Michael Ventris was a brilliant linguist who solved a top-notch archeological puzzle. The extent of his accomplishment and his peculiar and likable personality are well shown in _The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris_ (Thames & Hudson) by Andrew Robinson. Ventris's accomplishment was an intellectual breakthrough ranking with the victory of Champollion over hieroglyphics, and unlike Champollion, he had no Rosetta Stone guide him in translations. His victory was over the squiggles on clay tablets unearthed at Knossos on Crete.
Ventris became intrigued by the decipherment as a schoolboy, even furtively studying the language by flashlight under his bedsheets at school. He modestly explained years later, "Some of us thought it would be a change from our set lessons to try and decipher the tablets, but of course we didn' t get anywhere. Somehow I've remained interested in the problem ever since." He did not then, of course, have the academic credentials to tackle such a task, but he never got them. He was a brilliant linguist, picking up languages quickly and speaking like a native, but he had no training in language or the classics; he never even went to university. He trained as an architect, and for all his short life, he split his endeavors between architecture and Linear B. Robinson maintains that the decipherment was helped by Ventris's training in architecture. The book is excellent at showing the difficult assignment Ventris gave himself, using good analogies with English words to make the puzzle as plain as possible for non-linguists. It shows the importance of hunches and inspiration, as well as cold logic. Ventris solved what is probably the greatest challenge in deciphering any ancient language, and though the achievement was magnificent, the fruits were meager: there is no literature in the language, no epic poetry, no sparkling civilization. The tablets are inventories and lists of possessions such as urns and goats.
Ventris was a gently humorous but private man who remains an enigma in many ways, and was so to the people who knew him. Having abandoned further work on Linear B, he also abandoned the assignment he was pursuing in architecture at the same time. He died in a car crash at the age of 34. Robinson is full of admiration for Ventris's astonishing accomplishment, and this book shows just how remarkable an achievement it was. It is not only an excellent small biography, but an introduction to a magnificent intellectual triumph.