"The ancient Greeks had a pictogram for it"
Obituary by Dan van der Vat
From _The Guardian_, 1998-12-03, page 22. Reproduced without permission.
The classical scholar John Chadwick, who has died aged 78, played a leading
role in one of the most important and exciting linguistic discoveries of
the century, the decipherment of Linear B, the writing used by the
Mycenaean civilisation of bronze-age Greece.
Incorrigibly modest, Chadwick always took second place to Michael Ventris,
his colleague in the extraordinary breakthrough. Ventris had the original
inspiration that the symbols of Linear B must represent syllables in an
early version of Greek rather than some other, indeterminate eastern
Mediterranean language. But, as one of his Cambridge colleagues confirmed
after his death, Chadwick brought the expertise of a Greek philologist to
the arduous and brilliant research, unaided by computers, that proved the
Ventris was an architect but also an amateur linguist of genius. He had
been interested in the mysterious, fire-hardened clay tablets, covered in
pictograms and found in Crete and later in mainland Greece, ever since, as
a schoolboy, he heard a 1936 lecture by their discoverer, the archaeologist
Sir Arthur Evans. Evans identified two systems, Linear A, used by the
earlier Minoan civilisation (definitely not Greek) and Linear B, which he
never dreamed could be Greek.
Examining the Cretan tablets in 1951, Ventris deduced that certain groups
of ideographic sylllables represented place-names on the island, which were
often proto-Greek, such as ko-no-so for Knossos. In an experiment he
ascribed the same sound-values to the same symbols when they appeared in
other words whose meaning could be guessed from their design and context,
such as pictograms for men, women, and children. Time after time the result
seemed to resemble words in very ancient Greek.
Ventris therefore turned to Chadwick, then a Cambridge classics lecturer
and a specialist in the early history of the language, for help. They
published a controversial first paper in the Journal of Hellenic Studies in
1953 but were vindicated shortly afterwards when a new find of tablets at
Pylos in Greece was deciphered using their method. The tablets contain
lists of assets such as food, arms, livestock and people.
Not only had they "cracked" Linear B; by doing so they had shown for the
first time that the Mycenaean civilisation that used it, more than 1,000
years before Pericles governed Athens, was Greek. It had ruled in Crete as
well as such mainland sites as Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos, for some 400
years until it was mysteriously destroyed, perhaps by a vast earthquake or
volcanic explosion. The stunning discovery also lent strength to Homeric
scholars who were confirmed in their theories about the date of the war
against Troy and its destruction by bronze-age Greeks, as described by the
poet centuries later.
Chadwick and Ventris wrote up their findings in the magisterial work,
_Documents in Mycenaean Greek_, published in 1956 just before Ventris died
in a car crash, and revised by Chadwick in 1973. He was the sole author of
_The Decipherment of Linear B_ in 1958, which made an intricate process of
decryption readably accessible to the lay reader.
John Chadwick was born at East Sheen, London, and educated at St Paul's
School and Corpus Christi, Cambridge. After wartime Royal Navy Special
Branch service he took his degree and started work as a lexicographer with
Oxford University Press. Six years later he returned to Cambridge to
lecture in classics, working in the university from 1952 until his 1984
"retirement" by which time he was Perceval Maitland Laurence Reader in
But he carried on living in Cambridge, lecturing, writing and working on
dictionaries until the day of his death. Reserved, he struck many people as
aloof, even forbidding, an impression dispelled by closer acquaintance,
according to other academics. he was particulary solicitous of his
students, whith whom he kept in touch long after they went down.
Although never given a professor's chair, Chadwick was showered with
academic honours by half a dozen countries and was a member of many leading
international academic societies. He was also a Fellow of the British
Academy and of Downing College, Cambridge. He wrote several further books
on Mycenaean culture and other classical subjects and at the time of his
death he had completed preparaions for a new Greek lexicon, which is to go
John Chadwick married Joan Isoblel Hill in 1947; they had one son.
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