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Emmett Bennett; deciphered script from Bronze Age

Steven Karanikolas


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 Dec. 15 in Madison, Wis. He was 93.

His daughter Cynthia confirmed the death.

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Dr. 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 BC 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.

“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,’’ said Andrew Robinson, the author of books about archeological decipherment.

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

Linear B recorded the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago.

It was deciphered at last in 1952 by an obsessed amateur, a young English architect named Michael Ventris. He was guided by Dr. Bennett’s work.

Dr. Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the first step in deciphering any unknown script.

Analysts of Linear B spent years in similar straits. Working with Alice Kober, a classicist at Brooklyn College who was one of the world’s foremost specialists on the script, Dr. 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 concepts like “man’’ and “chariot’’; many of these could be interpreted readily.)

Thanks to the combined efforts of Dr. Bennett, Kober, and Ventris, Linear B is now the earliest readable writing in Europe.

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

During World War II, Dr. Bennett worked as a cryptanalyst, helping decipher Japanese messages. Those skills would prove invaluable for his analysis of Linear B. He taught at Yale and the University of Texas but was most closely associated with the University of Wisconsin, where he taught from 1959 to 1988.

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