by Susan Lupack
Senior Lecturer of Greek and Roman Archaeology
Director, Bachelors of Archaeology
Co-Director Perachora Peninsula Archaeological Project
I cannot tell you how incredibly excited and proud I am that some of the most significant artefacts documenting the decipherment of Linear B are now on display in the Macquarie University History Museum as part of an exhibit entitled Mysteries Revisited, From Ancient Codes to Comic Culture, And all this is thanks to Tom Palaima, Director of the Program in Aegean Scripts and History (PASP), who made it happen.
The artefacts include letters between Alice Kober, Emmett Bennett, and Michael Ventris, three of the main scholars whose painstaking work led to the discovery that the Mycenaean script called Linear B actually represents an early form of Greek. The objects that speak volumes though are the two cigarette cartons – Lucky Strike and Chesterfields – that contain Alice Kober’s meticulously written cards—her own hand-made filing system that is equivalent to one of today’s data bases. Their presence reminds us of the time and energy that Alice Kober devoted to discerning patterns in the strings of signs – patterns that would enable Ventris to take the leap to finally see the sense of the words those patterns represented.
The exhibit was first conceived of as a commemoration of Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the 200th anniversary of which falls in 2022. But the theme led naturally to decipherment in general, and Martin Bommas, the Director of the Museum, knowing my research involved the interpretation of the Linear B tablets, asked if I would like to contribute something on the decipherment of Linear B. My answer was of course a very enthusiastic, “Yes!” And immediately I started to think how incredibly wonderful it would be if we could actually exhibit some of the artefacts that are housed in the archives of PASP. I first asked Martin and the Museum’s Manager, Josephine Touma, if this would be supported by the Museum, and the answer I received was an equally enthusiastic, “Yes!”
This led to my reading through the extensive online archives of letters that have been curated by the archivist of PASP, Garrett Bruner, so that I could choose a coherent set of letters to tell the story of the decipherment. Garrett also suggested some of the better pieces that are now included in the exhibit – his close knowledge of PASP’s collection proved invaluable in choosing the most effective pieces for the exhibit. He also provided our Museum exhibitions team with a high-resolution image of Alice Kober, which was then blown up so that it now stands as the centrepiece of the exhibit (Fig. 1), bringing a nice counterpoint to the image of Champollion two cases away.
The method of packing and shipping of the precious archival materials was worked out between Josephine Touma, Manager of the Macquarie Museum, and of course Garrett, who made sure they would make the journey safely. When the objects arrived at Macquarie, Martin very kindly called me to ask if I would like to unpack them with him – he knew how much these objects meant to me. I have to tell you that I was so overwhelmed when I was opening the packages that my hands were shaking and I felt close to tears! We filmed the event for Tom and Garrett, and you can witness my excitement as well!
One of the best things about this exhibit is the extent to which we’ve involved students in its creation. For instance, the text accompanying the objects was written in a joint effort by myself and one of my Master’s students, Sara Fioretti, who is working on Mycenaean trade with southern Italy. Other students in our Department of History and Archaeology are researching and writing blog posts that will be accessible via QR codes posted on the cabinets. For one of these blogs, Emeline Clarkson, one of my undergraduate students, recently interviewed me, asking questions about the history of Linear B and what we have been able to learn from it.
Before closing this post, I want to thank Tom once again for being so generous as to allow these incredibly significant and unique objects to fly across the world to be viewed for the first time outside of the US here at Macquarie. The effect they have on the Museum’s visitors is palpable. I’ve seen people’s faces transformed with fascination, and one student exclaimed, “I feel chills!” The handwriting on the letters, the cigarette cartons with their handmade index cards – these things bring the people behind the decipherment to life in a way that no written account could. Thank you, Tom!! And thank you to Garrett as well!!