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Semaphores?

Human beings first learnt to write approximately 10,000 years ago… Nowadays, most of the world’s languages use transliteration, which is popularly known as alphabets. Almost everything can be written with a limited number of alphabets. For example, there are 52 alphabets in English Language.
When people decipher something in familiar scripts and languages, they usually focus on the contents. However, they do not tend to take a closer look at the subtle variations of how the script is written! When people come across an unfamiliar script, they seldom get to read it. Then, the script becomes symbolic to them. For example, the Harappan script… experts have failed to decipher the Harappan Script, despite making serious efforts for the last 100 years! Sometimes, experts taste unexpected success… as they manage to understand the meaning of signs engraved on a stone or other object, and reveal unknown history. Indeed, this is a very difficult job, especially if the symbols are complicated… because both the script and language are unknown. Still, young British architect Michael Ventris (July 12, 1922 – September 6, 1956) made it possible with his inquisitive mind!

Michael Ventris.jpg
Michael Ventris

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, excavations by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and English archaeologist Sir Arthur John Evans saw the discovery of many archaeological sites in the Island of Crete, and its adjoining areas in the Mediterranean. In fact, they pioneered the study of Aegean Civilisation in the Bronze Age. After excavating different areas of Troy, Canosa and Crete, they came to know that there was a huge empire, called Mycenae, near the end of the Bronze Age. The Mycenaean kings used a special script to write on the clay or pottery. This script was widely used in Greece at least 600 years before Homer, who celebrated Mycenae as the seat of King Agamemnon, as he used to believe that King Agamemnon led the Greeks in the Trojan War…
This script is completely different from the ancient Greek script. Sir Arthur discovered this script during archaeological excavations. Later, the script is named as ‘Linear B‘… Linear B was a totally unfamiliar script. The language, too, was completely unknown. Therefore, it was difficult to decipher the script. Ventris was an architect by profession. However, he had a great interest in Philology and Linguistics! He was also interested in learning classical languages. Ventris developed expertise in classical Greek, Latin, German, French, Russian and even Egyptian hieroglyphics. (A hieroglyph – Greek for ‘sacred writing‘ – was a character of the ancient Egyptian writing system. Logographic scripts that are pictographic in form in a way reminiscent of ancient Egyptian are also sometimes called ‘Hieroglyphs‘.)

Heinrich Schliemann.jpg
Heinrich Schliemann

Ventris was attracted by the Linear B script at the age of eight! Until then, no one could decipher the script. The English architect made an attempt to decipher the Linear B script, as he had an idea that the script had a relation with the Etruscan Language. Etruscan was the spoken and written language of the Etruscan civilisation (in Italy) in the ancient region of Etruria and in parts of Corsica, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Lombardyx, and Campania. Etruscan influenced Latin, but eventually was completely superseded by latter.

Sir Arthur John Evans.jpg
Sir Arthur John Evans

Interestingly, Ventris realised that the language of the Linear B script was not Etruscan. After studying the script for some years, he found that the language – used for the Linear B script – was probably similar to Latin, as it was heavily dependent on case-endings. In Latin or Sanskrit Language, the case-endings change frequently at the end of words. He thought that it was also the case in this particular language. Based on these assumptions, Ventris started identifying each specific image and symbol as vowels and consonants. This way, he initially prepared a list of vowels and consonants. Gradually, it was revealed that Linear B was a mixture of Alphabetic Script and Syllabic Script, and was written from left to right.

Carl William Blegen.jpg
Carl William Blegen

Ventris’ success came as a surprise! Carl William Blegen, an American archaeologist, worked on the site of Pylos in Greece and Troy in modern-day Turkey. He directed the University of Cincinnati excavations of the mound of Hisarlik, the site of Troy, and of Pylos from 1932 to 1938. In Pylos, he discovered nearly 600 archaeological emblems written in the Linear B script. As the WWII began soon after that, researchers did not get the news.
When Ventris got access to those pieces of information, he found that Blegen discovered some new images and symbols, which were not discovered by Schliemann and Sir Arthur earlier. Ventris assumed that these symbols or images probably indicated a place or a name… that is why those were missing in previously discovered symbols. His assumption was perfect and true!

Linear B script.jpg
Linear B script

Ventris had already prepared the list of vowels and consonants, by that time! With the help of that list, he successfully deciphered the names of places discovered by Blegen. He also deciphered the Linear B script in 1952 after making efforts for 12 years! The world came to know that this script was used in Mycenaean Greek Language. Without taking the necessary assistance from interpreters, Ventris did this job on the basis of his intuition and guess work, and made an official announcement in this regard on July 1, 1952!
After creating a new field of study, he took four years to edit a complete book on Mycenaean Greek, jointly with John Chadwick. Unfortunately, Ventris died in a car accident (at the age of 34) a few weeks before publication of the book.

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