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New exhibit sheds light on two famous decipherments of ancient writing

A new exhibit offering insights into the personalities, motivations and methods of the late researchers Michael Ventris and Linda Schele–who worked tirelessly to unlock the secrets contained in ancient Mycenaean Greek and Maya writing–opens March 9 at The University of Texas at Austin.

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AUSTIN, Texas—A new exhibit offering insights into the personalities, motivations and methods of the late researchers Michael Ventris and Linda Schele–who worked tirelessly to unlock the secrets contained in ancient Mycenaean Greek and Maya writing–opens March 9 at The University of Texas at Austin.

The opening of the exhibit is scheduled to coincide with the annual Maya Meetings at Texas that begin the same day on campus. “Unlocking, the Secrets of Ancient Writing: The Parallel Lives of Michael Ventris and Linda Schele and the Decipherment of Mycenaean and Mayan Writing” will be on exhibit through Aug. 1 at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection in Sid Richardson Hall 1.101.

The exhibition looks at two of the most famous decipherments of ancient writing of the last century and two individuals (Ventris and Schele) credited with making major breakthroughs that have enabled us to read the hieroglyphys of the Maya of Mesoamerica (100 B.C.E.-1250 C.E.) and the Linear B texts of the Mycenaean Greeks (1450-1200 B.C.E.), said Dr. Thomas Palaima, UT professor of classics. Palaima also is director of the University’s Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory, which is sponsoring the exhibit. He acts as curator of the new exhibit with UT Austin doctoral candidate Elizabeth Pope and F. Kent Reilly, a former student of Schele.

Schele, until her death in 1998, was widely known for her pioneering work in decoding the hieroglyphic language of the ancient Maya. She held the John D. Murchison Regents Professorship in art history at UT Austin and founded the Maya Meetings more than 20 years ago to help deepen the knowledge of the Maya culture.

On display are 38 items specially selected from the research archives of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory and Schele’s estate. In addition, three casts of Linear B tablets are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The original tablets were excavated in the years 1900-1904 at the main Minoan Cretan palace site of Knossos, famous as the locus for the myths of Daedalus, the labyrinth and Theseus and the Minotaur. The casts on display, made in 1913 from originals in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, are from the only collection of objects in the Mycenaean script in the United States. Also exhibited are original notebooks, file cards, notes, letters, photographs, drawings, publications and works of art by Schele, Ventris and other scholars involved in editing, analyzing and inteipreting the Mycenaean Linear B tablets and Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions.

“The accompanying 40-page catalogue and displays are designed to give the viewer an understanding of the stages of painstaking work and the special qualities of mind and spirit that enabled Schele, Ventris and their fellow investigators to read texts that had been unreadable for one to three millennia,” Palaima said.

“It is especially interesting that both Ventris and Schele were ‘outsiders.’ Ventris was an architect by profession, and Schele was trained as a studio artist. Ventris was fascinated with the scripts of Bronze Age Crete from his childhood, while Schele was captivated by Maya culture during a trip to Mexico with her husband David in 1970,” Palaima noted. “Both attacked their subjects with tenacious passion, flair and ingenuity.”

Ventris’s work as an architect and other factors in his personal life predisposed him to use cooperative ‘group working’ methods, developed in the 1930s and 1940s in the field of architecture. “Ventris’s successful decipherment in June of 1952, more than 50 years after the first tablets in Linear B from the site of Knossos were published, revolutionized our understanding of the Greek Bronze Age, the poems of Homer, the history of the Greek language and the origins of classical Greek culture,” said Palaima.

The Maya materials in the exhibit trace the development of Schele’s, ideas from her initial observations in the field, through her in-depth investigations of hieroglyphic texts, to their ultimate publication in some of her seminal books and articles. “By comparing her early and late notebooks, we can see the development of Schele’s understanding of ancient Mayan hieroglyphs and her growing skill as an epigrapher,” Pope pointed out. “Through these notebooks, we also can examine Schele’s method of decipherment — how she revealed patterns of substitution within the texts and used Colonial and modern Maya dictionaries to suggest readings. In addition, they illustrate how Schele consolidated the discoveries and hypotheses of other scholars to reveal deeper meaning within the hieroglyphic texts and iconography.”

Both Schele and Ventris left permanent legacies of free and open scholarly exchange among professional scholars and the interested public in pursuit of a deeper understanding of all aspects of the material and cultural life of the ancient Mycenaean and Maya peoples,” said Palaima.

The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is a specialized research library within the University’s General Libraries, focusing on materials from and about Latin America — Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands — and on materials relating to the Spanish-speaking peoples in the United States.

For more information, contact 471-5742 or visit the following Website: http://www.utexas.edu/research/pasp/cipem/exhib.