Linear B Deciphered

For a long time the Linear B script did not disclose its secret to those who worked on its solution. Nor was the decipherment facilitated by the manner in which Sir Arthur Evans published the texts of the Linear B tablets—not all at once, but seriatim. When Blegen discovered the Linear B tablets on the Greek mainland in the ruins of the ancient palace in Pylos, they were ascribed to the Heroic Age of Troy, the final stage of the Mycenaean Age that ended abruptly.

Yet even after the Linear B tablets were found on the mainland of Greece their language was not thought to be Greek. The reason for that was, first of all, in the accepted chronological scale: the Ionian age, according to conventional chronology, was separated from the Mycenaean Age by five hundred years. Greek writing appears for the first time in the eighth century. Efforts to read the tablets made by classical philologists were unsuccessful, and whatever clue was tried out, the result was negative.

One of the most important and far-reaching theses of the reconstructin of ancient history is in the conclusion that the so-called Dark Ages of the Greek and Anatolian histories are but artifacts of the historians, and never took place. The Mycenaean Age ended in the eighth century and was followed by the Ionic times, with no centuries intervening, the break in culture being but the consequence of natural upheavals of the eighth century and of the subsequent migrations of peoples. Consequently the Ionic culture must show great affinity with the Mycenaean heritage; and therefore I have claimed that the Linear B script would prove to be Greek; but this was not a view that had many supporters.

In 1950 the eminent authority on Homeric Greece, Helen L. Lorimer, in her treatise Homer and the Monuments wrote of this script and of the efforts to read it: “The result is wholly unfavorable to any hope entertained that the language of the inscriptions might be Greek.”

Nevertheless, on the occasion of addressing the Forum of the Graduate College of Princeton University on October 4, 1953, I formulated my expectations:

I expect new evidence from the Minoan Scripts and the so-called Hittite pictographs. Texts in the Minoan (Linear B) script were found years ago on Crete and in Mycenae and in several other places on the Greek mainland. I believe that when the Minoan writings unearthed in Mycenae are deciphered they will be found to be Greek. I also claim that these texts are of a later date than generally believed. “No ‘Dark Age’ of six centuries’ duration intervened in Greece between the Mycenaean Age and the Ionian Age of the seventh century.”
The address was printed as a supplement to Earth in Upheaval, but the last passage in the address was quoted from my Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History, published eight years earlier, in 1945.1

When speaking to the Princeton Forum in October 1953 I did not know that a young English architect was by then on the verge of publishing the solution to the riddle of the Linear B script. Only six months passed since my addressing the Graduate Forum, and the April 9, 1954 front page news of The New York Times made known the exciting performance of decoding Linear B by Michael Ventris. The ancient script “that for the last half century and longer has baffled archaeologists and linguists has been decoded finally—by an amateur.” Ventris, an architect and “leisure-time scholar of pre-classic scripts,” served as a cryptographer during World War II. The script that had been tried without avail in a variety of languages—Hittite, Sumerian and Basque among others—was found by Ventris to be Greek.2

Ventris as a boy attended a lecture by Sir Arthur Evans on the Minoan tablets with unread scripts and, like Schliemann who since boyhood was determined to find Troy and the tomb of Agamemnon, was intrigued to decipher the script of which he heard Evans speak. Thus the greatest discoveries in the world of classical studies were made by non-specialists, a merchant and an architect.

But Ventris was not immediately on the right path. In 1949 he had sent out a questionnaire on Linear B to leading authorities on Aegean questions; he privately distributed the replies in 1950 as The Languages of the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations (known as the “Mid-Century Report” ). None of his queried correspondents came upon the right trail.

In 1962 Leonard R. Palmer testified as to the stand the Hellenic scholars and Ventris himself had taken prior to the achievement; in his book Mycenaeans and Minoans, Palmer wrote: “Evans ventured no guess at the possible affinities of the Minoan language. That it was Greek never entered his head.” Also Blegen, who was the first to find the tablets on Greek soil, “was ‘almost certain’ that the language of his tablets was ‘Minoan’ . . . Nor did the possibility that the Linear B tablets concealed the Greek language occur to Michael Ventris.” He “guessed that the language was related to Etruscan . . . This wrong diagnosis was maintained by Ventris right up to the final stages of his decipherment.” “It figures in the so-called ‘Mid-Century Report,’ which records what could be deduced by the most eminent living authorities from the archaeological and other evidence available at the time preceding the decipherment of the script. The remarkable fact stands out that not one of the scholars concerned suggested that the language could be Greek.”

But a few years more and Ventris found the true solution. Even then loud voices of skepticism and opposition made themselves heard.3

But the method being perfected disclosed more and more Greek words and names which could not result from a mistaken decipherment. The entire field of early Greek civilization experienced the greatest shock since the discovery of Troy. To the even greater surprise of the scholarly world the names of the deities of the Greek pantheon, supposedly “created” by Homer and Hesiod, were found on the deciphered Linear B tablets.

The reading of these tablets in the Greek language raised the question: How could a literate people in the fourteenth century become illiterate for almost five centuries, to regain literacy in the eighth century? Thus the problem already answered in Ages in Chaos was brought into relief, and a heretical idea crept into the minds of a few scholars: is there some mistake in the accepted timetable? In the last century a Dark Age of five centuries’ duration between the Mycenaean and the Ionian ages was forced upon the scholars of the Greek past by students of Egyptology, and in three quarters of a century this notion, first bitterly opposed, became as bitterly defended by the new generation of classical scholars, only to be confronted with the riddle of the Mycenaean tablets written in Greek more than five hundred years before the oldest known Greek inscription in alphabetic characters adapted from the Hebrew-Phoenician script.

Ventris died young, in an auto accident, soon after his triumph. One of the most tantalizing riddles of classical archaeology was solved, but not without creating some puzzling situations. The Homeric Question, instead of being solved, grew now to astonishing, one would like to say, Homeric, proportions.


  1. In this publication, distributed only to a limited number of large libraries in Europe and America, I stated, without any elaboration, the findings to which I had come in the work of reconstruction of ancient history, thus outlining the projected Ages in Chaos and its sequel volumes.

  2. Cf. J. Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (Cambridge, 1958).

  3. E.g., that of Prof. Beattie in Journal of Hellenic Studies 76 (1956), pp. 1ff.