not like each other, but Micheal cut off the communication only because he was trying to concentrate on architecture. But then, as his Bauhaus minimalist work was falling out of favor, Micheal found himself surrendering again to his obsession with decoding Linear B.
Languages always came easily to him. He was raised for a time in Switzerland, the mountain nation with three official languages. Micheal was proficient in Spanish, French, German, Polish, Italian, Greek, Ancient Greek and Latin, and, after just one week of exposure, he was participating in conversations in Swedish. But he was having no luck decoding Linear B. Then, one evening, while his wife was preparing for a dinner party, the frustrated architect turned to Alice Kober's triplets, and it occurred to him to apply them phonetically to place names, but in ancient Greek. What if, he wondered, the first character in a particular triplet was pronounced as “ko”, the next “no” and the last for 'so”? Could it be that simple, that obvious: Knossos? Just then the guest arrived and Micheal had to leave his work.
But while his wife was preparing to serve the desert, Micheal Ventris stole back to his study. Abruptly the triplet names of several other sites on ancient Crete fell into place. With a start Micheal came to the realization that the language of Linear B was not Minoan, or Etruscan, but Greek. Arthur Evans had been wrong. Alice Kober had been wrong. All the hundreds of linguists who had studied Linear B before him had been wrong. The truth was so obvious it might have been uncovered decades earlier, except for Arthur Evan's immediate determination that it could not be Greek. Evan's so dominated the study of Knossos, that his fundamental assumption had even confused Alice Kober. Micheal returned to the party and shared the excitement with his guests. He did not tear his clothing. But one of the dinner party guest happened to be a producer for BBC Radio, and the next day she put Micheal in front of a microphone to share his excitement with the world.
It should have inspired an earthquake of coverage. But July 1, 1953, the day Micheal Ventris walked into the BBC Radio booth and announced his solution to the Linear B puzzle, was the day after Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England, and the same day news broke that a month earlier, on May 29th ,, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had peaked Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
It did not help that once Linear B was decoded, related no great epics of heroes and Gods. The translations merely recounted the inventory of storage rooms, the numbering of everything from livestock, to drinking vessels and furniture, to grain and grapes. It was the tax receipts. Because of finger and palm prints and writing styles left by the authors, we know there were only 100 scribes writing at Knossos, and another 32 at Pylos. These numbers are so low they suggest a religious order restricting access to the knowledge of writing. The priests scribes kept a running total (the first word deciphered by Evans in the 1920's) in the soft clay, wetting it to add and subtract from the inventories. The tablets and their counts would not be fired, and the numbers set in stone, until the palaces containing them burned down, in the Bronze Age Apocalypse of Minoan culture, some time after 1375 B.C..
Two weeks before his terminal accident, Micheal Ventris wrote a letter to the editor of the Architect's Journal, the publication of the Architectural Association. Micheal was leaving the field, explaining, “I’ve come to the conclusion that...you’d be justified in writing me off...All I can ask you is to temper your justified anger with a little compassion.” It was almost as if Micheal had assumed the role of Utnapishtim, and was appealing to his god for understanding. Two weeks later Micheal Ventrs was dead. And his achievement and his passing are both proof that for the last 5,000 years and probably the next 5,000, all humans are on the same journey. It is not our achievements or our failures, our insights or our false assumptions that bind us together, not our gods, or our nations, nor even our dreams, our nightmares or aspirations. It is the journey itself.
And that is why the study of Archeology, and Linguistics and substance abuse, and psychology, are all important: because they provide perspective about the journey. Utmapsihtim, and King Minos, Arthur Evans and Edmund Hillary, Queen Elizabeth II, Dorothea Ventris, Karl Jung, Alice Kober – they are all fellow travelers, heading to the same destination - oblivion. Best celebrate the trip.