April 5 - An Archeological Treasure!

Posted on April 5, 2018

If you were an archeologist, it's really unlikely that you would ever dig up bejeweled and golden treasures, like the folks who discovered Ancient Egyptian King Tut's mostly-untouched tomb. And it's unlikely that you would ever dig up thousands of terra cotta warriors or an entire ancient city.

As a matter of fact, you'd probably find lots of broken pieces of pottery and some bones, maybe an arrowhead or stone hand tool. And you'd be thrilled!

Today is the anniversary of a very unlikely find. It's not as glamorous as glittering gold or as amazing as a life-sized ceramic army - but the clay tablets found by archeologists on this date in 1900 were thrilling because they were marked with ancient writing, and ancient writing can lead to learning lots of new stuff!

Before that discovery in Knossos, on the island of Crete, scientists had seen the script we now call Linear B on sealstones, "milkstones," and other artifacts found in Athens, Greece. The British archeologist Arthur Evans interviewed Athens shop owners to discover where these artifacts came from; the answer in every case was "from Crete." In the late 1800s, Evans found one of the signs from those stones on a palace wall in Knossos, and he was certain that he'd found the source of the ancient writing.

Evans had to buy some land and request permission to excavate the land...but finally, in the spring of 1900, he began his excavation. On April 5, he found a terra cotta bathtub; in the tub were the remains of a wooden box and a bunch of Linear B tablets.

"A bunch of" turned out to be the largest number of Linear B tablets ever found in one spot.

Evans hoped that finding a lot of samples of the script would help him to decipher (read and understand) it, but he never "cracked the code." As you can imagine, it's pretty hard to read an unknown script when you don't even know what language it refers to.

Michael Ventris at age 14
An unusual British teenager named Michael Ventris saw a presentation by Evans and, when he discovered that Linear B had never been deciphered, decided to tackle the problem. Ventris was good with languages - he knew English of course, but his mother was Polish and often spoke Polish to him; he lived in Switzerland as a child, and his school lessons were taught in French and German, and the kids he befriended spoke Swiss German; he studied Latin and Classical Greek as a teen. As a young adult, he learned Russian and Swedish. Actually, Ventris was SO good at languages, he seemed to be able to learn languages in weeks rather than years, and he was considered to know at least 12 languages!

I said he was unusual, and this is what I meant: he spent a lot of his spare time trying to learn as much as he could about Linear B, and when he was supposed to be asleep in bed, even, he would study the marks under the covers, by the light of a flashlight!

Ventris became an architect, married a popular and beautiful young woman, became a father, served as a navigator in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and still managed to find enough time to succeed in his adolescent goal of deciphering Linear B, with the help of a man named John Chadwick. Tragically, Ventris died in a car accident at age 34.

The main breakthrough on the decipherment of the language was Ventris's theory that the symbol combinations that only appeared on the tablets found in Crete (some tablets with the script had been found by this time on the Greek mainland) were the names of places. 

Figuring that out gave Ventris enough symbol-sound correspondents to realize that Linear B was a written form of archaic Greek. Evans and other scholars had been sure that it was not Greek, and Ventris himself also explored other possible language connections before he made his breakthrough.

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