North American Scholar

BENNETT, Emmett Leslie, Jr.

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1918-07-12
  • Born City: Minneapolis
  • Born State/Country: MN
  • Parents: Emmett Leslie & Mary Buzzelle B.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2011-12-15
  • Death City: Madison
  • Death State/Country: WI
  • Married: Marja D. Adams, 5 June 1942.
  • Education:

    B.A. University of Cincinnati, 1939; M.A., 1940; Ph.D., 1947.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instructor Classics, Yale, 1947-51; asst. prof. 1951-8; University of Texas, 1958-9; visiting lecturer, Institute for Research in Humanities, University of Wisconsin, 1959-60; lecturer, 1960-1; acting director, 1968-9; asst. prof. Dept. Classics, 1960-1; asso. prof. 1961-2; prof., 1962-78; Moses S. Slaughter professor of Classical Studies, 1978-88; Fulbright Research Fellow, 1953-4 (Athens), 1965 (Cambridge); member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton & Guggenheim fellow, 1955-6; visiting lecturer, Greek, Bryn Mawr, 1955-56; vis. prof. arts & humanities, University of Colorado, 1967; vis. prof. classics, University of Cincinnati, 1972; honorary fellow & honorary councilor, Archaeological Society of Athens; corresponding member, German Archaeological Institute; Gold Cross of the Order of Honor, Athens, 1991; Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement, AIA, 2001; D. Litt. (hon.) University of Athens, 2003; Lifetime Achievement Award, Institute for Aegean Prehistory, 2006.

  • Dissertation:

    "The Minoan Linear Script from Pylos" (Cincinnati, 1947)

  • Notes:

    Emmett L. Bennett played a major role in the decipherment of the ancient Minoan language known as Linear B. Bennett’s mentor, the archaeologist Carl Blegen (1887-1971), also a Minneapolis native, having excavated the mound of Hisarlik, the presumed site of ancient Troy (1932-8), continued his exploration of Mycenaean culture at the excavation at Nestor’s Palace (Ano Englianos) at Pylos (in the southwestern Peloponnese) in 1939 under the auspices of the University of Cincinnati and the Greek Archaeological Service. Blegen retrieved numerous clay tablets that contained mainly administrative and economic records inscribed in early Greek. The script, known as Linear B consisted both of ideograms (a single sign capable of conveying complex notions), and syllabic signs. It had first been found on clay tablets discovered in 1900 by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) at the site of the palace of Knossos, dating from the second millennium BCE. (The conflagrations that destroyed both palaces also fired and thus preserved the otherwise unbaked clay tablets.). Evans believed that the tablets belonged to a pre-Greek civilization which he called Minoan; he named the script Linear B, as he had named the script of the earlier Cretan tablets Linear A. Blegen’s excavation at Pylos lasted only a year before it was interrupted by the onset of World War II (it was not taken up again until 1952), but he was able to entrust the clay tablets to Bennett, who used them as the basis of his M.A. thesis in 1940 before joining the Army as a cryptanalyst. Cryptology during the war, particularly on coded Japanese transmissions, by Bennett, who worked on Japanese code from 1942 to the war’s end, the Cambridge linguist John Chadwick (1920-98), and Bennett’s associate Alice Kober (1906-50), who had been an assistant to Evans’s associate, the archaeologist Sir John Myres (1869-1954) and a member of the Brooklyn College Classics Department, indirectly led to the decipherment of Linear B because these scholars who taught themselves Japanese while also working on Linear B were training themselves to notice the subtle differences between ideograms. Kober, for instance, noticed that there seemed to be variant endings on many words and posited that the language of the Linear B tablets was perhaps inflected like Latin or Greek. Following the war, Bennett returned to Cincinnati and in 1947 produced a dissertation, “The Minoan Linear Script from Pylos,” a descriptive catalogue of about 80 characters showing the principal variants in the formation of each character but with no attempt at decipherment. Kober’s notions of declension and Bennett’s catalogue of signs greatly served the man who, aided by Chadwick, ultimately deciphered Linear B in 1952, the young English architect and amateur classicist, Michael Ventris (1922-56). Ventris determined, against Evans’s notion, that the language was in fact a pre-Homeric form of Greek. Bennett's greatest contribution was his dissertation and The Pylos Tablets. Because of the early deaths of Kober (1950) and Ventris (1956) Bennett, along with Chadwick, carried the standard in Mycenaean studies. By 1958 Bennett had published important works not only on Pylos, but Knossos and Mycenae tablets as well. In that year he began his annual survey of Mycenaean scholarship, which eventually ran to over 1000 items. His crucial role in the decipherment of Linear B was recognized internationally with honorary degrees and awards. The remainder of his career was spent at the University of Wisconsin, where he was a longtime and admired fixture of both the Institute for Research and then the Classics Department.

  • Sources:

    WhAm 41 (1980-1) 251; NYTimes (31 December 2011)

    Image credit: Steven Karanikolas / Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory, University of Texas, Austin

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.