Scholarly Politics and Human Foibles

This digest of Andrew Robinson’s work brings into view some vignettes which helpfully illustrate some aspects of scholarly politics and human foibles which are encountered in relation to discovery, knowledge and knowledge claims.  In addition to fanatical perseverance and devotion to detail and wide linguistic and cultural knowledge, the successful archaeological decipher has required a high order of intellectual power of analysis, the courage to follow his or her intuition rather than the conventional wisdom, and the luck to come along at the right moment, which generally was when sufficient examples of the script to be deciphered had become available and accessible.



Champillion and Ventris had these advantages in abundance and to a lesser degree perhaps, did Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, the decipherer of Babylonian cuneiform, and Yuri Knorozov, the Russian pioneer of the Maya decipherment in the 1950’s. Rawlinson never explained his decipherment properly, and now it is plain from study of his notebooks that he borrowed without attribution from the work of a humble scholar, Irish clergyman Edward Hincks.


Both Evans and Thompson, for different reasons, did their best to discourage, and even ridicule, most of the aspirant decipherers; Evans by denying them access to the tablets he had discovered, Thompson by branding Knorozov a ‘cold warrier’, which as a serious slur in the United States of the 1950s and 60s. Human nature being what it is, decipherers and would-be decipherers did not always admit their debts. Rivalry, sometimes with a touch of skulduggery, is endemic in archaeological decipherment.


Champillion was certainly influenced by Young’s pioneering work but never gave it due acknowledgement, and took pains to diminish it in his chief book. None of them however, could have achieved success without the prior labour of many others such as the celebrated physicist Thomas Young (Egyptian Hieroglyphs), the great archaeologist Evans and the Mayanist Sir Eric Thompson – scholars as remarkable as those who eventually took the prize.


For the decipherer who succeeds, it is like winning a Nobel prize in literature or a solo Nobel in science – indeed perhaps of wider prestige when one thinks of the fascination with ancient Egypt. With its hint of genius, the successful decipherment of a major script carries a touch of glamour and immortality seldom found in the world of academic scholarship.


The Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman tried his hand at deciphering Mayan numerals and calendar just for the fun of it. He knew he was not the first and said: “You get one hell of an excitement, just like a physics discover or something”. Even Ventris, an amateur of exceptional modesty who originally saw himself as an enabler of the decipherment by professional classicists, failed to mention in his BBC broadcast the seminal contribution of the American scholar Alice Kober, who had died prematurely just two years earlier. This raises the question, somewhat like Rosalind Franklin in the DNA story, that Kober might have beaten Ventris to it had she lived.


Undeciphered scripts, the Easter Island rongo-rongo scholar Jacques Guy unceremoniously declares, are “powerful kook attractors. Sometimes, a successful decipherer of one script gets it into their head that they can decipher other scripts and become a crank; a fear which seems to have haunted Ventris and kept him from tackling linear A after his success with linear B.


One of the truths of archaeological decipherment is that it attracts both geniuses and cranks; and it is not always easy to tell apart. In the pursuit of such analytical exercises Ventris considered it important to bear in mind “Fantasy, coincidence or circular reasoning” as all three situations masquerade as true decipherments.


These ‘rival’ scholars all made vital contributions to the eventual decipherment. What therefore is it that disqualifies them, and those who periodically claim to have deciphered the world’s remaining undeciphered scripts, from being admitted to the small pantheon of successful decipherers ?


This digest article and accompanying digests on the history of written languages owes an intellectual debt to Andrew Robinson’s excellent book  ‘Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts’ which offers an extended and detailed history on the development of written language and perspectives on discovery