July 12 - Happy Birthday, Michael Ventris

    Posted on July 12, 2022     

This is an update of my post published on July 12, 2011:

In 1900 an archeologist named Sir Arthur Evans discovered clay tablets on the island of Crete, near Greece. There were lots and lots of written records of some sort on those tablets—but in an unknown language, written with unknown symbols.

After studying the tablets, Evans and other scholars realized that there seemed to be two different “scripts,” or sets of symbols. They were called Linear A and Linear B. Evans was sure that both scripts encoded the ancient language he called Minoan.

But, despite the efforts of scholars, nobody could read the tablets. For 50 years the ancient scripts remained a mystery.

Enter Michael Ventris, an English architect and cryptographer. Born on this day in 1922, Ventris was the guy who, along with John Chadwick, figured out Linear B.

Have you ever tried solving a cryptogram? 

You need an “in,” a way to start deciphering a code or an unknown language. If there is a picture or map near the unknown writing, that can help give context. 

In the case of Linear B, Ventris had two “ins.” One was a suggestion by archeologist Alice Kober that some words seemed to be the same word with different endings. In English we have that situation when we make a noun plural (such as elephantelephants) or when we conjugate a verb (such as washwasheswashed). The other “in” was Ventris's flash of insight that some words were names of towns in Crete.

One of the things that made it tough to decipher Linear B was the assumption that it encoded the ancient Minoan language. Since many tablets were found on Crete (some were found elsewhere in Greece), and since many of the symbols were identical or similar to symbols in the older script called Linear A, it made sense to make this assumption. However, once Ventris made some progress with decoding town names, he realized that the language of Linear B was an early form of Greek. With this realization, a lot more progress on deciphering the tablets could be made.

The script called Linear A has never been deciphered. Scholars assume it actually is used to write the unknown Minoan language. We have never found an “in” to figure that script out!

Check out Mr. Donn's pages on the Minoan civilization.  You can explore the story of the Minotaur in the labyrinth (a maze), and you can try solving some mazes! There are some other ancient stories as well.

Try your hand at solving cryptograms! I found this puzzle site easy to use. 

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