Thursday, February 21, 2013

Procrastination Secrets Revealed: The Decipherment of Linear B

I realize that one should not brag, but I believe that I am the best procrastinator that I have ever met or heard about by at least one order of magnitude if not more.  I feel confident that I could compete against just about anyone in the world in this area and be victorious. But it isn't just raw talent, as with anything in order to be the best, you have to work at it, you have to practice, and you have to learn technique.

In this essay I am going to discuss one of several topics I have used to waste weeks if not longer of my time, and they can be used to waste your time as well, if you choose. The specific subject matter may not work for everyone but they will work for some of you. I hope you will try them and that they will be as productive in producing non-productivity for you as they have been for me.

The trick is to find a topic or story that is sufficiently complex that it will naturally lead to other interesting topics, which will lead to other interesting topics and so forth. It helps if there is some sense of romance involved, of mystery, or of controversy. By the time you are through, six months or a year or more can be spent becoming your local expert on the otherwise useless subject.

Michael Ventris, the architect who deciphered Linear B, and an example of part of a tablet

In this post we discuss our first example of such a topic: the decipherment of Linear B.

Once upon a time, a famous archaeologist proved that the Minoan and Greek civilizations were literate long before the classical period. But no one could read what they said. There was no Rosetta stone and it was not believed that the language would turn out to be a known one. But a young architect, with a talent for languages, had heard the famous archaeologist speak when he was a teenager and determined to decipher the tablets. And after many years, he did and he did it in such a way that the scholars in the field accepted the correctness of this outsider's work even though it revealed things that proved many of their theories wrong.

I can not express to you in this brief post how unusual and how important this was.  First, it is very difficult for an outsider to participate in current academic research in a field as obscure as ancient history because to really do it well you need to spend years learning things that have no utility outside of the field. In this case, this includes such things as not only knowing Greek, but having an idea of what the field of philology thinks ancient greek might have been like.  Or know a lot about what we think we know about the economies of Greece and Crete at the time in order to help judge whether a translation might be reasonable in context.   But more than that, this is an area where some very good people in the field had tried for 50 years to find a solution and none had been found, although some progress had been made.  And it was important to know about this work, this progress, because it ultimately opened the door for Ventris's solution.   And last but not least, there is something about ancient languages that attracts the nutty people, John Chadwich at one point had three file boxes of lunatic slush from people who thought they had translated Linear A or the Phaistos Disk.

So not only did Ventris have to solve the problem where others had tried and failed, but he had to do so in a way that this very elitist and closed community of scholars could accept and pay him serious attention.   Ventris knew all this of course, and he had some good fortune.  Part of the story is how he happened to be able to present his ideas on the BBC as part of a discussion of the problem and how a scholar at Cambridge, an expert in ancient Greek languages, heard him speak.  The scholar, John Chadwick, checked into Ventris and tried his proposed solution and, to his amazement, was able to decipher about 20 or so plausible Greek words in a few days of effort that made sense in the context of the tablets.   Then as a team, Ventris and Chadwick published the paper that presented the ideas, and that worked very well for academia: a lead author who is an outsider, but a reputable and known scholar as second author.  Perhaps Ventris alone, although he found the solution mostly on his own, would not have been as strong as the two of them together.

Here is the way John Chadwick begins the story of the decipherment:

So at this point in our story, an outsider has come to the field and presented a solution to a very difficult problem.   But now you have to get people to accept the idea.   And the story just keeps getting better.   Chadwick and Ventris knew that new tablets had been found but had not seen them.   But the archaeologist whose dig had found the new tablets had a copy of an early draft of the decipherment paper and tried the system on several tablets.   But one tablet, a very famous tablet if a tablet can be said to be famous, was particularly useful.  It was an inventory of various things that looked like tripods and cups/vases with a number of handles.   And the translation  listed "tripods" for things with three legs, and vases with four handles said "four ears" (an ear was a term for handle of a vase used in Homer) and one with three handles, said "three ears", and so forth.  As the archaeologist who sent it to them said, "This is all too good to be true, is coincidence excluded"?

But here is where the procrastination comes in, the part where things start expanding into other areas that are related and also fascinating.  It turns out that these are not just any old tablets of an ancient and lost civilization.  No.  Whatever may be historical about Homer, most scholars who study Homer believe that it is an authentic transmission or memory of an early period of Greece, however much it may have been distorted or romanticised.   And these tablets are almost certainly the accounting records of the civilization that Homer wrote/talked about.   And this civilization happens to also be the one which at that period, participated in the catastrophe of about 1200 BC which archaeologists refer to in various ways, but generally as "the end of the late bronze age in the eastern mediterranean".  At this time, most of the civilizations of this area, were either destroyed or attacked, by people who have not been identified but whom the Egyptians called the "Sea Peoples".

And it turns out that we have these tablets at all because they were in cities that were burned to the ground.  These clay tablets are almost certainly the temporary records, recorded in unfired clay, which got fired by accident when the cities were destroyed, and left where they fell in the ruins, where no one was left to clean things up, and rebuild.   

How interesting could the accounting records of a lost civilization be? One of the first tablets they decoded said, and I quote:

At Pylos. Slaves of the Priestess on account of the sacred gold. 14 women.

L. Ryder Haggard would have been proud to write such a sentence. has a good summary introduction to Linear B

Begin researching this topic by reading the following book by John Chadwick: will let you read about 1/4 of the book online.

A conference on the decipherment of Linear B after 60 years

Its Greek to me.

In later posts we will discuss other topics which have the potential of wasting a huge amount of your time.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting point of view.
    An actions report of a manager of the ancient Phaistos commercial center

    The famous Phaistos Disc is a printed, per paragraph, synoptic report of a manager actions from the Phaistos commercial center. The spirals, for technical reasons, are starting with guide the edge of the disc, from the periphery to the center, and the inscription, again for technical reasons, begins reversely.
    The Phaistos Disk, the Column from Abydos, the Rosetta’s Stone, the plate from Egkomi, the plate from the Athena's sanctuary of the Idalion and the plate of Kortona are some written reports or publications current accounting's and regulatory acts for the king's or administration's or municipality's informing.!/view.aspx?cid=E39B50D7D9EA3235&resid=E39B50D7D9EA3235%21123&app=WordPdf