Report on Bennett Archives by Christy Costlow.
January 5, 2008
In December of 2006, I began a yearlong project at the Program of Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP) at the University of Texas at Austin, to archive the papers of distinguished Classics scholar Emmett L. Bennett. My knowledge of field of Classics at the time was admittedly basic at best, limited to a brief trip to Greece in my teenage years, but during my year at PASP, I developed a great appreciation not only for the Mycenaean scripts, but also for the incredible commitment that scholars such as Bennett applied to its study and the subsequent decipherment of the Linear B script.
The papers of Emmett L. Bennett were donated over a period of approximately 20 years (1985-2006) to Thomas G. Palaima who has put them into the general collection of PASP. In early 2007, I began my work to identify, arrange, describe, and preserve the collection. Numerous boxes housed thousands of materials (arranged in no discernible order and often not written in English) which represented a lifetime of scholarly research devoted to the study and decipherment of Mycenaean scripts. The task was daunting, to say the least.
I began my work by researching Bennett’s background and creating a timeline of his life. I familiarized myself with the path of his studies, from his Bachelor’s degree in Classics from the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences in 1939, to his Master’s degree in 1941, and to his Ph.D. in 1947. It was while earning his doctorate that Bennett worked with noted archaeologist Carl Blegen, whose 1939 discovery of hundreds of Linear B tablets in Pylos, Greece, became the focus of Bennett’s life work. The latter portion of Bennett’s career featured teaching positions held at Yale, the University of Texas, and the University of Wisconsin. He also authored over 60 publications, including his notable 1959 publication on the handwriting styles and writing characteristics of the Pylos scribes, and the publication of the Pylos texts in standardized and textual transcriptions.
Bennett’s studies of Linear B were seminal; his work founded a new sub field of classical studies, the study of Mycenaean scripts. Although Bennett spent just three weeks in the archaeological field, his work on the Pylos tablets proved to be invaluable. His first publication, on the Minoan fractional system, published in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1950, encouraged the studies of Michael Ventris and continues to be considered to be an authoritative work to this day. Bennett’s analysis and classification system of the Linear B script greatly influenced Ventris’ progress, who soon after deciphered the script in 1952. Even after the decipherment, only minor changes to Bennett’s original classification system needed to be made.
The thousands of materials held within the boxes before me at PASP held the evidence of Bennett’s lifelong work and passion. I began sorting through the boxes, which revealed all sorts of research papers, scholarly publications, excavation reports, field guides, photographic materials, and a large amount of correspondence. Bennett authored many of these items himself, while other items originated from other hands, having been gathered by Bennett over the years. Indeed, Bennett was a collector. A cursory glance over any given box might reveal an assortment of items - handwritten graphs, postcards and other trinkets from abroad, cartoons, scraps of paper filled with handwritten notes, cut-up photographs of tablets, and even clay fragments. Certainly, Bennett’s inclination to pay attention to the smallest detail proved to serve him well.
Using the timeline of Bennett’s life, and building on the basic understanding I had developed about Linear B, I began to develop a general arrangement of the collection. The bulk of the items pertained to Bennett’s personal research. Bennett was incredibly precise in his methods and he paid extraordinary attention to detail, demonstrated by the numerous transcriptions, tabulations, calculations, and diagrams. He left no stone unturned nor avenue unexplored; he was committed to accuracy and preferred to wait to endorse theories until irrefutable evidence had been presented. The graphs and statistical analyses are particularly captivating; these are the bare bones of Bennett’s classification system that would prove invaluable to Michael Ventris in his decipherment of Linear B.
Hundreds of drawings and photographs are also included in the collection, including tablet photographs with penned outlines of Linear B characters, drawings of excavation sites, hand drawn charts of ideographs and signs. Most of the tablet photographs were unlabeled, and their identification proved to be a particularly difficult challenge. Without any knowledge of Greek, I resorted to transcribing the symbols and locating the matching sequence in an index of the tablets. The process was time-consuming, but it ultimately proved to be effective.
The large amount of correspondence in the collection provides a unique insight into Bennett’s nature. He was clearly a central figure among those who studied and researched early Aegean scripts, and he received correspondence from colleagues and amateurs alike. Bennett frequently maintained copies of his responses to the various individuals, which reveal the many roles he assumed, including those of a mentor, an encourager, a teacher, and a collaborator. He always showed a genuine interest in and respect for others and their theories; in fact, several who contacted Bennett as students went on to respected careers in the field.
Bennett was notoriously unselfish in his studies, as evidenced by the frequent communication and collaboration with other notable scholars in the field. Letters between Bennett and his collaborators include corrections, questions, disagreements, and clarifications; their ability to do so encouraged their success at reaching their common goal. Prior to the decipherment of Linear B, Bennett frequently corresponded and shared information with Alice Elizabeth Kober. During that same period and in the two years preceding the decipherment of Linear B, Bennett collaborated closely with Michael Ventris. For years afterwards he remained close to scholars such as John Chadwick and Carl Blegen on both a professional and social level. The correspondence between Bennett and Chadwick upon hearing the passing of Michael Ventris in 1956 is especially moving.
Despite Bennett’s commitment to serious scholarship, he certainly had an appreciation for the lighter side. In a field where proposed decipherments were often less than accurate, Bennett created several of his own parody translations, circulated around the field under a pseudonym. He collected cartoons and comics that related to Linear B and its decipherment, and had a quick with that is evident in many of his letters.
At the end of my year at PASP, I had a total of 5,191 items arranged into 40 boxes. Emmett L. Bennett’s career was indeed remarkable and intriguing, and his influence extends far, far beyond those 40 boxes. His work was seminal and the collection of his papers is invaluable to students and scholars alike. As for myself, I value Bennett’s characteristics evidenced by his work: his devotion and passion, his meticulous nature, his ability to encourage, support and teach others. I appreciate the opportunity I had to learn about Bennett and the field of study he championed.
Visit the Bennett Archives Pages