Tuesday, February 01, 1994

RIP: John Chadwick

New York - John Chadwick, a self-effacing linguist who played a critical role in deciphering the ancient Greek writings known as linear B, died in England on November 24. Mr. Chadwick was 78 and a longtime resident of Cambridge. In an era in which astronauts spend weeks in space and sheep are cloned, it is hard to imagine the excitement - or the controversy - that two men created in 1953, when Mr. Chadwick and his colleague, Michael Ventris, announced that they had unlocked the secrets to a puzzle that had confounded scholars for more than half a century, finding that Linear B was a style of Greek used 500 years before the age of Homer. The mystery began in 1900 when Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist excavating the ancient Minoan palace at Cnossos on Crete discovered clay tablets imprinted with strange pictographs. The 90 or so symbols on these and other tablets later found elsewhere on Crete and in a few places on the Greek mainland dated to about 1400 B.C. and bore no resemblance to any known writing. Evans and others may not have been able to decipher Linear B or to account for its origin, but they had no doubts on one point: it was not Greek. Also, the entire European Bronze Age world was thought to have been illiterate. Ventris and Mr. Chadwick found that there had been a Greek-speaking and -writing people on Crete hundreds of years before the rise of the Greek city states. Mr. Chadwick, a London native who had served in the navy in World War II, had only a slight interest in Linear B until he happened to hear a radio interview in June 1952 in which Ventris discussed his theory. Fascinated, Mr. Chadwick wrote to Ventris, and the two men began an intense collaboration. In a matter of months, they produced a complete system to decipher the ancient tablets and eventually translated 300 of them, mostly commercial inventories. They were published as “ Documents In Mycenaen Greek” in 1956, just weeks before Ventris was killed in an automobile accident.
- New York Times