The Murk of Prehistory
Almost everyone loves a mystery. Dating back in literature almost 200 years, the form can be traced from obscure early 18th century German authors, to Edgar Allen Poe, to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to the hardboiled Dashiel Hammett, all the way up to the fraying CSI franchise on TV. These, of course, are fictional mysteries, and invariably, by the time you reach the end, they are all solved. Less so in real life. Much as we know about history and the natural world, there are enduring mysteries out there almost too numerous to name: Dark Matter; Dark Energy; the root causes of so many awful diseases, not to mention the true, clear origins of that quirky species known as Man.
Some mysteries, like Dark Matter—the unseeable mass that is said to comprise 90% of our physical Universe—seem almost too big solve. Others, like the roots of those neurological scourges, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, continue to defy solution, yet each day seemingly brings scientists closer to some useful data. There is yet a third category of mystery, one that appears suddenly and unannounced, that vexes their discoverers until some inspired and dogged genius has a brainstorm or the stamina to unlock a key.
One such mystery is what is known in Classical circles as Linear B, an ancient left-to-right writing system from the Greek Bronze Age (1800 – 1400 years ago). One of two linear Mycenaean scripts (A & B), it came from the world of which Homer would sing (not write, that wouldn’t happen in Greek for another 500 years) in his epic Iliad and Odyssey, a world that until this code was deciphered, had languished in the murk of prehistory.
It’s All Greek to Me
The peerless scholar/sleuth who unlocked the deep mystery was a Minneapolis-born classicist named Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., who at 93, just recently passed away virtually unknown outside of his small circle, but a rockstar and legend within. Deciphering this ancient script was like cracking a secret code, and Bennett’s success in doing so is considered the most challenging archaeological decipherments of all time. Not bad for an epitaph, if you go for that sort of thing.
The Linear B tablets were unearthed in 1900 at Knossos, the island of Crete, by English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who would spend the rest of his life vainly trying to decipher them. Baked into the clay for all time by some “incendiary event” (read: marauding fire), the script was unlike anything the world had seen. Complicating it all is that there is no evidence of writing in the region for the next 1,000 years.
To modern eyes the characters on this rectangular clay tablet resembled tepees, telegraph poles, shirt buttons and leaves, if that’s of any help. The mystery language was at first thought not to be Greek, because Greek was not to be spoken—let alone written—for another 500 years. As it would turn out, the script was Greek—an early and obscure dialect.
After Evans discovered the clay tablets, it would be 50 years until the great Prof. Bennett was tasked by his mentor, eminent archaeologist Carl W. Blegen, to begin cataloguing them. Already a full-blown classicist with a PhD., Bennett had just left the Army after World War II, having served as a cryptanalyst helping decipher Japanese messages, even though he didn’t speak a word of the language. It is said that he owned a computer-like gift (and tenacity) for finding patterns encoded within texts, which he obviously plied in the war effort, and used in deciphering Linear B. He was probably also pretty good at Scrabble and the crossword.
Man or Goat?
Surrounded by other tablets in the same linear left-to-right mystery script (from Pylos on the Greek mainland), Bennett set about cataloguing, through careful transcriptions, a comprehensive list of signs on the tablet, with an analysis of characteristic patterns, the essential first step in deciphering any unknown language.
He spent most of the 1940s hammering out a list of about 80 characters, with each character representing a syllable in a yet known language. In addition, he catalogued a set of hieroglyphic seals, representing “man,” “woman,” “goat,” “horse” and “chariot”. These pictograms would turn out to be more readily decipherable than the syllables themselves. His work involved analysis so minute that he was able to discern the handwritings of different Bronze Age scribes. What a dog does with scent, he did with curlicues.
Aided in his quest to solve the mystery by famous classicist, Prof. Alice Kober, Bennett’s crowning triumph came in the form of his book, The Pylos Tablets (1951), a definitive list of the signs in Linear B. Some of us take up hobbies or read for enjoyment; this dervish raised the bar pretty high on himself: figuring out a mysterious (and dead) ancient language. Piece of cake.
A Journey of the Mind
Bennett’s great accomplishment was not the actual translation of the tablet, but rather, the encoding and cataloguing of its symbols. The translation itself would fall to another shall we say driven individual, the amateur Michael Ventris, who as a young schoolboy on Crete, developed a lifelong fascination with the Linear B tablets. Seventeen years later, using Bennett’s work to impose order on the mass of strange and ancient symbols, and with help from English linguist John Chadwick, Ventris succeeded in actually translating Linear B. He would die too young in a car crash to enjoy his archaeological celebrity. Most people remember Ventris when it comes to Linear B. But without Bennett, Ventris would’ve been just another Englishman tooling around Crete.
Compared to its exotic origin, Bennett’s singular triumph, and the tablets’ undeniable archaeological appeal, the contents of the Linear B tablet seem sadly ordinary. While the ideograms function as “signs”, and have no phonetic value as words in a written sentence, they catalogue the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago: accounts of crops harvested, flocks tended, goods manufactured, and preparations for religious feasts and wars. About as exciting as the minutes from your local condo board, minus the war talk, or maybe not.
But that’s beside the point. What’s on the tablets is less important than the adventure of a few determined people, who, driven by fierce interior curiosity, and with no maps or clues, go on a journey to figure out what’s there. It’s the same impulse that leads oceans to be sailed and mountains climbed. Whether in the life of the mind, or on a physical landscape, these are journeys-at-all-cost into undiscovered countries that withstand the test of time.
To this day, linguists and archaeologists are stunned by the degree of difficulty of Bennett’s deciphering achievement. Some use the analogy of trying to make sense of illegible handwriting—in a language you do not know, which of course increases the level of difficulty a thousand-fold.
Others like to think of aliens landing on Earth confronted with our quaint 26-strong Roman alphabet. It would take years of painstaking study for them to realize that the dissimilar looking “A” and “a” are actually the same letters, and that the similar looking “O” and “Q” are completely different. But that’s academic. The shooting would have started long before then.
Most astoundingly, Bennett accomplished his great feat all before the benefit of supercomputers with almost infinite powers of algorhythmic data-crunching. His deciphering, in all its untold iterations, was hand (and brain) made, which alone should suggest its singular tenacity, and genius.
Think about that the next time you reset your Facebook password (if it’s not your dog’s name). He took some pictographic gobbledygook like it, multiplied by eighty, and actually made sense of it. They often ask if a 1,000 monkeys on typewriters could write Shakespeare in a 100 years. Most people say no. But if they had Bennett’s discipline, his IQ, and his knack for detail, all bets are off.
To this day, the Linear A tablet, discovered at the same time and dating back several thousand more years, still remains undeciphered.