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The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris [Kindle Edition]

Andrew Robinson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

First discovered in 1900, on clay tablets among the ruins of the Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete, Linear B script remained a mystery for over fifty years until 1952, when Michael Ventris discovered that its signs did not represent an unknown language as previously believed, but an archaic dialect of Greek, more than 500 years older than the Greek of Homer. This book tells the life story of Michael Ventris, an intriguing and contradictory man, a gifted linguist but a divided soul, together with that of his remarkable decipherment of Linear B. Dubbed the Everest of archaeology, the decipherment was all the more remarkable because Ventris was not a trained classical scholar but an architect who had first heard of Linear B as a schoolboy. An initial fascination became a lifelong obsession.

Product Description


Mr. Robinson has given us a glimpse of genius at work, making significant connections between the work and the life.

About the Author

Andrew Robinson is the Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement. Among his previous books are The Story of Writing and Earthshock.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 4113 KB
  • Print Length: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Thames and Hudson Ltd; 1 edition (2 Jan. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00DO73J04
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #132,713 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Andrew Robinson has written twenty-five books in a wide range of subjects: science and the history of science; ancient scripts, writing systems and archaeological decipherment; and Indian history and culture. They include six biographies: of the physicist Albert Einstein and the polymath Thomas Young; of the decipherers Jean-Francois Champollion (Egyptian hieroglyphs) and Michael Ventris (Minoan Linear B); and of the writer Rabindranath Tagore and the film director Satyajit Ray. His latest book is India: A Short History. See

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at a complex man 10 Aug. 2004
There were many sides to Michael Ventris. A modernist architect reluctantly obsessed with an ancient culture. A Communist who once made more in a lunch time on a shares deal than he was to make in the rest of the year in his day job. Respected by academics world-wide for his work on linear-B, yet he never completed a degree himself. This book provides a surprisingly clear look at the man, yet leaves enough gaps for the reader to be intrigued. You are likely to enjoy this book if you liked Simon Singh's The Code Book or Andrew Hodges The Enigma of Intelligence.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ideal starting point 18 Aug. 2008
By G. L. Haggett VINE VOICE
This book provides an ideal starting point for the interested layman who is fascinated by the subject matter and intrigued by the people who set about the Herculean task of deciphering Linear B.

Robinson openly admits that this book is not an attempt at an exhaustive biography of Ventris nor of his work; instead, it acts as a taster of a fascinating man and of the conflict between his architectural training and the expectations, both internal and external, associated with that and his obsession with ancient scripts, leading up to his untimely and mysterious death. Excellent value.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The man who deciphered Linear B 13 Jan. 2015
By Clare O'Beara TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
This is an enjoyable and fascinating biography of Michael Ventris. He trained as an architect but to his dismay in the mid-twentieth century after the war had destroyed many buildings, he did not get to design or build many projects. From his school days he had been interested in Linear B, the script found on clay tablets in the excavation of Crete and Aegean cities. Sadly his wife did not share this interest.

The name Linear B is given because figures are drawn onto a straight horizontal line and clearly the lines start at the left because some finish halfway. A more basic version from an earlier period was dubbed Linear A. This has still not been deciphered. By this time the hieroglyphs had been deciphered and many scholars of early languages were working on the Cretan puzzle. Some of these people had helped to decipher enemy codes during the war.

Ventris was first to write down his own studies and share them out among the scholars, asking for their feedback and progress which he would circulate. The scholars, which included one woman, were used to jealously hoarding their knowledge, with no central access like today. Ventris however was a fluent speaker of many languages and well travelled, and he saw no reason to keep any knowledge to himself. He did not have the faculty and funding issue of professors, I suppose, though that is not covered. He was also outside the field so they may have resented his intrusion. Each scholar was timid about sharing for another reason - whatever they proposed was likely to be scorned publicly by others. One person had suggested that Linear B script was an early use of Greek, but most people including Ventris thought it must be a Minoan dialect drawn from Etruscan.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is one book that you can read time and time again. If you're interesred in languages or decipherment, it's a must have.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing biography 18 Sept. 2007
By Adrian Heathcote - Published on
This is a book about a great achievement and a great man, but it is also a deeply frustrating account of both. It purports to be about Michael Ventris, the man who deciphered Linear B and showed it to be archaic Greek, and only secondarily about the details of the decipherment and what it revealed about the Mycenaean world. In fact the book is best on the details of the decipherment and rather poor on the details of Ventris's life. On the Mycenaean world it is almost non-existent. Robinson does a good job of bringing the architectural career of Ventris out of the shadows, and even linking it up to the decipherment, but the book is so sketchy about the facts of Ventris's marriage and the life of his parents that this can't really count as an account of Ventris's life at all. When did his father die and what did he die of?; what caused his parents to divorce?; why was Ventris's wife so chronically uninterested in his devotion to the decipherment?; what were her interests, and who were her friends? -- the list of unanswered questions goes on and on.

The great revelation of the book -- from a biographical point of view -- is that Ventris's death, at the height of his fame, was very likely suicide. Robinson is too reticent to say it that baldly but he lays out the facts and allows the reader to draw the obvious conclusion. But when he left home that night at midnight, only to crash, one hour later, into a parked truck on a road he had no reason to be on, at high speed, there is so much that the reader wants to know that this book will not tell. Had he and his wife quarelled? They were clearly not close by that point, so had she asked for a divorce? Why did she think he left the house at that hour? In fact the figure of Lois Ventris is shadowy beyond all belief. For large parts of the story I wondered if they were still married. There are no good photographs of her; there are no good photographs of his children; there are no photographs of the house that he designed and built; there are no photographs of any of his other design projects.

And the book has some strange biases as well. When Ventris fell out with Myres and Kolber, Ventris reported this at the time as a `huge row' -- presumably with Kolber alone. But Robinson presents his subsequent letter as evidence of a fatal weakness of personality that would manifest again, shortly before his death. What it rather looks to be evidence of is Kolber's unpleasant personality, and Ventris's reaction to it, nothing more. He gracefully withdrew from a project he knew he could not be part of. And what was driving his later withdrawal from his architecture research position looks to be entirely unconnected.

This reader also felt that the non-academic Robinson was entirely too enamoured of the genius, non-academic Ventris doing things that the plodding academics could only dream of. One very quickly wearies of tales of just how dull and unimaginative the academics of Oxford and beyond are. There is the music of axes being ground here. And Robinson is too inclined to set up a straw man of logic versus the flights of imagination in scientific discovery: he seems to have no idea that he is saying something that everyone knows and knows all too well.

So all in all this is a good book, but one that makes you wish that it were twice as good as it is. And now that this "biography" has come out I doubt that we will have a chance for a second book that might have answered the questions that this book leaves so frustratingly unanswered.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Linguist and His Brilliant Decipherment 5 July 2002
By Rob Hardy - Published on
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.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A mysterious man who solved a mysterious puzzle 31 Dec. 2002
By bensmomma - Published on
Linear B was a script of unknown language that appeared in bits and pieces in archaelogical digs in an around Greece. Nobody could decipher it; in fact, they couldn't even agree on what language the script represented. Andrew Robinson tells the fascinating story of Michael Ventris, the architect/amateur linguist who 'cracked' the code of Linear B and proved to the world that it contained an ancient form of Greek.
The story unfolds with the same drama as a murder mystery or detective story. Robinson makes what could have been a complicated story eloquent and clear.
Although I recommend this book highly, at the end of it I still felt in the dark about Ventris himself. He seems to have been a great eccentric and very private individual. His sudden death at the age of 34 seems to have occurred under a cloud of deep depression that Robinson does not really explain. Linear B may be deciphered, but Ventris is still a mystery.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly gripping mystery of language 21 Oct. 2002
By Catherine S. Vodrey - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Andrew Robinson's "The Man Who Deciphered Linear B" should be dry and academic in the worst possible senses of those words. It is, to the contrary, an utterly fascinating mystery and linguistic puzzle which Robinson lays out methodically for his readers--even those who had little previous interest in linguistic puzzles.
Michael Ventris, the man at the heart of this book, was a rather shy, somewhat diffident man who had trained as an architect and married young. Instead of leading the staid life it seems fate had laid out for him, he spent most of his short adult years working on the Linear B--a tablet found at a Mediterranean archaeological dig, and a tablet which had all but been pronounced indecipherable by many scholars with better credentials than Ventris's. Ventris ignored their conclusions and did eventually decipher the tablet. The story is filled with surprises and sudden discoveries, with disappointments and fortuitous guesses, and so on. It is quite a ride. There is even the occasional spot of humor--as when Ventris was stopped by a suspicious Customs agent who said, "These Pylos Tablets--exactly what ailment is it that they're supposed to relieve?"
I learned a great deal from this book. Among the more memorable nuggets was the fact that an alphabet generally contains between 20 and 40 characters--if there are more than 40 characters, it is probably a syllabary (meaning, a system by which each character represents an entire word rather than just one letter or other element WITHIN a word). I highly recommend this for any student of lost language--and anyone who enjoys a twisty-turny thriller!
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Read 21 Aug. 2002
By Gustavo Benedicty - Published on
One gets to know and understand Michael Ventris in the context of the many social and economic changes that were taking place in England in the years straddling the Second World War. I especially liked how the book highlights the collaborative approach that Michael Ventris adopted to address the problems of deciphering Linear B and his architectural assignments.
The book does an wonderful job of explaining with enough detail, but without overwhelming the casual reader, the administrative and intellectual hurdles that Michael Ventris had to overcome to decipher this ancient system of writing.
I enjoyed it as a great biography but surprisingly also as a source of ideas on how to approach complex management projects ... it is much more readable than a typical project management book.
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