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The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris Hardcover – June 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews


Intriguing....[Ventris] was a sweet, sad genius, and Robinson touchingly chronicles his life-long obsession with those mysterious tablets. -- Atlantic Monthly, October 2002

Robinson has given us a glimpse of genius at work, making significant connections between the work and the life. -- New York Sun, 20 May 2002

[A] fascinating biography....a book as gripping and readable as a detective story. -- Michael D. Coe

About the Author

Andrew Robinson is the author of numerous books on popular science and the history of science and the arts, including The Man Who Deciphered Linear B and The Story of Writing.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; First Edition edition (June 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500510776
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500510773
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,860,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Adrian Heathcote on September 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is a book about a great achievement and a great man, but it is also a deeply frustrating account of both. It purports to be about Michael Ventris, the man who deciphered Linear B and showed it to be archaic Greek, and only secondarily about the details of the decipherment and what it revealed about the Mycenaean world. In fact the book is best on the details of the decipherment and rather poor on the details of Ventris's life. On the Mycenaean world it is almost non-existent. Robinson does a good job of bringing the architectural career of Ventris out of the shadows, and even linking it up to the decipherment, but the book is so sketchy about the facts of Ventris's marriage and the life of his parents that this can't really count as an account of Ventris's life at all. When did his father die and what did he die of?; what caused his parents to divorce?; why was Ventris's wife so chronically uninterested in his devotion to the decipherment?; what were her interests, and who were her friends? -- the list of unanswered questions goes on and on.

The great revelation of the book -- from a biographical point of view -- is that Ventris's death, at the height of his fame, was very likely suicide. Robinson is too reticent to say it that baldly but he lays out the facts and allows the reader to draw the obvious conclusion. But when he left home that night at midnight, only to crash, one hour later, into a parked truck on a road he had no reason to be on, at high speed, there is so much that the reader wants to know that this book will not tell. Had he and his wife quarelled? They were clearly not close by that point, so had she asked for a divorce? Why did she think he left the house at that hour? In fact the figure of Lois Ventris is shadowy beyond all belief.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Michael Ventris was a brilliant linguist who solved a top-notch archeological puzzle. The extent of his accomplishment and his peculiar and likable personality are well shown in _The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris_ (Thames & Hudson) by Andrew Robinson. Ventris's accomplishment was an intellectual breakthrough ranking with the victory of Champollion over hieroglyphics, and unlike Champollion, he had no Rosetta Stone guide him in translations. His victory was over the squiggles on clay tablets unearthed at Knossos on Crete.
Ventris became intrigued by the decipherment as a schoolboy, even furtively studying the language by flashlight under his bedsheets at school. He modestly explained years later, "Some of us thought it would be a change from our set lessons to try and decipher the tablets, but of course we didn' t get anywhere. Somehow I've remained interested in the problem ever since." He did not then, of course, have the academic credentials to tackle such a task, but he never got them. He was a brilliant linguist, picking up languages quickly and speaking like a native, but he had no training in language or the classics; he never even went to university. He trained as an architect, and for all his short life, he split his endeavors between architecture and Linear B. Robinson maintains that the decipherment was helped by Ventris's training in architecture. The book is excellent at showing the difficult assignment Ventris gave himself, using good analogies with English words to make the puzzle as plain as possible for non-linguists. It shows the importance of hunches and inspiration, as well as cold logic.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By bensmomma on December 31, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Linear B was a script of unknown language that appeared in bits and pieces in archaelogical digs in an around Greece. Nobody could decipher it; in fact, they couldn't even agree on what language the script represented. Andrew Robinson tells the fascinating story of Michael Ventris, the architect/amateur linguist who 'cracked' the code of Linear B and proved to the world that it contained an ancient form of Greek.
The story unfolds with the same drama as a murder mystery or detective story. Robinson makes what could have been a complicated story eloquent and clear.
Although I recommend this book highly, at the end of it I still felt in the dark about Ventris himself. He seems to have been a great eccentric and very private individual. His sudden death at the age of 34 seems to have occurred under a cloud of deep depression that Robinson does not really explain. Linear B may be deciphered, but Ventris is still a mystery.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Catherine S. Vodrey on October 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Andrew Robinson's "The Man Who Deciphered Linear B" should be dry and academic in the worst possible senses of those words. It is, to the contrary, an utterly fascinating mystery and linguistic puzzle which Robinson lays out methodically for his readers--even those who had little previous interest in linguistic puzzles.
Michael Ventris, the man at the heart of this book, was a rather shy, somewhat diffident man who had trained as an architect and married young. Instead of leading the staid life it seems fate had laid out for him, he spent most of his short adult years working on the Linear B--a tablet found at a Mediterranean archaeological dig, and a tablet which had all but been pronounced indecipherable by many scholars with better credentials than Ventris's. Ventris ignored their conclusions and did eventually decipher the tablet. The story is filled with surprises and sudden discoveries, with disappointments and fortuitous guesses, and so on. It is quite a ride. There is even the occasional spot of humor--as when Ventris was stopped by a suspicious Customs agent who said, "These Pylos Tablets--exactly what ailment is it that they're supposed to relieve?"
I learned a great deal from this book. Among the more memorable nuggets was the fact that an alphabet generally contains between 20 and 40 characters--if there are more than 40 characters, it is probably a syllabary (meaning, a system by which each character represents an entire word rather than just one letter or other element WITHIN a word). I highly recommend this for any student of lost language--and anyone who enjoys a twisty-turny thriller!
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