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In Chapter 1 of The Decipherment of Linear B John Chadwick describes the character of Michael Ventris, the man who in 1952 figured out the meaning of the inscriptions on ancient clay tablets found in Crete and a few other locations --- writings which had baffled archæologists since their discovery in 1900. Chadwick writes:

If we ask what were the special qualities that made possible his achievement, we can point to his capacity for infinite pains, his powers of concentration, his meticulous accuracy, his beautiful draughtsmanship. All these were necessary; but there was much more that is hard to define. His brain worked with astonishing rapidity, so that he could think out all the implications of a suggestion almost before it was out of your mouth. He had a keen appreciation of the realities of a situation; the Mycenæans were to him no vague abstractions, but living people whose thoughts he could penetrate. He himself laid stress on the visual approach to the problem; he made himself so familiar with the visual aspect of the texts that large sections were imprinted on his mind simply as visual patterns, long before the decipherment gave them meaning. But a merely photographic memory was not enough, and it was here that his architectural training came to his aid. The architect's eye sees in a building not a mere façade, a jumble of ornamental and structural features; it looks beneath the appearance and distinguishes the significant parts of the pattern, the structural elements and framework of the building. So too Ventris was able to discern among the bewildering variety of the mysterious signs, patterns and regularities which betrayed the underlying structure. It is this quality, the power of seeing order in apparent confusion, that has marked the work of all great men.

(see also HearingShapes (25 May 1999) and TenThousandHours (20 Sep 2001))

TopicScience - Datetag20020710

(correlates: NoSweat, EmersonOnNatureAsAntidote, AsimovOnLibraries, ...)