Saturday, January 7, 2012

Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93

Emmett L. Bennett Jr., a classicist who played a vital role in deciphering Linear B, the Bronze Age Aegean script that defied solution for more than 50 years after it was unearthed on clay tablets in 1900, died on Dec. 15 in Madison, Wis. He was 93.

His daughter Cynthia Bennett confirmed the death.

Professor Bennett was considered the father of Mycenaean epigraphy — that is, the intricate art of reading inscriptions from the Mycenaean period, as the slice of the Greek Bronze Age from about 1600 to 1200 B.C. is known. His work, which entailed analysis so minute that he could eventually distinguish the handwritings of many different Bronze Age scribes, helped open a window onto the Mycenaean world.

This was the world of which Homer would sing in his “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” a world that until Linear B was deciphered had languished in the murk of prehistory.

Deciphering an ancient script is like cracking a secret code from the past, and the unraveling of Linear B is widely considered one of the most challenging archaeological decipherments of all time, if not the most challenging.

“Anyone who’s looked at a piece of indecipherable handwriting realizes how difficult it is as opposed to looking at a piece of text with the same message in printed form,” Andrew Robinson, the author of many books about archaeological decipherment, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

With an unknown language in an unknown script, the difficulty is multiplied a thousandfold.

Linear B recorded the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago: accounts of crops harvested, flocks tended, goods manufactured (including furniture, chariots and perfume), preparations for religious feasts and preparations for war.

It was deciphered at last in 1952, not by a scholar but by an obsessed amateur, a young English architect named Michael Ventris. The decipherment made him world famous before his death in an automobile accident in 1956.

As Mr. Ventris had acknowledged, he was deeply guided by Professor Bennett’s work, which helped impose much-needed order on the roiling mass of strange, ancient symbols.

In his seminal monograph “The Pylos Tablets” (1951), Professor Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the essential first step in deciphering any unknown script, and it is no mean feat.

A Martian confronting the Roman alphabet, for instance, would need years of painstaking study just to be certain that dissimilar-looking characters like “A” and “a” are mere variations of the same letter, while similar-looking ones like “O” and “Q” are different letters altogether.

Analysts of Linear B spent years in similar straits. Working with Alice Kober, a classicist at Brooklyn College who before her death in 1950 was one of the world’s foremost experts on the script, Professor Bennett spent much of the 1940s hammering out a list of about 80 characters.

Each character stood for a syllable of the still-unknown language. (Linear B also contained a set of pictographic signs, standing for whole concepts like “man,” “woman,” “horse,” “goat” and “chariot”; many of these could be interpreted readily.)

Thanks to the combined efforts of Professor Bennett, Professor Kober and Mr. Ventris, Linear B is now the earliest readable writing in Europe, and the Mycenaean Age is part of the canon of history.

Emmett Leslie Bennett Jr. was born in Minneapolis on July 12, 1918. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in classics from the University of Cincinnati, where he studied with the eminent archaeologist Carl W. Blegen.

During World War II, the young Mr. Bennett worked as a cryptanalyst, helping decipher Japanese messages.

“He didn’t know Japanese,” said Thomas G. Palaima, a classics professor at the University of Texas who was a graduate student of Professor Bennett’s. “They gave him the encoded texts, and what he did was look for patterns in them. And of course this is all pre-computer, so you needed to have human beings searching for strings and all that.”

Those skills would prove invaluable for his analysis of Linear B.

The tablets were first unearthed in the spring of 1900 at Knossos, Crete, by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans, who dated them to about 1450 B.C. (He also uncovered an older Cretan script, which he named Linear A; it remains undeciphered.)

From the start, Linear B was a black box. The script, whose characters to modern eyes resemble tepees and telegraph poles, shirt buttons and philodendron leaves, was unlike anything ever seen. The language it recorded was equally unknown: many ethnic groups had peopled the Bronze Age Aegean, and there was no way to tell which had produced the tablets.

Mr. Evans tried for decades to crack Linear B but was unable to do so before his death in 1941. About the only thing of which he, and most later investigators, felt confident was that the script did not record Greek: Greek speakers were not thought to have existed that long ago.

Even if they had, they would seemingly have had no way to write their language down: the Greek alphabet was not adopted until the eighth century B.C. (The Homeric epics were composed and transmitted orally starting in the ninth or eighth century B.C.)

But as Mr. Ventris discovered, Linear B did write Greek — a very early dialect spoken 500 years before Homer and a millennium before the Classical Age.

Professor Bennett’s investigations centered on a cache of Linear B tablets from Pylos, on the Greek mainland; they had been unearthed by his mentor, Professor Blegen, in 1939. After the war, Professor Blegen entrusted his disciple to transcribe, analyze and publish their contents.

The result was “The Pylos Tablets.” Though the book did not try to decipher Linear B, its careful transcriptions, comprehensive list of signs and analysis of characteristic patterns in the script gave Mr. Ventris essential grist.

“We know how much Ventris admired Bennett, because he immediately adopted Bennett’s sign list of Linear B for his own work before the decipherment,” said Mr. Robinson, whose book “The Man Who Deciphered Linear B” (2002) is a biography of Mr. Ventris. “He openly said, ‘This is a wonderful piece of work.’ ”

Professor Bennett taught at Yale and the University of Texas but was most closely associated with the University of Wisconsin, where he taught from 1959 until his retirement in 1988.

Besides his daughter Cynthia, he is survived by another daughter, Kathleen Bennett; three sons, Patrick, John and Chris; a sister, Shirley Denman; a brother, Clarence; and four grandchildren. His wife, the former Marja Dorothy Adams, whom he married in 1941, died in 2005.

As meticulous as Professor Bennett’s work was, it once engendered great confusion. In 1951, after he sent Mr. Ventris a copy of his monograph, a grateful Ventris went to the post office to pick it up. As Mr. Robinson’s biography recounts, a suspicious official, eyeing the package, asked him: “I see the contents are listed as Pylos Tablets. Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?”

Fox, Margalit. 2012. "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93". New York Times Science. Posted: December 31, 2011. Available online:

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