ClClassics alumnus wins gold medal in archaeology

January 03, 2001

UC archaeologist Carl W. Blegen won the first Gold Medal for Distinquished Archaeological Achievement awarded by the Archaeological Institute of America in 1965. This year, the prize is going to one of Blegen's students.

The 11,000-member AIA presented its Gold Medal to UC alumnus Emmett Bennett Jr. Jan. 4 during its 102nd annual meeting in San Diego.

Bennett, 82, founded a field of study centered on the ancient Greek script called Linear B, which was used to write the oldest readable text known in Europe. He is currently a professor emeritus of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison, and a visiting scholar at the University of Texas -- Austin. The Minneapolis native grew up in Chicago, Cleveland and Cincinnati, graduating from Hughes High School (Cincinnati) in 1935. He earned all three of his academic degrees in classics at UC, among them a BA in 1939, a master's in 1941 and a PhD in 1947.

As a student, Bennett spent more time in the classroom with Blegen than he did in the archaeological field. He spent only three weeks in the field with the elder archaeologist who gained a global reputation for his discoveries at Troy and at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece. Yet Blegen's discovery of hundreds of clay tablets bearing an unreadable script became the focus of Bennett's life work. Sir Arthur Evans had uncovered 1,500 examples of Linear B script at Knossos from 1900 to 1904, but Blegen's first collection of Pylos tablets, found in 1939, provided a more comprehensive look at the ancient Mycenaean writing system.

Bennett's meticulous and systematic analysis of the Linear B script led to its decoding by British scholar Michael Ventris in 1952. Ventris had been trying to decipher Linear B script for 13 years when he obtained Bennett's studies. Within three months, Ventris changed his approach and cracked its code, according to Thomas Palaima, director of the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas and a former student of Bennett's. Ever since, Bennett has been known as the founding father of the study of this Mycenaean script. The field is known as pinacology (pinacks is the Greek word for a tablet with writing on it).

Linear B preserves the form of the Greek dialect used in the Bronze Age from 1450 to 1200 B.C. It is the oldest European writing system deciphered by modern scholars. The script developed out of a Minoan Linear A script that was used by the palatial civilization that flourished on the island of Crete from 1850 to 1450 B.C. The Minoan script has not yet been decoded.

Whilte the medal salutes Bennett for his scholarly achievements, he is also known as a great teacher. After obtained his PhD at UC, Bennett took a teaching post in 1947 at Yale, leaving in 1958 for the University of Texas. He joined the University of Wisconsin (Madison) faculty in 1959 and retired in 1988.

Recalls Jack Davis, UC's Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology, "I was fortunate to study with Emmett for one year when I was myself a graduate student at UC. His seminar was the most intellectually engaging of my entire graduate career."

Just a few years ago, Bennett served as an advisory board member in the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project headed by Davis in the region around the Palace of Nestor. "He also served as a volunteer fieldwalker in field survey and worked with us in the reorganization of the storerooms that contain finds from Blegen's excavations, choosing to live and work with our graduate students and insisting that he not be treated special in any way," said Davis.

There are three other major achievements by Bennett that the AIA meadal recognizes, according to Palaima:

* His first publication, appearing in 1950 in the American Journal of Archaeology, on the Minoan fractional system. This piece of scholarship still stands as the authoritative word on the topic, even after five decades. It encouraged Ventris to persist with his studies, which had been fruitless until then.

*His 1959 publication of preliminary studies on the handwriting styles and writing characteristics found on the Linear B clay tablets from Pylos. This research into text layout, script and other characteristics broke the ground for other scholars to identify the scribes who had written the tablets and learn details of Mycenaean life. "None of the tablets had signatures, but Bennett found personal idiosyncrasies in writing and the overall organization that spawned a whole new area of research for other scholars, who were able to discover exactly which scribes wrote what, how the overall economy worked, how goods and materials were exchanged, how taxes were handled and how the palaces were organized and administered. None of that would have been possible without Emmett's original work," said Palaima.

*His founding in 1957 of the bibliographic periodical, Nestor, the primary communications vehicle for Greek prehistorians worldwide. Bennett ran Nestor solo for 20 years. Since 1995, it has operated out of the UC classics department.

Palaima was a doctoral student under Bennett at the University of Wisconsin. "I luckily got the advice when I went to graduate school to look around for a dissertation adviser I would like," said Palaima. "Emmett has always been that for me. In many cases, he was absolutely delighted that I or other scholars could find other ways of looking at things he had studied. As you know, sometimes scholars can be overly fond of their own ideas. But Bennett has always invited critical examination of his own ideas."

Added Palaima, whose only son is named after Bennett, "I think he represents, in his scholarly life, a passionate dedication to the principles of humanist research. He has transmitted that passion and deep respect to at least two other generations of scholars, to give them the basic research tools needed to study the Greek Bronze Age."

Bennett's honors prior to the Gold Medal have included The Gold Cross of the Order of Honor from the Greek government (the highest honor presented to foreigners) and the Distinquished Alumnus Award of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. He is an honorary councilor of the Archaeological Society of Athens.

University of Cincinnati

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