Brent Davis (left) excavating at Tell es-Safi/Gath, Israel, the site of a major Philistine city: the regional headdress called the 'kaffiyah' is very practical in this hot and dry climate. Photograph © Richard Wiskin, 2013

Unlocking Ancient Scripts: 2019 Michael Ventris Award winner, Brent Davis

SHAPS Classics & Archaeology lecturer Dr Brent Davis was recently awarded the prestigious Michael Ventris Award for Mycenaean Studies. The award is named for codebreaker and architect Michael Ventris, famed for his decipherment of the Mycenaean Linear B texts in 1952. Winning this award cements Brent’s reputation as a major international scholar in the research of undeciphered scripts. He spoke with Nicole Davis about his research, his career so far, and the development of his interest in codebreaking undeciphered Bronze Age Aegean scripts.

Undeciphered scripts are really fascinating and I think have captured the imagination for hundreds of years. What inspired you to research undeciphered scripts in the first place? How many undeciphered languages and/or scripts are there out there and from what different time periods and cultures?

I was inspired as a small child by reading about the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs… thus I’ve been fascinated by undeciphered scripts for as long as I can remember. There are dozens of undeciphered scripts from all over the world. The Wikipedia entry called “Undeciphered Writing Systems” is worth a look: though the entry is very poorly footnoted, the list of undeciphered scripts given there includes most of the important ones.

You did your PhD thesis on undeciphered Linear A script on Minoan vessels. Can you explain this a little for us?

The Minoans are the civilisation that lived on Crete during the Bronze Age (ca. 3000–1200 BCE). Their script, which we conventionally call “Linear A”, has never been deciphered. It’s written mainly on administrative documents—clay tablets, sealings, and so on—but also on ritual vessels that Minoan worshippers left at shrines all over Crete.

My thesis was about these vessels—what these vessels appear to have meant to the Minoans, and how the Minoans may have used them in rituals. But the thesis is also about the Linear A script: half of the thesis is devoted to a linguistic analysis of this script, drawing on my undergraduate degree in Linguistics from Stanford. This half answers some important questions about this undeciphered script.

What did you uncover in your research that was unexpected?

When I started the thesis, I didn’t expect to get very far in the Linear A half, but I was surprised at how many new things about this script I was able to demonstrate. I chalk this up to the fact that in the 50 years before my thesis, only two scholars had ever attempted to analyse Linear A from a linguistic perspective: Elizabeth Barber (Occidental College, USA) in the 1960s, and Yves Duhoux (Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium) in the 1970s.

Thus, a new, more modern linguistic analysis of this script was long overdue, which helps explain why it produced so many new conclusions. As both of these highly-respected scholars have now become eminent icons in the field of Linear A, I was incredibly fortunate to have them both as my two thesis examiners. In her examination report, Professor Barber stated that in her view, my thesis was “one of perhaps four” projects in the past half-century to advance our understanding of Linear A—and that was certainly unexpected.

You won the award for your proposal for a research project on undeciphered Aegean scripts. What are you aiming to achieve with this project?

I hope to do my best through the Ventris award to make further progress on Linear A and other undeciphered Bronze Age Aegean scripts, such as Cretan Hieroglyphic, Cypro-Minoan, and the script on the Phaistos Disk.

Researching undeciphered scripts can often be very much like standing up a ladder in an empty paddock and daring to climb it: as the ladder has no support, you really ought to fall flat as you step onto the first rung. But sometimes, in very special moments, some invisible force steadies the ladder, and you find yourself able to step up onto the second rung, then the third, then the fourth … and eventually discover something new, something that casts a ray of light onto the unknown.

Michael Ventris, for whom this award is named, climbed such a ladder to its topmost rungs … thereby opening up to us an entirely new civilisation, and founding the discipline of Mycenology (the study of Bronze-Age Greeks). My greatest hope is that someday, I might find a ladder like this, and climb it as far as I can.

What advice would you give your first year PhD self?

There are so many things, but here are the top four:

  1. Believe in yourself: after all, your passion for this topic shows that you do have something worthwhile to say!
  2. Don’t be afraid: everyone is on your side, and it’s all going to be fine.
  3. When scholars whom you respect and like criticise something in your work, they’re actually right most of the time, so don’t sag at the criticism. Instead, welcome it for what it is: an invaluable tip for making your thesis better and more persuasive.
  4. Having said that: don’t be afraid to reject the advice of a respected scholar if you truly don’t agree with it and can support your case. This is the time of finding your own voice amongst scholars, so it’s important to stand up for your own views when your gut tells you it’s warranted.

What was a highlight of your degree?

There are three main ones:

  1. Carrying out research in Crete. It’s a magical island that captured my heart at once. I feel homesick for it (and its stunning landscape) all the time now, and I expect I always will.
  2. Speaking at international conferences in my field. Mixing, networking, and making friends with the very scholars whose works form the foundation of my thesis was always a wonderful, heady experience. Feeling free to email a hero with a question is a wonderful thing.
  3. Submitting the thesis … and feeling those chains fall away. I highly recommend this experience!

What led you to conduct this research at the University of Melbourne and did being here influence or shape your PhD in any particular way?

I wanted to complete my PhD at Melbourne because of its reputation as Australia’s best university. During my PhD, I was greatly influenced and shaped by my supervisor Louise Hitchcock, who opened a thousand doors for me.

What aspects of your research influence your teaching at the University?

I teach a four-semester Ancient Egyptian course here at the University, as well as subjects on ancient history, art and archaeology (ANCW10001, “Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia” and ANCW20003 “Egypt under the Pharaohs”). I try to bring my research (particularly in archaeology, languages, and scripts) into my teaching whenever possible.

Brent will use the Ventris award to undertake research with the Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS) project at the University of Cambridge. He will then present his results to the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP) at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Brent Davis’s PhD thesis was published in 2014 by Peeters Press in its prestigious Aegaeum series.

Feature image: Brent (left) excavating at Tell es-Safi/Gath, Israel, the site of a major Philistine city, 2013. The regional headdress called the kaffiyah is very practical in this hot and dry climate. Photograph © Richard Wiskin.