Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Michael Ventris, architecture and ancient languages

The idea of using research in one academic field to inform work in another - something that A2SN looks to promote - is not new by any means. Michael Ventris was the ultimate enthusiast of this sort of cross-disciplinary work. Born in 1922 in Hertfordshire, his family soon moved Switzerland for the health benefits of the air - Ventris had chronic bronchial asthma as a child. At the age of eleven he returned home and won a scholarship to the Stowe School, where he learnt Latin, Classical Greek and, somewhat serebticiously, whatever he could about Linear B - an ancient signs script which at that point was not deciphered and the origin of which was unclear. At the age of sixteen his father died and in 1939 his mother became destitute; she was a wealthy immigrant landholder from Poland, meaning she lost everything when the Germans invaded. Ventris soon lost her to clinical depression, and then an overdose of barbiturates.

A Linear B Tablet
Ventris resolved to study architecture and enrolled in the Architectural Association School of Architecture. The war put his studies on hold. He was drafted in 1942 and went into the Royal Air Force, where he became a navigator. Ventris was always good with languages, eventually learning twelve, and while in Canada training he learned Russian. This would determine his post-war posting, he served on the ground in Germany, although his duties are unclear. In 1948 Ventris completed his education, and thereafter designed schools for the Ministry of Education. At this point he also stepped up his work on Linear B, and revealed to the world in that it was Greek. Between 1951 and 1953 he set about deciphering it, and as a result was awarded an OBE in 1955 for "services to Mycenaean paleography." Sadly, just as his lifetime work was coming to fruition, he died suddenly. Driving home late at night he collided with a parked truck. His death was ruled an accident, but many have suspected that he committed suicide.

Ventris dipped his toe into many fields; using what he had learnt in one to inform another. As Emmanouil Stavrakakis, a PhD candidate with the Architectural Association, will explain in a talk, Ventris' work on the decipherment of Liner B was directly informed by his architectural training. The talk will occur on at the Architectural Association, 34-36 Bedford Square, London on 19 February 2014 at 6.30pm. All are welcome.

If you are interested in such cross-disciplinary work, perhaps the A2SN workshop 2014 will also interest you. Entitled 'The industrious Fabric of Leeds', the Wworkshop seeks to explore and expand co-operation between volunteer-led societies involved in business history fields and the academics, archivists and museum professionals working in the same areas. A brochure and application form can be found here. Book early to avoid disappointment!

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