March 30, 1900. Clay tablets inscribed with mysterious writing are discovered at an archaeological dig on Crete, leading to a decades-long international effort to decipher them.
It’s March 30th, 1900, on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean.
A few miles inshore, on a flower-covered hill overlooking the sea, a dig is underway. Arthur Evans, a 48-year-old English archaeologist, leans on his stick and lowers himself into a long trench carved out of the earth.
A local digger stops his shoveling and looks on as Arthur, in a spotless white suit, kneels to examine what the man has found…
The wind, gusting in from the coast, blows dust off the shattered remnants of an ancient vase. Arthur peers closely at the half-buried shards of pottery. He is severely short-sighted but refuses to wear glasses making everyday life difficult, but Arthur finds it invaluable for excavations when a close detailed examination is paramount. As he looks over the pottery, exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years, there’s an excited shout from the other side of the site. Arthur looks up as other diggers abandon their work to rush across the mound in the direction of the shouting. Arthur climbs up out of the trench and hurries to follow them…
As he approaches the crowd, the Englishman finds a young digger, his face shining with sweat and excitement. He’s holding a long, narrow bar of clay that he’s just pulled from the earth. He passes it gently to Arthur. And even with his poor eyesight, the archaeologist can see at once that there’s something special about it. The dull rectangle of clay is inscribed with strange symbols, a mixture of lines, pictures, and circles. It’s clearly writing. But when the young digger asks Arthur what it is exactly, all Arthur can honestly say is, “I don’t know.”
Over the weeks and months of excavation that follow, Arthur and his team unearth a vast complex of interlocking rooms and hallways buried beneath the hilltop. Arthur identifies it as the Bronze Age city of Knossos. The discovery makes the English archaeologist famous around the world.
But Arthur’s most intriguing finds are the hundreds of clay tablets discovered scattered throughout the ancient palace. Dating to around 1500 BCE, they are the records of an ancient civilization and evidence of the earliest writing ever discovered in Europe. Arthur dubs the strange writing “Linear B”. But nobody knows how to read it.
It’s a mystery that will baffle scholars for decades until Linear B is finally deciphered, not by an archaeologist or an expert linguist, but by a brilliant amateur. A young man named Michael Ventris will embark on an obsessive hunt for a solution to the puzzle, a journey of discovery that will end in worldwide fame, but that began in the dust of Crete on this day, March 30th, 1900.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 30th, 1900: The Lost Language of Crete is Uncovered.
It’s the fall of 1936, more than three decades after the discovery of the Linear B tablets on Crete.
In central London, an exhibition is underway at Burlington House, home to the British Society of Antiquaries, an organization dedicated to the study of the past.
Today, a group of teenage schoolboys, in blazers and ties, follow their gray-haired teacher past the archaeological exhibits. Some whisper to one another, their attention wandering. But one boy lingers over the artifacts, intrigued by the strange marks and inscriptions on the ancient pottery and stone.
Michael Ventris is 14 years old. He’s been obsessed with ancient languages ever since he was a small boy and first read about the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. Michael is also a natural linguist. Born to an English father and half-Polish mother, Michael spent much of his early youth in Switzerland. By the time his family moved back to England, the young Michael could speak not only English and Polish but German and French as well. He then won a scholarship to a top school where he began the study of Latin and Ancient Greek. A few years later, he’s now on a field trip to London to see the wonders of the ancient world on display at Burlington House.
The schoolboys file into a lecture hall and watch as an old man stomps onto the stage with the help of a sturdy walking stick. British archeologist Arthur Evans is now in his mid-eighties. And though his back is stooped with age, his eyes still gleam as he tells the audience of his excavations in Crete all those years ago.
Michael leans forward in his seat, listening intently as Arthur explains how the mysterious clay tablets were found at Knossos and about his subsequent attempts to solve their riddle. The text, which Arthur named Linear B, has too many different symbols for them to be an alphabet. And it has too few for each symbol to represent a whole word. So, they must represent syllables, parts of words, instead. But exactly what language lies behind them remains a mystery.
Young Michael is captivated by the lecture. As he sits in the darkened room listening to this old man speak, Michael makes a silent promise to himself: that he will be the one to break the code and finally unlock the secrets of Linear B. But he will have some catching up to do. Because on the other side of the Atlantic, another scholar is already hard at work on Linear B with a new idea of how to solve the ancient mystery.
Eleven years later, in the fall of 1947, an assistant professor of Classics at Brooklyn College in New York wearily climbs the stairs to her cramped office.
Alice Kober is a small and serious-looking woman, with a solemn air that makes her seem older than her forty years. She’s had a long day teaching students on courses like ‘Introductory Latin’. But now, finally, she can concentrate on what really interests her: Linear B. Unlocking her office, Alice flicks on the lamp, sits down at her desk, and, lighting a cigarette, settles in to begin work.
Alice has been studying Linear B for more than fifteen years. She began by analyzing the individual symbols and looking for patterns. She compiled pages and pages of statistics: how often each symbol appeared, where and with what other symbols. But after writing two well-received papers on the subject, Alice reached the point where she needed more data. By now, thousands of clay tablets have been discovered on Crete, yet only a few hundred have been reproduced in books or papers. So, in the spring of 1947, Alice traveled to England. The Knossos clay tablets were held at the University of Oxford and Alice was able to spend more than a month there, painstakingly making paper copies of the inscriptions.
Now, back in the United States, Alice returns to her office every evening and labors well into the early hours to analyze the texts she copied in England. It’s exhausting, but she’s hopeful that with a few more years of work, the Linear B code will finally be broken.
But eighteen months later, with her work still unfinished, Alice suddenly falls ill. She spends months in and out of hospital before passing away on May 16th, 1950, at the age of just 43. But although Alice’s efforts to decipher Linear B end in failure, her work will be a foundation for others. Back in England, there is a young man who will build on what Alice discovered and finally crack the code of Crete’s lost language.
It’s spring 1951 in Highgate, a leafy suburb of north London, more than half a century after the discovery of the Linear B tablets on Crete.
Rain falls and the wind tugs at trees as Michael Ventris hurries down a quiet residential street. The 28-year-old then heads down a side street that leads toward the local post office. Michael has a package waiting for him and he’s eager to pick it up as soon as he can.
In the years since Michael’s encounter with the old archaeologist Arthur Evans at Burlington House, Linear B has become an obsession for the young man. At boarding school, he would study the texts by flashlight under his bed covers. During World War II, Michael served as a navigator for the Royal Air Force, but he always carried with him his copies of the Linear B inscriptions and worked on them whenever he got the chance - even during bombing raids over Germany. After the war, Michael qualified as an architect, designing schools for the government. But he found that work uninspiring and the puzzle of Linear B was too alluring to resist. So, he quit his job and tried to devote himself to the mystery of the code full-time.
Building on the work of Alice Kober, Michael has conducted his own close analysis of the Linear B symbols, establishing patterns that lie beneath the confusing jumble of lines and circles. At every stage, he’s shared his findings with a small group of academics also working on the puzzle in universities around the world. And one of them has just sent Michael a copy of his new book.
Having picked up the parcel from the post office, Michael races home through the rain. Returning to the apartment where he lives with his wife and two small children, Michael peels off his sodden jacket, before shutting himself away in his study and eagerly ripping open the package.
The new book contains reproductions of recently discovered clay tablets with Linear B writing on them. But these aren’t from Knossos on Crete, like the ones found by Arthur Evans. Instead, they were found at Pylos on the Greek mainland, almost a hundred and fifty miles across the sea.
Immediately, Michael gets to work comparing the newly discovered tablets to those found by Arthur Evans fifty years earlier. He soon realizes that there are some combinations of symbols that only appear on the tablets from Crete. And that’s when Michael makes an inspired leap. He wonders whether the symbols that are found only on the tablets from Crete could represent the names of places on the island. If he’s right, he can work out what sounds correspond to certain symbols. And if he can do that, then he can start to finally unravel the code completely.
It’s one year later, at the beginning of July 1952, in Cambridge, England.
John Chadwick is a 32-year-old lecturer in Classics at the town’s famous university. He sits in his office, grading papers with the radio on in the background: it’s a program about ancient languages which John thought might be interesting. He’s only half listening but as he finishes one paper and picks up the next, the topic of conversation on the radio catches his ear.
"MICHAEL: During the last few weeks, I have suddenly come to the conclusion that the Knossos and Pylos tablets must, after all, be written in Greek, a difficult and archaic Greek, seeing that it’s 500 years older than Homer and written in a rather abbreviated form… but Greek nevertheless”…”
John sets his student’s paper aside and scoots his chair closer to the radio. He doesn’t know who Michael Ventris is, but he’s intrigued by what he is saying. Michael claims to have done what many thought was impossible: he says he’s deciphered Linear B.
Like so many others, John Chadwick has long been fascinated by the strange ancient writing system of Linear B. He thought he had the right skill set to decipher it himself. During World War II, John worked as a codebreaker for the British military, deciphering encrypted messages sent by the enemy. After the war, when he became an academic, John tried to use his wartime skills on Linear B. But he got nowhere; still, he’s never lost his interest in the mystery, and hearing the interview with Michael on the radio, John resolves to write to him and offer his help.
Michael is quick to reply. He’s eager to work with John, who is a specialist in early Greek dialects, and can confirm whether his findings are correct. But it’s not just John’s expertise that makes a partnership so appealing. Michael never went to university, and he’s always been insecure about his status as an amateur, an outsider in academic circles. Working with a Cambridge lecturer like John is one way for Michael to convince everyone else, and himself, that he is a genuine scholar.
Soon, the two men begin exchanging letters. It’s the beginning of a deep partnership. And together, Michael and John will finally unravel the mysteries of Linear B and, in so doing, rewrite the history of early European civilization. But the partnership will be brief. Tragedy will soon intervene as one of the two brilliant young men will not live to see their work completed.
It’s just after midnight on September 7th, 1956, more than half a century after the discovery of Linear B.
In the countryside a little north of London, lights streak through the darkness as a small car speeds along an empty road. Behind the wheel, Michael Ventris presses his foot down on the gas, and the car lunges forward, going faster and faster. The headlamps illuminate a sign for a rest area off the road up ahead. Michael twists the steering wheel and his car veers. But he doesn’t brake. Michael is still accelerating when his car smashes into a truck already parked in the dark rest area.
Michael is killed instantly at only 34 years old.
In his life, Michael conquered what one expert called the “Mount Everest of Greek archaeology”. His discovery made him famous. And working with the Cambridge scholar John Chadwick, he successfully deciphered hundreds of Linear B tablets and almost finished a colossus of a book that explained his findings in minute detail.
But Michael was a man who struggled to cope with success. He solved the puzzle that had obsessed him for decades. But afterward, he found it hard living without the mystery. Though the full truth behind why Michael crashed his car can never be known, it’s clear he was not a happy man at the time of his death. His marriage was falling apart and the onslaught of publicity surrounding him, his life, and career, was relentless.
So solving the puzzle of Linear B became the end of the story for Michael, but for other scholars, it was just the beginning. The three-thousand-year-old clay tablets were revealed as inventories for keeping track of goods like wool, sheep, and grain. Put together, they provided a glimpse of life in the Mediterranean Bronze Age and created a whole new field of study in ancient history. But this advancement was only possible because of Michael Ventris, the brilliant and obsessed young man who finally solved the mystery that stretched back more than half a century to the island of Crete and the first discovery of Linear B on March 30th, 1900.
Next on History Daily. March 31st, 1981. The famous Actor Robert De Niro wins an academy award for his role in Director Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.