Michael George Francis Ventris
Michael George Francis Ventris
British Architect, Archaeologist, and Cryptographer
Although educated as an architect, Michael Ventris won acclaim for solving one of the genuine mysteries of archaeology. An early fascination with languages and scripts was the basis for his success in his 1953 decipherment of Linear B, regarded as the greatest of all archaeological decipherments. Tragically, Ventris was killed in a 1956 car accident shortly before his only book, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, was published.
Born on July 12, 1922, Michael Ventris was the son of a British Army officer who served in India and a mother whose father was a native of Poland and had settled in England. As a young boy, his mother introduced him to archaeology through regular trips to London's British Museum and its objects of antiquity. Ventris began his schooling in Switzerland, where he became fluent in French and German. He had a talent for languages—even teaching himself Polish at age six. After school in Gstaad, Ventris attended the Stowe School where he majored in the classics and, in 1940, went on to the Architectural Association school in London. In March 1942, he married Lois Elizabeth Knox-Niven, a fellow architecture student, with whom he eventually had a son and daughter.
With the outbreak of World War II, Ventris's education was interrupted by a brief stint as a navigator in the Royal Air Force, but he received his diploma, with honors, in 1948. Ventris went on to work as an architect for Britain's Ministry of Education, where he designed new schools. In 1956, he was awarded the first Architects' Journal Research Fellowship; his research subject was "Information for the Architect."
Those who had seen Ventris's work as an architectural student had predicted a brilliant future for him as an architect, but it was his early interest in archaeology that brought him distinction. In 1936, Ventris was part of a school group that visited a London exhibition organized to mark the 50th anniversary of the British School of Archaeology at Athens. The group attended a lecture by Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) who detailed his discovery of the ancient Greek civilization of King Minos on the island of Crete and of the mysterious writings used by its people. It was during this lecture that Ventris learned about the supposed "Minoan" tablets of baked clay covered with inscriptions which could not be deciphered, and he decided to be the one to solve the puzzle of their cryptic writings, which Evans later termed Linear B.
Between 1940, when he published his first theory regarding the language of the clay tablets in the American Journal of Archaeology, and 1953, when he published his solution to Linear B in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, Ventris spent considerable time researching the possibilities of the puzzle of Linear B and the clay tablets, corresponding with scholars around the world, including fellow Linear B researcher John Chadwick (1920-1998), who eventually assisted him in finalizing his solution. Ventris's background in architecture may have given him a unique ability to see the language of Linear B at multiple layers. His eventual solution included an elaborate grid system showing the relationships of the symbols and writings on the tablets. Although initially regarded with skepticism, Ventris's solution was confirmed by the analysis of a new tablet, found in 1952.
In 1955, Ventris received the Order of the British Empire for services to Mycenaean paleography. He was also made an honorary research associate at University College, London, and received an honorary doctorate of philosophy from the University of Uppsala. On September 6, 1956, as his only book, Documents of Mycenaean Greek, which gave a detailed account of his search for the solution to Linear B, was about to be published, Ventris was killed when his car collided with a truck in the early hours of the morning.
ANN T. MARSDEN