In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative. When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece's Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe's earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery. Award-winning New York Times journalist Margalit Fox's riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean--the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen--to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the decipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.
Margalit Fox originally trained as a cellist and a linguist before pursuing journalism. As a senior writer in The New York Times's celebrated Obituary News Department, she wrote the front-page public sendoffs of some of the leading cultural figures of our age. Winner of the William Saroyan Prize for Literature and author of three previous books, "Conan Doyle for the Defense," "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" and "Talking Hands," Fox lives in Manhattan with her husband, the writer and critic George Robinson.
This book is about decoding inscriptions when you don't know what language it is in, nor do you know what the symbols stand for. I will freely admit that some of it went over my head, but it is so well written that I could not put the book down.
It focuses on three people: The archaeologist who discovered the clay tablets, accidentally preserved in some ancient fire. Then came the American scholar and academic, who made decoding them a life-consuming pastime. And finally, the architect who built on her knowledge to finally establish the language and meanings of the inscriptions.
These characters fascinated me because of their imagination and dedication. Arthur Evans, a Victorian archaeologist, uncovered the tablets on Crete. The peculiar script came to be known as Linear B. Evans made a number of assumptions about the writing, some wildly wrong. His is the case of a scientist struggling to make his discovery conform to his theory. Alice Kober's dedication to the puzzle intrigued me. In a time of paper shortage, she made literally thousands of file cards out of whatever paper she could repurpose and used her cigarette cartons as tiny filing cabinets for them. She focused pure intellectual power to unravel many clues about the writing. Then there is Michael Ventris, the architect who became intrigued with the puzzle, and built on Kober's work to crack the code at last.
I recommend this book highly. It puts a spotlight on the largely-ignored work of Kober, and details her dedication. I think I enjoyed that section the most.
I had never before pondered how war hinders the advance of science. A lack of simple paper was a huge hurdle, and the obstacles to communication was another. And how people hoarded their information from one another!
When, in 1900, Arthur Evans dug up a load of clay tablets stashed in a bathtub under a field in Crete, there didn't seem much hope that the writing on them would ever be understood. The people who wrote it had been ancient history by Homer's time, and the characters on the tablets looked nothing like any other writing system known in the Mediterranean, or elsewhere – stylised symbols, some of them clearly iconographic, and others resembling bizarre geometric shapes or obscure implements.
Evans, who was familiar with the cuneiform script used by ancient Sumerians, called the Cretan writing ‘linear’ in contrast – meaning just that it consisted of lines rather than wedges. There were two main classes of this writing, which became known, unimaginatively, as Linear A and Linear B, the latter of which constituted the vast majority of what turned up in Evans's digs.
Deciphering unknown writing is hard. Sometimes you know the writing is being used to represent a known language, which helps; other times, you might have an idea what the characters sound like, but no idea what the sounds mean. The ‘Minoan’ writing of Crete was the worst of both worlds – no one knew what the characters sounded like, and no one knew what language they were trying to represent. It was a holy grail of linguistics – and OK, the French had cracked Egyptian hieroglyphs in the nineteenth century, but that was a parlour game by comparison: they had the Rosetta Stone to work from.
It took half a century, but Linear B was finally deciphered in 1952 by a quite remarkable armchair linguist – then working as an architect – called Michael Ventris. This book celebrates his achievement, but it also argues that much of the credit for the solution should really go to the American academic Alice Kober, whose role in the story has previously been somewhat under-appreciated. (Well, I had never heard of her at any rate.)
Kober spent years and years meticulously categorising every character used in Linear B – not just listing them all, but recording which characters were most likely to appear together, whether they were more likely to appear at the front of words or at the back of them, what variant forms they might have – and all of this while holding down a full-time teaching job and working with the extremely meagre resources that Evans had allowed to be released publicly.
It's very difficult to explain exactly what Kober did because Goodreads apparently does not allow any Linear B characters on its site – every time I tried to publish this review with examples, the Linear B Unicode character block just blanked the review. For a fuller explanation, and if you have the right fonts (you can download a good one called Aegean here), you can consult my review on LibraryThing. (Edit – found a workaround by using HTML entities instead)
It was by analysing this home-assembled mass data that Kober eventually realised that Linear B must show an inflected language. She spotted recurring patterns in the endings of words such as:
𐀬𐀑𐀴𐀊 𐀬𐀑𐀴𐀍 𐀬𐀑𐀵
𐀒𐀜𐀯𐀊 𐀒𐀜𐀯𐀍 𐀒𐀜𐀰
which, she thought, could well be the equivalent to related forms in a language like Latin: dominus, dominum, domini. These patterns were the key to how the language was eventually deciphered. From the number of symbols used, everyone knew that Linear B was a syllabary rather than an alphabet – each character represented a syllable like "ba" or "lo" rather than an individual ‘letter’. If the words did indeed show inflectional endings, then this was a clue about which characters were linked. Consider if the Linear B examples were coding the Latin words I mentioned, with each character representing a different syllable:
Well, this would explain why the Linear B shows an alternation between 𐀴 and 𐀵 in the third character, and it would strongly suggest that those two characters represent the same initial consonant but with different vowels.
Using a combination of such inferences, Kober put together a grid of related syllables, without ever speculating on what the actual phonetic values might be. This was in itself rather an inspirational idea, since everyone else working on the problem began by postulating sound values (usually based on some theory about how Linear B must be related to Etruscan or Basque or something), and then came up with a grid later. That was the wrong way round; and when Ventris finally made his own breakthrough, it was firmly based on what he called ‘Kober's triplets’.
The author of this book reckons that, had Kober lived a little longer (she died at 43, while deeply involved in the problem), she may well have got the solution first. That's debatable, but it's nice to read a summary of this story that has an argument to make, and the case for Kober is very well put here, based on a cache of her private papers which, apparently, no one had really looked into before.
The big leap that Ventris himself made came when he realised that some of the words in Linear B appeared only on the tablets from Crete, and were not found in any of the writing that had been dug up subsequently on the Greek mainland. Perhaps, he reasoned, that was because they were local place-names. This turned out to be the case, and after some trial-and-error guesswork he eventually found the sound values that would make this work. (𐀬𐀑𐀵, in fact, is ru-ki-to or Lyktos, while 𐀒𐀜𐀰, ko-no-so, is Knossos itself.)
Working with these sounds, it soon became clear that the Linear B material was an extremely archaic form of Ancient Greek, now known as Mycenaean Greek. This was a shock to everyone, not least Michael Ventris, who was convinced that the Greeks had come to the area centuries later.
Most of what is on the tablets turns out to be objectively fairly dry – bureaucratic records of crop storage, taxation, censuses. But that's for the ethnologists and historians to worry about. From a linguistic point of view, the whole story is a phenomenal example of how ruthless logic and leaps of inspiration can combine to produce solutions that seemed almost miraculous. Cracking Linear B must be one of the most amazing intellectual achievements of the century, and it sounds silly, but my heart was racing in parts of this like I was reading a detective story. Not so much whodunnit, but howthehelltheydunnit.
Terrific account of how Linear B was deciphered, read as no 3 of my reading challenge books. It's an incredible story of human ingenuity and damn hard work, and, impressively, manages to bring across the extremely clever and complex methods used to decipher an unknown writing system in an unknown language, which is the kind of thing that makes my head explode. Excellent example of narrative history, highly recommended.
The last time I encountered Margalit Fox, she ensorcelled me with the brilliant Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer. So, I plunged into this book with considerable anticipation, only to discover, perhaps unsurprisingly, that watching a few different people wrestle in isolation with the seemingly impossible task of deciphering the writing of a lost language with no known bilingual key isn’t all that riveting. Fox does her utmost to make it seem thrilling, however, and she mostly succeeds, turning long days spent painstakingly and meticulously cataloging thousands of permutations of hundreds of symbols—in the pre-computer era, mind you—into a high-stakes race to unlock the secrets of an ancient civilization. She imbues her protagonists, including unsung college professor Alice Kober and architect/amateur decipherer Michael Ventris, with a well-rounded humanity, lauding their brilliance even as she chronicles their shortcomings, both as scholars and as people. So, when, spoiler alert, the breakthrough finally happens, it does seem like a monumental intellectual achievement despite being the product of a few nerdy obsessives who’d rather do some systematic calculations rather than Netflix and chill.
Here's the thing, though—all that tantalizing information that was unlocked turned out to be pretty dull, mostly accounting records and official tallies of goods and people. I mean, maybe if the entries said something like, “Traded 7 amphorae of olive oil for 4 young sheep, one of whom turned out to be kind of an asshole, which makes me feel better about having peed in one of those jugs of olive oil”…well, then we’d have something interesting. But, it’s a pretty dry recitation of quantities.
It’s a little bit like watching an Olympic-level athlete, the most talented in the world in her chosen field, miraculously and athletically catching an empty plastic cup dropped by a clumsy friend before it hits the floor. Okay, that’s a little unfair—the information mined from the deciphered tablets has opened up huge swaths of insight into ancient history and the Mycenaean way of life and is pretty historically important—but relative to the herculean feats of prestidigitation required to decipher the language, well, the end results are underwhelming.
You’ll need to prime yourself a methodical account, but assuming you’re in for that, this is worth a read.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to catching cups.
I won this book in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway! Thanks for the free stuff!
This is a fun book to read about a great story. It's a terrific way to get educated about an interesting historical moment on the subway or in the minutes before bedtime. It's clear and interesting. Bravo.
However, I will follow with some bad-tempered complaints, which will presumably teach HarperCollins good that sending me free stuff is a waste of postage.
I am bored with hearing/seeing/reading people praise other people much like themselves, meaning, people of the same sex, geographical location, and personality. In this case, we have the two greatest centers of English-language in-print self-congratulation, London and New York, facing off in a cage match of shameless auto-back-patting between book covers.
A few years ago, I read another enjoyable book on this same topic, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson. Robinson and Ventris are men from England. New York-born and -bred author Margarlit Fox and her hero, Brooklyn-based classicist, Alice Kober, are women from New York. Robinson (the earlier book) minimizes Kober's contributions. Fox openly insults Ventris, through the time-honored techniques of faint praise and placing the insulting sentiments into the minds or mouths of others in her narrative. It's ugly, especially as Ventris was apparently a troubled genius, died tragically early, and is not around to defend himself. To be fair, Fox softens her tone toward the end of the book and gives Ventris some props, but it's never unclear where the author's sympathies are.
In both books, I see evidence of authors letting their personal narrative of heroism and grievance drive their writing, rather than allowing the facts speak for themselves. Brits have this cultish worship of the brilliant amateur, the lonely, socially-inept polymath who is in fact more clever than the professional nabobs. Ventris fits nicely into this mythology. Result: a book in which he is the hero.
Women have a (justified) sense of frustration that, even to this very day, women are routinely dismissed as lightweights, and their accomplishments belittled. Result: a book about a woman whose achievements are ignored by a simian members of puffed-up professoriate.
To each, his/her grievance, packaged and marketed to those who wish to have their previously-held narrative re-told and confirmed, and who live in a prime publishing market, a London-based hero for Londoners, a New York-based hero for New Yorkers.
It would be great if we could just have the story without the grievance narrative.
I found this one fascinating as well, in a very different way from The King's Shadow. Where much of that book was full of adventure and wild characters and told with great elan, this is much quieter. In it Fox describes the efforts of three key individuals to decode Linear B, an ancient script used in the Greek world in late Bronze Age. One of her primary goals in telling this story is to highlight the role of Alice Kober, whose work was key to cracking the code but has been generally overlooked.
What made deciphering Linear B so inherently challenging was that it was an unknown script that recorded an unknown language, with no second language transcription available to provide context (by contrast, the Rosetta Stone text appears in hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek). It's a puzzle where even finding the clues is a puzzle.
But a couple of additional factors added to the challenge. For one thing, after discovering the tablets with the Linear B script in 1900, Arthur Evans kept the bulk of them to himself for nearly 50 years, extending beyond even his death. Decrypting a cipher is obviously easier with more samples to work from as the decoder looks for the all-important patterns that hold the key. Thus Evans' determination to solve the puzzle himself was successful in restricting anyone else from finding the solution.
Additionally, most of the men working on the resolution started from the approach that Linear B must be related to some early language other than Greek. They were confident that the Greek language did not have a written form until long after the Minoan civilization thrived.
Enter Alice Kober. An academic working alone in Brooklyn with access to only a limited number of samples of Linear B, she took a novel approach: she refused to make any assumptions about the language associated with the script. Instead, she analyzed the samples she had as if they were pure data, creating hundreds of thousands of notecards describing the individual characters and relationships among them. Using this approach she isolated features of the script that were key to solving the puzzle. Sadly, she died in her 40s before she could force her methodical research to yield a solution.
In further contrast to the "gentlemen scholars" who were working on the problem, Kober held down a full time university teaching position, able to work on her analysis only in the evenings. Eventually she also accepted the massive project of helping to prepare for publication Evans' records of the bulk of his samples. She hoped that making the content of those tablets public would allow analysts (not necessarily her) to solve the puzzle, which indeed it did. The irony is that the time and energy she put into editing and managing that project detracted from the time she had left in her life to work on her own decryptions.
Still, as noted, the three papers she published on Linear B were the foundation upon which the ultimate resolution was based. Several years after her death, building on her discoveries and ultimately abandoning his commitment to the idea that Linear B was related to Etruscan, Michael Ventris successfully cracked the code.
As a caution, readers who lack patience with such things as descriptions of how declensions work (I was frequently brought back to my 9th grade Latin class) will definitely find it slow going at points. And the deciphered content of the tablets isn't exciting either (they are all accounting records), although Fox makes a solid argument for how they shine light on aspects of the character of the Minoan/Mycenean culture that were previously unavailable.
But at the end of the day, the story held my interest. This was in part because of the explanations of the decoding, in part because of Fox's descriptions of WWII and post-war challenges to research (paper was a very scarce commodity and required creative work-arounds), and, admittedly, in large part because it told the story of another Rosalind Franklin.
A very readable and informative work of nonfiction that should appeal to those who liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this book concerns Alice Kober, a Brooklyn College professor of the 1940s who made major leaps in solving a tricky, alluring linguistic/archaeological problem before her untimely death. Just a few years later, building on her insights while giving her little credit, a man named Michael Ventris solved the mystery. Margalit Fox offers biographies of all the major players as well as an explanation of what they discovered.
Linear B was a language written on clay tablets at sites in Crete that posed a particularly impenetrable problem: Neither the writing system, nor the culture, nor the language they were written in was known. By contrast, the decipherers of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics knew what kind of language was probably being written down, and they had the Rosetta Stone which translated between a known language, Greek, and hieroglyphics. To decipher Linear B, it was necessary to figure out whether it was an alphabet, a syllabary, or a series of ideograms; to posit sound values for the symbols; and to match the sounds to some comprehensible language.
It's amazing that Kober was able to come so close to solving it based equally on leaps of insight and elbow grease. She devised incredibly laborious methods of tabulating the symbols of the language on cards, or scraps of paper during wartime scarcity, which she filed in cigarette cartons and queried with needles, as a kind of database, in a punchcard system. Through all this, she taught as a professor of classics and was exploited for secretarial work by the editor of the Linear B tablets catalog.
Part of the goal of the book is to give Kober her due, but Fox also makes Ventris, the ultimate decipherer, as well as Evans, the discoverer of the tablets, into interesting figures. At times, the view into midcentury scholarly practices is simply charming, and at other times infuriating to a modern sensibility. In the end, it's simply exciting to learn the answers about who wrote the tablets and what their ancient society was like.
‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth,’ by Margalit Fox By MATTI FRIEDMAN Published: May 30, 2013
The events of the past grow more alien as our distance from them increases, receding until they become, finally, unknowable. Unknowable, that is, but for those who take it upon themselves to decode the symbols, to examine what others see as indecipherable or unimportant, to sift a story from the chaff and to resurrect names, places, actions and ideas that would otherwise be lost.
Alice Kober, the subject of Margalit Fox’s new book, was one such scholar. A classics professor at Brooklyn College in the 1930s and ’40s, she played a key role in solving one of the 20th century’s great academic riddles: how to read a 3,400-year-old script known as Linear B, unearthed amid the ruins of the Minoan civilization of Crete, the mythic home of the labyrinth of Daedalus and the Minotaur.
Kober deserves much of the credit for “one of the most prodigious intellectual feats of modern times,” Ms. Fox writes. Yet after Kober’s death in 1950, she was promptly forgotten.
Ms. Fox, an obituary writer at The New York Times, set out to rectify this, and by retrieving a woman who might otherwise have vanished, she ends up performing an act of historical redemption akin to the one her subject accomplished.
“The Riddle of the Labyrinth,” a gripping and tightly focused scholarly mystery informed by the author’s own knowledge of linguistics, recounts the story of Linear B through three people who fell under its spell. The first is Arthur Evans, the renowned adventurer and archaeologist who, digging on Crete in 1900, discovered clay tablets with an unknown script. It was written with linear strokes, rather than with Egyptian-style hieroglyphs or the cuneiform wedges of Mesopotamia, so he called it Linear B. (An earlier script unearthed at the site was named Linear A.)
Evans was that particular type of Englishman who would say of an attempt by ruffians to assassinate him, “People seem excited about it, but what is certain is that I was not.” He had a low opinion of “inferior races” and might have brought some of that baggage to his linguistic analysis. The script, he thought, belonged to a superior civilization, and the enigmatic symbols seemed to him to have a “free, upright European character.” Back at his mansion near Oxford, replete with models of Minoan thrones and a mosaic of the Minotaur, he tried for decades to decode these symbols but didn’t come close.
A second Englishman, Michael Ventris, a brilliant and fragile architect and amateur linguist, began trying to crack the code after encountering Evans and his tablets on a school trip in 1936, when he was 14. Working at the same time as Kober and using some of her methods and observations, he finally succeeded just before his 30th birthday.
Both men achieved fame in their lifetime, but Ms. Fox makes a case for Kober, the “unprepossessing” daughter of Hungarian immigrants, as the story’s hero. Her thick glasses, unstylish hair and prim mouth belied the “snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method,” Ms. Fox writes. Kober dedicated her life to solving the riddle, laboring at her dining table in Brooklyn, “ever-present cigarette at hand.” She never married, and her extensive correspondence, we learn, contains a total of two mentions of a social life.
There was hardly time. To aid her quest, she learned Chinese, Akkadian, Persian, Hittite and Basque, among other tongues, and eventually prepared no fewer than 180,000 index cards as she struggled to develop a system that would allow her to crack what Ms. Fox calls a “locked-room mystery” — deciphering an unknown script that an unknown society used to write an unknown language. A Linear B scholar was operating in a “linguistic terra incognita with neither map nor compass at hand.” Without a guide like the Rosetta stone (the multilingual inscription that finally allowed scholars to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs) the task was thought to be all but impossible.
That it turned out not to be is a testament to what the human brain, or at least the rare human brain, is capable of. In explaining the problem and eventual solution, Ms. Fox makes the complexities of linguistic scholarship accessible, weaving observations about language into the stories of her primary characters, two of whom met tragic and untimely ends.
When the code was finally cracked, the result did not immediately appear equal to the intensity of the pursuit; if the archaeologists on Crete had hoped to find the Minoan equivalent of the Library of Congress, instead they seem to have unearthed the offices of the I.R.S.
But even bureaucracy has its poetry; thanks to the decoded script, we are introduced to an island where people worshiped familiar gods like Poseidon alongside intriguing ones like the Mistress of the Labyrinth, and where folks were walking around with names like Gladly Welcome, Snub-Nosed and — here’s the guy who must have been the life of Knossos back in the day — Having the Bottom Bare.
Ms. Fox is attentive to touching traces of idiosyncratic humanity, past and ancient: The church pamphlets and library slips Kober cut up to serve as index cards during the paper shortages of World War II; the “scribal doodles” — a bull, a man, a maze — found on the tablets; the mark a Cretan scribe made when erasing a character on wet clay with his thumb all those centuries ago. “To look at the tablets even now is to be in the presence of other people — living, thinking, literate people,” she writes.
“The Riddle of the Labyrinth” leaves one pondering what traces will stand as remains of the present, when there is no longer physical correspondence and much of a scholar’s work exists nowhere but in digital form — that is to say, nowhere.
It’s quite possible that our records will be as inaccessible a century from now as those of the ancient Minoans were to the language detectives in this book. Figuring out who we were and what we thought — should anyone deem that worthwhile — might make decoding Linear B look easy.
Matti Friedman is the author of “The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books” (Algonquin). A version of this review appeared in print on May 31, 2013, on page C27 of the New York edition with the headline: The Brooklyn Breaker of Ancient Codes.
A version of this review appeared in print on May 31, 2013, on page C27 of the New York edition with the headline: The Brooklyn Breaker of Ancient Codes.
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A RAVE REVIEW FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINE: 5/16/13 at 5:15 PM
By Kathryn Schulz
Viewed in a certain light, the thousands of inscribed clay tablets unearthed over the past century on Crete and mainland Greece are profoundly boring. Essentially the scattered files of an early civilization’s accounting department, the tablets list rations of wheat and figs, record the results of the local census, and keep track of broken versus unbroken chariot wheels. Fully 800 of them are, as Margalit Fox writes in her new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, “quite literally devoted to counting sheep.” In short, they are not the world’s most fascinating reading material. But for a long time after their discovery that didn’t matter, because no one had any idea at all how to read them.
What does make for fascinating reading is Fox’s book, which recounts the 50-year quest to decipher Linear B, the writing on those tablets. A few chapters in, I found myself thinking about a specific and unusual form of literary pleasure: that of seeing one’s own pet subjects reflected in a book. In my experience, that kind of bespoke nerdiness is relatively rare. But The Riddle of the Labyrinth—which is about, among other things, history, mythology, ancient civilizations, linguistics, puzzles, code-breaking, Homer, Arthur Conan Doyle, and brainy female academics—has my particular name all over it.
As a rule, I would prefer not to have my name all over Fox’s work, since she is best known as an obituary writer for the New York Times. That beat does not normally make celebrities of its practitioners, so it says a lot about Fox’s writing ability that her obits have acquired something of a cult following. The form demands three things: a nose for interesting facts, the ability to construct a taut narrative arc, and a Dickens-level gift for concisely conveying personality. Fox has all three, in spades, and in The Riddle of the Labyrinth she uses them to capture not the life and death of an individual but the death and afterlife of an entire language.
The result is what Fox calls, aptly, a “paleographic procedural.” It unfolds in three parts: “The Digger,” “The Detective,” and “The Architect.” The digger is the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who discovered the first thousand Linear B tablets in 1900 at Knossos, Crete. The architect is Michael Ventris, who deciphered the writing on those tablets 52 years later, at the age of 29, after a lifelong obsession but just eighteen months of dedicated work. Both men became famous for their discoveries, and their lives have been extensively chronicled elsewhere. But not so the detective, Alice Kober, who forms the literal and figurative center of Fox’s book.
For modern readers, Kober seems like something of a casualty of her times. A workaholic classics professor at Brooklyn College, she poured herself into the study of Linear B—mastering along the way Akkadian, Chinese, Persian, Braille, statistics, archaeology, chemistry, and physics—and became, during her too-short lifetime, the world’s leading scholar on the subject. But she lived in an era when women’s intellectual contributions were routinely ignored or co-opted, she never got to see for herself the tablets that so obsessed her, and she died before she could complete her solution. And, until now, her reputation essentially died with her. History is not kind to those who don’t cross the finish line, even when they carry their competitors for two-thirds of the race.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth sets out to restore to Kober her proper place in the Linear B tale, a project helped along by the fact that her archives were recently made public. But even with those archives open, the woman herself remains something of a closed book, shady not in the ethical sense but in all the others: cool, grave, nuanced, out of the spotlight, deeply interesting yet the opposite of colorful. The one thing that stands out starkly in an otherwise ambiguous character is the force of her intellect. Kober is Fox’s Sherlock Holmes: patient, precise, analytical, unswayed by emotions—indeed, apparently unpossessed of a private life. “It is unfortunate,” she wrote in one characteristic letter, “that it is only in geometry that a scholar must state his assumptions clearly before he begins his proof.” One wants to buy her a deerstalker. But what she wanted, and found, was a mystery worthy of her exceptional mind. ...
The conventional approach to that problem involved guessing what language people were speaking on Crete in 1500 B.C.—Hittite? Etruscan? Polynesian?—and working backward from there. Kober had no patience for this method. “It is possible,” she said, “to prove, quite logically, that the Cretans spoke any language whatever known to have existed at the time—provided only that one disregards that half a dozen other possibilities are equally logical and equally likely.” Her greatest contribution, not merely to Linear B but to decipherment in general, was to prove that you can crack a script without making assumptions about the language it encodes but simply by studying, with immense exactitude, its own internal relations.
Today, that work would be dramatically eased by technology: computing, crowdsourcing, digital databases, instantly accessible international colleagues, online academic journals, Mechanical Turk. Kober, by contrast, worked without mechanical anything; technologically, she might as well have been a Cretan scribe. Finally granted five weeks in Oxford to study pictures of some 2,000 inscriptions, she spent them frantically copying down as many as possible by hand. (“I’ve timed myself and I think I can copy between 100–125 inscriptions in a twelve-hour day.”) To make matters worse, her deciphering career coincided with World War II–related shortages, which meant she could barely get her hands on one of the most low-tech tools of all: paper. To work out the Linear B problem, she resorted to hoarding the backs of greeting cards and the blank parts of church circulars. That constraint is so startling to read about today that, in a sense, Fox has written another obituary here—not to a dead language but to a bygone era of problem-solving.
In the end, it is the intensity of that drive toward answers, far more than the answer itself, that fascinated me most about this story. Yes, the Linear B solution is elegant and surprising; yes, it sheds light on everything from the chronology of ancient civilizations to an otherwise enigmatic passage in The Iliad. But what really charmed me about this book is how it both describes and demonstrates the unstoppable workings of intellectual curiosity. “The pull of an undeciphered ancient script,” Fox writes, “comes not only from the fact that its discoverer cannot read it, but also from the knowledge that once, long ago, someone could.” Something similar could be said about the pull of this book. Its allure doesn’t lie only with the problem, nor only with the solution, nor even with the people who ultimately solved it. It lies in the impulse—common to all of us yet everywhere remarkable—to look at a scary, unsolved, nearly impossible problem and think: Someone could.
*This article will appear in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
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A RAVE REVIEW FROM THE DAILY BEAST:
May 17, 2013 4:45 AM EDT
When Alice Kober died at the age of 45, she was a forgotten and ignored classics professor. But she arguably did more than anyone to decode what was then the oldest written European language known to exist.
As Margalit Fox says at the outset of The Riddle of the Labyrinth, the story of Linear B is well known. This 3,000-year-old language was discovered on clay tablets excavated in 1900 on the island of Crete. It thereafter puzzled scholars for half a century before it was decoded by Michael Ventris, an English architect with no formal training in archeology or linguistics. Linear B’s history is an absorbing tale, full of mysteries both intellectual and historical, and it’s been told and retold since Ventris made his breakthrough. The problem, as Fox sees it, is that what’s been published so far is by no means the whole story. Previous versions, she argues, neglect a major player, so much so that the story as we know it amounts to if not a lie then certainly a libel. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is her attempt to set the record straight, to apportion credit correctly, and by doing so to explicate the solution of Linear B in a way that at last makes sense.
As anyone who eagerly looks forward to the obituaries Fox writes for The New York Times knows, she has an extraordinary talent for teasing out the odd fact and the telling detail in the lives she chronicles. In Alice Kober, the linguist and classics professor whose work on Linear B was so crucial to its solution, but whose contributions have heretofore been routinely belittled or ignored, Fox has found a life worthy of her talents.
For those who came in late: the clay tablets containing Linear B were unearthed by the English archeologist Arthur Evans in 1900 at Knossos on the island of Crete. Almost immediately, he knew what he had found in the lines of symbols and drawings (horses, chariots, swords): the annual records of a lost Bronze Age civilization recording its crops, livestock, weaponry, and slaves, among other things. Evans couldn’t read the tablets. As Fox puts it, an “unknown script used to write an unknown language is a locked-room mystery.” But he understood their import: here was a written language at least 1,000 years older than any other European language known to exist. “Once their written records could be read, the Knossos palace and its people, languishing for 30 centuries in the dusk of prehistory, would suddenly be illuminated,” Fox observes. “With a single stroke, an entire civilization would become history.”
Evans spent four decades trying to decipher the tablets, but he died without cracking the code. Others failed as well. Then came Alice Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College. She worked alone, collating information on index cards she cut out herself (paper was scarce during World War II and thereafter, when she did a lot of her work). Her file boxes were empty cigarette cartons. But if her means were humble, her intellect was formidable. It was Kober who first realized that the syllabic script on the tablets was inflected, meaning, Fox explains, “that it relied on word endings, much as Latin or German or Spanish does, to give its sentences grammar.” She also figured out that of the four figures in a typical word, the third figure was a bridge between the root and the ending. She was also the only authority on the Knossos tablets who refused to believe that the language written there was Etruscan, although she never proved it. (Nearly every one of her guesses would eventually be proven correct.) And if Kober ever dreamed of vindication, she could have asked for no better champion than Fox, who brings to life her zealous subject’s obsession with a host of vivid details. Of a research trip Kober made to England in 1947, Fox writes, “Kober boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the six-day passage … She planned to learn Ancient Egyptian on the boat trip over.”
Kober died in 1950, when she was only 43. Two years later, building on the groundwork she had so painstakingly laid, Ventris successfully solved the mystery: the language was Greek, although the written form bore no resemblance to the same tongue that would later be written in the borrowed Phoenician alphabet known to us. Fox is never grudging about his accomplishment, but she doesn’t need to be. By the time we get to Ventris, the extraordinary work done by Kober has been so well documented that what Ventris did almost seems like a footnote and certainly like an anti-climax. Curiously, he, too, would die young, in a car crash that may have been suicide, only four years after solving the mystery.
For those who relish languages living or dead, The Riddle of the Labyrinth should be pure heaven, as it will be for anyone obsessed with puzzles. But there is also plenty for us whose knowledge of linguistic mystery is summed up in the comedian Steven Wright’s query: Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? You don’t have to know the intricacies of how language works or how people unriddle it to enjoy Fox’s book, although goodness knows she’s gone to great lengths to explain it all in perfectly lucid fashion—if you’re like me, you’ll have to reread a lot, but the explanations are there if you stick with it. The deciphering of Linear B solved a slew of mysteries in a single stroke. For example, by the time of Homer, around the 7th and 8th centuries B.C., Greek had lost its written form, and yet Homer sings of writing in his epics—now we know why. But the takeaway for the average reader is a splendid detective story that constantly wavers between success and tragedy. It’s the people in this tale, Kober and Ventris particularly, who stick with you, for theirs is a tale that inspires you even as it breaks your heart. Maybe someone could tell this story better than Fox has, but I don’t see how.
The story of the decoding of Linear B has always fascinated me. Not only the way it was solved, but in particular the story of the two people who contributed most to this. People who were outsiders of the academic world: Alice Kober and Michael Ventris. How could an obscure New York woman and an architect from England stun the academic world by deciphering a script on which the scientists had grinded their teeth for decades?
The book is divided into three parts: the first part is about Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who discovered the first clay tablets with the Linear B script. The second part is about Alice Kober, who took some great first steps in deciphering, but unfortunately died early. The third part is about the one who finally managed to decipher it: Michael Ventris.
In an extremely understandable way, Margalit Fox shows how Alice Kober and Michael Ventris eventually managed to decipher the script. She shows what principles Alice and Michael have used, what attempts finally led to the decipherment. All this in a legible and entertaining way, without ever loosing herself in too much theoretical chatter.
The author argues in her book that the role of Alice Kober, in the so far published (biographical) literature on this subject, has been underexposed. In this book, the author tries to put this right and is trying to paint the full picture. In her eyes, Alice Kober’s work and reputation has been until now underestimated and above all, not appreciated. She argues that without the work of Alice Kober, the script could never been translated.
It's a pity that the author has chosen this approach. It was not necessary at all: apart from the author's attempt to restore Alice Kober's reputation, this book is an excellent and highly readable treatise on the efforts to translate the cipher by the three main contributors. That is the real power of this book. The so-called attempt to reinstate the reputation of Alice Kober is only a distraction.
In 1900 Victorian archaeologist Arthur Evans excavated the Linear B clay tablets from the remains of the Knossos Palace in Crete, Greece. Written around 1450 B.C., the script was unfamiliar depicting drawings and pictograms. Who wrote the tablets? In what language? If solved, then it could establish that a literate society, which Evans named Minoans, thrived over a 1000 years before the Classical Age of the Greeks. Arthur Evans died in 1941 without ever solving the mystery and only released about 200 of over 2000 inscriptions. Many tried to decipher the code to no avail. Brooklyn College Assistant Professor of Classics Alice Kober dedicated her life to solving the riddle but unfortunately died in 1950 at age 43. She created 40 notebooks and over 180,000 “index cards” (paper was scarce during and after the war) by hand to analyze patterns, inflections, bridging characters, stems, and suffixes. Her work led to English architect Michael Ventris, a brilliant amateur who had been obsessed with the tablets from childhood, to solving the riddle in 1952 receiving all the acclaim. This is the captivating and thoroughly researched account of the efforts of Evans (“the digger”), Kober (“the detective”“) (whose efforts were mainly unrecognized), and Ventris (the “architect”) to crack the code and solve the riddle.
I was fascinated to learn about languages and writings, which all three studied and immersed themselves into. Fox writes that writing systems were rare in the ancient world, “a linguistic luxury”, and that only approximately 15% of about 6,000 languages worldwide are in written forms. She likens a writing system to mapping, where the language sounds are written singly or in combination into specified graphic symbols. Every writing system is one of or a combination of three types. The first is logographic or ideographic, where a written system signifies a whole word or whole concept. For example, Chinese writing has thousands of characters, which each character is a different word. The second are syllabic scripts or syllabaries, where “a symbol stands for a single syllable, like ma or pa, bo or do, tam or kam.” Japanese kana script is an example, but Japanese is mainly a mixed script of syllabic and logograms. The third is an alphabet, where symbols represent individual sounds. Most written languages use the alphabet, which was created by the Phoenicians from a prior Semitic script around 1000 B.C.
What not to love about this book? Deciphering an ancient script is by itself a captivating story. It changed the history of European writing by going back centuries before the Homeric poems.
Evans, Kober and Ventris resemble fictional characters jumping out of the pages of a novel. The Victorian knighted archaeologist, the meticulous American classicist, and the genius Englishman who finally cracked the code.
The tablets documented commercial transactions but at the same time, shed light on the daily lives in that distant era. A striking passage from the book documents that the Myceneans were master perfumers. They used the same ingredients 3,500 years ago, found today across Greece:
“The ointment-maker infused wine with spices like cumin, coriander, fennel, sesame, or sage—or with herbs and flowers like rush, rose, and perhaps iris—to extract their fragrance. Other ingredients, like fruit, honey, and possibly lanolin, might be included.”
Read it somewhere on a Homeric shore and hope that in the future somebody solves the Linear A code or possibly the Cretan Hieroglyphics. Imagine what we would discover about our past!
I love Ancient History, and I love puzzles and codes, so this book was a comfortable fit for me.
The section I enjoyed the least was that dealing with the work of Alice Kober, whom Fox wishes to push forward for recognition of all the work she did over many years on trying to decipher Linear B. Kober did indeed labour hard and long, and died in her forties, probably of some form of cancer. But Fox goes into too much forensic detail for a book presumably meant to appeal to people with a general interest in the subject, as opposed to those with an academic interest.
The puzzle was solved by Michael Ventris, who did it with an intuitive leap quite alien to Kober’s way of working. I enjoyed the sections of the book devoted to him, and to Arthur Evans who found Knossos and the mysterious clay tablets, far more than the rather exhausting 100 pages or so dedicated to Alice Kober.
An interesting examination of an extraordinary puzzle, and of the people who became obsessed with finding its solution.
This book discusses the decipherment of the Minoan script, Linear B. I didn’t know much about it before I started reading this; I’ve read pretty often about Champollion’s work on hieroglyphs, though not in the detail given here, and it’s the kind of thing that always fascinated me as a kid. So I was intrigued by this right away, especially because it promised to bring the work of a more obscure female scholar into the foreground. Fox definitely wants to highlight the work of Alice Kober, who she seems to hold in great affection, but there is quite a lot of space dedicated to the discoverer of Linear B, Arthur Evans, and the man who ultimately deciphered it, Michael Ventris.
It’s a thorough explanation of the decipherment, so perhaps not for the faint of heart, and it never pretends that the contents of the tablets were expected to be (or found to be) particularly glamorous: it was obvious from the start that the tablets would prove to contain inventories, not great literature. The glamour is in the mystery, which for a long time was completely locked: the language wasn’t known, the script wasn’t known, and the contents weren’t known. It was very hard to get a grip on how to extract meaning. Arthur Evans never did; he seems to have locked onto what he thought the answers would be, and gone looking for evidence. Ventris did the same, initially. Kober, of the three, was the one who really began on the right track: she studied all sorts of languages to understand how languages in general work, and she did painstaking work on the statistics, until the facts began to emerge for themselves.
The book also includes the life stories of the three scholars, particularly Kober and Ventris. It was fascinating to read about Kober and her determination, and her career in academia in the 40s; the hopes and setbacks she experienced. I can understand Fox’s fascination with her. It sounds like she was a great teacher and a passionate person, for all that you can peg her for the dried-up-spinster stereotype.
Some of the technical details of the decipherment were a bit beyond me — statistics and anything to do with numbers just don’t stick in my head — but I enjoyed this anyway. It’s a thorough account, which shines some light on a deserving person (Kober) whose contribution has been neglected.
I was wary of this book, because the author so obviously carried a torch for Alice Kober (at the expense, I thought, of my cultural hero Michael Ventris). Well, she does; but for a reason, and while aggrandizing Kober, she does not diminish Ventris's role in the decipherment of Linear B. My only serious quibble is Fox's insistence that Kober had been a victim of blanket unacknowledgment prior to her book. This is simply not true; not a single popular description of the Linear B story failed to describe her contribution at some length — not Maurice Pope, not Robinson, not even Singh in "Codebreakers", which had a very brief section on Linear B. Fox's story is much fuller, and endlessly richer in human interest, but no one (including Ventris) ever doubted or diminished Kober's role in the game. Could she have cracked the problem if she lived longer? No one knows; she was certainly sure Ventris could not do it in a million years. What this book is notable for is the human dimension of Kober's work, as well as Ventris's (though Robinson's book had already provided a lot of unique material) and Evans's. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a linguistic problem devised by my friend Alexander Piperski in the book. For anyone interested in the human dimension of the Linear B story, an indispensable book. It also seems quite sound linguistically. Highly recommended.
I enjoyed it immensely, but I must note that you might not enjoy it unless you are a total language nerd or at least an enthusiast.
The story is laid out so well! All the parts fit together to make a brilliant timeline of the events, and the author weaves explanations about decoding texts and how linguistics works into the history seamlessly. Both the history itself, as well as the methods, were immensely interesting to read about. It has also helped me understand how much computers shaped our society, helped progress and how hard things would be if we didn't have them. The idea that these people took years and years to create a paper database that they could collate... wow. You can now do it in, well, I don't know. Maybe not days, but certainly not years.
It's also a testament to the woman who laid the groundwork for decoding the script, but has been largely forgotten by history because a) she was a woman b) she never got to finish her work because she succumbed to a disease, very regrettably. While this is not by any means meant to discount the other people's work, it's truly important to stress Alice Kober's part in it, and I think this book does it brilliantly.
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, thought to be written in the eighth century B.C., are among the oldest written works of Western literature we know. Imagine the excitement, then, when hundreds of clay tablets were discovered on the island of Crete in 1900, and they were dated back to sometime between 1400 and 1450 B.C.; in other words, hundreds of years before Homer did his work and even before the battle of Troy he described.
During the Victorian era, the sun never set on the British Empire––as you may have heard––and Victorian gentlemen trampled all over the empire and the world digging up artifacts of ancient civilizations. In 1900, one of these gentlemen, Arthur Evans, discovered a huge, ruined palace on Crete, where the clay tablets were preserved by fire after the palace was apparently sacked and torched.
Some of the symbols on the tablets were pictograms, lovely little representations of horses, for example. Mostly, though, the characters were a mystery. Nobody knew what language was used on Crete at the time the tablets were written, and the characters that weren't pictograms were just tantalizingly ornate hints of life in this long-ago civilization.
Margalit Fox tells the story of the three preeminent figures in the life of "Linear B," as Evans called the script on the tablets. Evans, the archeologist whom she calls "The Digger;" Alice Kober, an assistant professor of Classics at Brooklyn College, who spent most of the 1940s sitting at her kitchen table painstakingly making note cards, charts and graphs to crack the code of Linear B; and Michael Ventris, the precocious English polymath with a prodigious systematic memory, who made the final breakthrough discoveries that allowed the mystery of Linear B to be solved.
Although most of the action in this book consists of these three sitting at tables, in solitary, obsessive pursuit of the key to a long-dead language and civilization, this is still a gripping adventure story. Anyone who has an interest in codes and cryptography will be riveted by Fox's descriptions of the methodology and thought processes that Kober and Ventris, in particular, used. With so much of the work taking place during World War II, Kober was reduced to having to use cigarette cartons for file card holders and scraps of reused greeting cards and receipts as note cards. Ventris was a navigator on RAF bombers, and on trips back to England after bombing runs, he sometimes used his large map table to spread out his research cards and continue his work.
Each small step forward in the quest to solve Linear B is thrilling, though it's also sad to see how much of the rest of their lives Kober and Ventris sacrificed. Kober fell ill and died in 1950, when she might have been within a few more months or years of cracking the code. After being the one to make the final victory in 1952, Ventris seemed to find his life had lost its meaning, and he died in a mysterious car wreck shortly thereafter.
Evans, Kober and Ventris never thought they were working on some great, recovered work of literature. They knew that the tablets were, essentially, municipal records. These were inventories of livestock and produce, and records of transactions. But no matter how prosaic their subject matter, as Fox notes, the tablets "disclose the day-to-day workings of a civilization three thousand years distant" and allow us to imagine these very real people so long ago, on that sunstruck rock in the Mediterranean.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth has been receiving some attention as being all about how Alice Kober, because of her sex, was never given her due for her groundbreaking work on Linear B, with claims that she was ignored in the 1940s and forgotten now. To be fair, Fox's own introduction to the book, as well as a couple of pages at the end, seem to take this tack. But the bulk of the book doesn't really bear this out. Fox describes in detail Kober's correspondence with the big names of her time who were active in the world of Linear B, her winning a Guggenheim Fellowship to further her work, her well-received academic publications, and Ventris's acknowledgment of the firm foundation Kober created that allowed him to reach his goal. If I hadn't read the introduction, the book would never have given me any idea that Kober was ignored or forgotten.
I suspect this whole notion that sexism caused Kober to be ignored and forgotten has been added on as a sort of marketing ploy––though with Fox's apparent acquiescence, certainly, given that introduction. My guess is that Kober would have found all that a distraction. Judging from her correspondence quoted in this book, for her, it was always all about the work, not the personal. And in this case, the work of Kober and Ventris is what makes this book special. (I didn't find Evans's story, which takes up about one-quarter of the book, nearly as interesting as the rest of the story; possibly because he didn't seem to have a clue about how to go about analyzing the script.) The descriptions of the methodology can be tough going at times, but this adventure in history, linguistics, cryptography, and archeology is worth the effort.
History told well, like Homer and Margarita Fox tell it, is a gripping story of an era and the personalities that enliven it. This is the story of Linear B, one of the first systems of writing and it’s incredible and improbable decipherment. This is the writing familiar to the heroes of Homer’s epics, the script used by Odysseus, Agamemnon snd Nestor ad they counted their sheep and ordered their weapons. Fox achieves a near perfect balance of the intrigue, science and history of decipherment and a psychological understanding of the intriguing few driven to solve these riddles, and the significance of the result.
It’s fun to speculate on where we would be without systems of writing and we need only look to what’s missing from the period before it emerged. What were the concerns and thoughts of the people that painted those astounding murals in Chauvet Cave? Considering, as Fox notes, that even now only 15% of the world’s languages have a written form. It is only through scholarship that we are able to access to a much greater degree the culture of ancient civilizations through their writing that survives. Cuneiform in Sumeria, and the hieroglyphs of Egypt are recorded back to around 3,200 BC. Linear B (predating our ancestral Phoenician alphabet by 700 years) was used from 1,800 to 1,450 BC in its heyday. The Olmec civilization in Mexico created an early writing system that flourished around this time as well. It remains undeciphered.
In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, the era is the golden age of archeology pursued in Victorian England and subsequently in America. Our heroine is the indefatigable Alice Kober , by day a professor of Latin and Greek in Brooklyn, by night a razor sharp detective determined to crack Linear B, an unknown script in an unknown language. Her clear-eyed statistical approach stands as true scientific genius, she assumed nothing, approaching the riddle in the abstract. Fox has made it her mission to rectify history by duly crediting Krober for her accomplishments. Fox succeeds in making clear that without her dogged and rational persistence this riddle would never have been solved. Two other leading contributors, Arthur Evans and Michael Ventris deserve and get their share of the credit, but both were hampered by jumping to romantic conclusions about what they wanted the script to be. In Evans case he wanted, as I did, the script to be a record of the pre-Indo-European Minoan civilization. Ventris held out for the pre-Indo-European Etruscan language. Let’s face it, the Indo-Europeans are a pretty warlike male-dominated bunch who’s language swept across Europe, Turkey and Iran, displacing what are tantalizing glimpses of other cultures that seem well, cooler. But what we get is valuable, insight into the infrastructure of a proto Greek civilization that exerted enormous influence on subsequent cultures ever since. Kober and company brought them into our orbit and Fox brilliantly tells the tale of this script resuscitated after three thousand nine hundred years.
A well-written popularizing account of the amazing trio connected to the quest to crack the mystery of Linear B. Fox has a self-confessed 'brief' for the middle character in this saga, Alice Kober. Kober, an asst professor at Brooklyn College, emerges as the true hero of Fox's account. That is the part of her re-telling of this story (known already via other, older works on the decipherment - c.f. Chadwick) that is most unique and most hard to parse. Fox is undoubtedly correct to call more attention to Kober's talents and dogged pursuit of the code. Whether she deserves quite as much credit as Fox wants to give her remains unclear, at least to me. After all, as Fox notes, it was the traditional hero of the story - the architect and amateur cryptologist Michael Ventris - who made the final leap and cracked the puzzle. Fox wants us to believe that if Kober had not died at a tragically young age (probably from lung cancer), she would have solved the problem. Perhaps. But ultimately that's a bit of counterfactual wish-fulfillment.
I should say that I wouldn't take anything away from Kober's achievements, some of which were known to Ventris and may well have aided him. Nor do I wish to criticize Fox's account unduly, as it is extremely well-written. Indeed, Fox is able to convey the nightmarishly-difficult task of making sense of a set of images for which neither the language nor the script was known in clear, readable prose. For instance, she makes good use of the classic Sherlock Holmes story, The Dancing Men, to help contextualize some of the problems of the decipherment. I also enjoyed the three-stage presentation of Fox's account: first we get the archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who found the tablets on which Linear B was inscribed, and unsuccessfully spent 30+ years trying to solve their meaning. Then Fox moves to Kober, the heroine of her account. Finally Fox turns to Ventris and the eventual solution of the puzzle only a few years after Kober's sad death. So, all in all there is much to admire in this book, and much to learn from it. My lingering reservation concerns Fox's clear sympathy for Kober and my suspicion that she may have played up that sympathy as a way to make her own contribution stand out from other accounts of the decipherment. But then I wonder if I'm being unduly suspicious. At any rate, it's certainly a fascinating account and well worth the read.
I really enjoyed listening to this: the depictions of the puzzle of Linear B and the way various preconceived notions (it's not Etruscan!) can stymie progress, and the pre-computer-era attempts to consolidate knowledge, and how much it helped to have people from different fields approach deciphering from the different angles their disciplines taught them.
Even with everything Kobler had to offer, her vast accomplishments and acknowledged skills, she couldn't get that university position. Any man with her C.V. would have made double her salary from Brooklyn, and been keynote at symposiums worldwide. And she just kept working away, ignoring her increasing ill health and the work she wanted to do herself, to Support A Great Man who swatted away as inconsequential her requests for accreditation.
I'm happy to have found this book, but my fresh outrage over 60 year old injustices will take a while to subside.
Interesting introductory book on post-WWII archaeologists’ and classicists' painstaking efforts to decipher the ancient Mycenaean script, Linear B, with a peek into the lives in Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. All in all, this is a book on linguistics, supported by a mix of biographies and history - such as Kober's meager professorship salary and unmerited career, despite her extraordinary talent and ground-breaking contributions, because she's a woman.
This is a highly readable introduction to one of archaeology's most notable mysteries, the "Minoan" script known as Linear B.
Journalist Margalit Fox -- who is also a linguist -- organizes her narrative into three biographical sections. The first covers Victorian archaeologist Arthur Evans, who first discovered the script. The second (and possibly most fascinating) deals with Brooklyn College classicist Alice Kober, who did the lioness's share of sorting out the intricacies of Linear B before her untimely death in 1950. The last features English architect Michael Ventris, the gifted/obsessed amateur who finally deciphered the script in 1952. An epilogue to this final section explains what Linear B actually reveals about the civilization that used it.
Fox also provides a clear listing of the signs of Linear B (a few of which are still mysteries!), plus comprehensive references and notes. Her prose is clear and engaging, and she has a talent for storytelling sadly lacking in much nonfiction. I found a few of the more technical sections on sorting out the script tough going, but that may reflect my own lack of background.
Readers interested in ancient Greece, archaeology ,code-breaking, or women's history might all find this book well worth their time.
Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of a non-fiction book about things that you never thought you wanted to know about ... and you are just captivated. This is one of those books. A marvelous yarn about the deciphering of some ancient tablets - which turned out to be an old version of Greek written in a script no one had seen before. The mystery was unraveled by several people, one a previously unsung woman from Brooklyn. Happenstance led to the tablets existing in the first place; but for a fire, they'd have crumbled away like any unfired pottery. Cool stuff.
Nonfiction account of how Linear B, the script/writing used by the ancient Minoans, who predate Classic Greek culture, on the island of Crete was 'cracked'. The writing, preserved by a fire (it was written on clay tablets) and found in the ruins of Knossos on Crete were totally undecipherable. No known symbols, no way of determining if they were picture-writing, or an alphabet, or something written syllable-by-syllable with each symbol representing a sound or group of sounds. (All three systems exist in different languages across the world.) In fact, no one knew what language this was.
Imagine trying to decipher, from a series of odd 'letters' and shapes, etc., what a series of messages or lists represent? This was a tougher task than the Rosetta Stone, which at least had their message written in three languages, one after another. No, not with Linear B: unknown symbols/unknown language.
Now I like to do cryptograms and am pretty good at them, can often do one in just a few minutes, but I have an advantage. I KNOW the puzzle is written in English and I know the alphabet we use - the frequency of certain letters and that if you can find 'QU' or 'TH,' then you're home, baby. (I used to amaze my husband by how fast I did these until I showed him a few simple tricks.) Anyhow, I like puzzles, cyphers, hidden messages, that sort of thing. It's prob. why I picked up this book, but...
Wow, those who worked out what all these symbols mean, then put them together to learn what these scribes were saying/writing - amazing! I could follow most of the science in the book, got lost once or twice, but overall I came away impressed, and most impressed by...
Alice Kober, the woman who worked so hard and long to figure this out, then died just a year or two before it was finally solved by another. (Also an interesting figure, Michael Ventris, who used many of Alice's discoveries to help him.) But she was sooo amazing, and her letters, are so sad, because I (the reader) know she will never get to that finish line. She was using statistical analysis, her knowledge of over a dozen languages and how they work - syntax, grammar, declensions, etc. - plus her own intuition to keep moving her research further ahead.
Anyhow, a great book for puzzle-solvers of all kind, or those merely curious about the culture which brought us the labyrinth. But was there a Minotaur at its center? If so, it still wouldn't impress as much as those who worked out this 'ancient code.'
You might think that an historical account about scholars exploring an intellectual challenge would be deadly dull. In most cases, that’s likely to be true. But Margalit Fox’s tale in The Riddle of the Labyrinth is anything but that. As the subtitle hints, “The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” is as lively and engaging as any book about the cryptographers who tackled the German Enigma and Japanese Purple codes in World War II. By telling her story through the lens of the three fascinating individuals who are most closely identified with cracking the legendary Linear B code, Fox squarely centers her account on the all-too-human frailties that loomed so large in the tale.
Mysterious symbols in an unknown language on clay tablets
Linear B was the name assigned to the mysterious symbols uncovered in 1900 on a vast storehouse of clay tablets on the island of Crete. The tablets came to light at the site of the ancient city of Knossos, a sprawling building “larger than Buckingham Palace” that was dubbed the Palace of Minos after the mythical Mycenaean king. Another, smaller stash of tablets was uncovered much later on the Greek mainland at Pylos bearing very similar though slightly different symbols. But none of those symbols matched anything known to archaeologists, ancient historians, or linguists. Half a century was to pass before scholars deciphered their meaning and conclusively identified the language in which they were written.
The Linear B puzzle was for those who seek to understand the ancient world a challenge comparable to Fermat’s Last Theorem for mathematicians. Yet scholars deciphered the 3,000-year-old Linear B code in half a century. Meanwhile, Fermat’s conjecture was proven conclusively only after more than 400 years following its appearance in the margin of a mathematics text.
“For five decades,” Fox writes, “some of the world’s most distinguished scholars attempted without success to crack the code.” Eventually, three remarkable individuals played the lead roles in the decades-long drama that led to Linear B’s decipherment. “What all three shared,” Fox notes, “was a ferocious intelligence, a nearly photographic memory for the strange Cretan symbols, and a single-mindedness of purpose that could barely be distinguished from obsession.” Fox tells their stories in three “books” roughly arranged in chronological order.
The Digger: Archaeologist Arthur J. Evans
Few names loomed larger in the ranks of archaeology at the turn of the twentieth century than that of Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1940). And the miraculous find he came across on the island of Crete in the year 1900 only added luster to his name. As Fox observes, “Evans had come across the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization, previously unknown, that had flowered on Crete from about 1850 to 1450 B.C.”
Within less than a week digging at what he believed to have been the Palace of Minos, he turned up a trove of more than a thousand clay tablets that bore inscriptions in a code that came to be called Linear B.
Following the scholarly conventions of the age, Evans kept the tablets hidden until the end of his life four decades later. He allowed no one but his own small staff access to their contents. From time to time he published journal articles that included drawings of tantalizingly small numbers of inscriptions as a way to illustrate the theories he developed to explain their origin and meaning. (Nearly all his theories proved to be wrong.)
For many years following Evans’s death, his former assistant continued to guard the material closely. He would only permit a handful of scholars to examine the tablets on the promise that they would refrain from publishing until his own massive study had made its way into print. And that happened only a very short time before others solved the puzzle with little help from him.
The Detective: Classicist Alice Elizabeth Kober
Fox did not set out to write a comprehensive account of the protracted race to decipher Linear B. Rather, she wrote to set the record straight about the critical contribution of one amazing female scholar. Her name was Alice Elizabeth Kober (1906-50). That “unsung American woman,” in Fox’s telling, “would very likely have solved [the code] had she only lived a little longer.” Her largely unrecognized role in the drama was similar to that of Rosalind Franklin (1920-58) in the quest to untangle the geometry of DNA that won the Nobel Prize for James Watson and Francis Crick.
A professor of classics at Brooklyn College, Kober carried a heavy teaching load. With the exception of a single year supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was able to devote only those evenings and weekends free from preparing lectures and grading papers and exam books. Yet “by the mid-twentieth century [she was] the world’s leading expert on Linear B. And it was she who found the key to understanding its complex structure. “Strikingly,” Fox notes, “she got as far as she did without being able to see any of the tablets firsthand.” Several years later, a young British architect solved the puzzle on the basis of her work.
The Architect: Michael Ventris
He was a prodigy who had never been to college but was “certainly the most natively brilliant of the three major players in the Linear B story.” Michael Ventris (1922-56) was educated in what the English call “public” schools but, unable to afford university, studied architecture at a professional school instead.
Ventris’s first contribution to the quest to break the code was at the age of eighteen in a long article published in a scholarly journal. Though impressive, his reasoning later proved to be entirely incorrect—and he stuck with his wrong-headed assumptions until just months before he finally accepted Kober’s analysis in 1951. Doing so enabled him to find his way to the solution just eighteen months later. At that point, he was not yet thirty.
Fox wraps up her story with a fascinating account of the historical record reflected on the Knossos and Pylos tablets. For decades, scholars had hotly debated the language the symbols represented. Ventris, for example, was convinced for more than a decade that it was a dialect of Etruscan. Kober, sensibly, refused to speculate. Only when the sounds of the language could finally be read was it possible for scholars to determine that the tablets had been written in a “difficult and archaic Greek . . . 500 years older than Homer.” The net effect of these findings was to extend Greek history nearly 1,000 years into the past before the age of Homer. What we know today of the history of the eastern Mediterranean rests in significant part on what we have learned from Linear B.
After reading The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone which referenced this book, I found it on my shelves, where it has been patiently waiting since it was published in 2013. It made it through numerous purges and even a house move and I am very glad it was there when I went looking.
The story of the discovery and deciphering of Linear B is fascinating, and Fox's skill at painting a picture of the various people involved, makes for an exciting read. If you love puzzles, ancient history, or biographies of obsessive brilliant people, then go find a copy. I couldn't put this down and now I am excited learn something other than anecdotes about the ancient Aegean and Greek History.
It was ok, and I liked half of it, or so. It's an interesting story about Knosos mainly and the language the ancient Greeks were speaking/writing way before the Classical age of Greece.
Here's my problem, I want to read about the history. I don't want to learn how to decipher, or to have to google a bunch of stuff just to have a simple understanding of what the hell you're talking about. Which was still fine, and I did, but after awhile it got a chore to do all that again and again.
The story was interesting too, right up until the point where it was taking too damn long to tell us about all the people who were involved in the deciphering of the Linear B and everything, which at first was really fun to read, but then I was thinking while reading, do I really need to know all of their lives and what happened before and after and in the middle of the deciphering with stuff and info that had nothing to do with the main story? No. I don't and didn't care for it.
There was also some mystery created in this one about a certain person that with a quick research you'll find out there was no foul play or anything "mysterious" suggested in the book, but I guess that created some excitement for the book? I don't know. Don't care. It was just weird and not true. Which then, begs the question, if that wasn't something that didn't happen, what else in it is just an elaborate story, or a guess? Because we're talking about historical stuff here. Oh well.
I liked it. Don't get me wrong, it was well written and besides that it would get into too much about the people involved and their personal lives, it's a real page-turner about pretty much everything you need to know for Linear B for how the deciphering started and eventually was completed. How many people were involved what they did and did not, how they got help and how they helped each other pretty much either knowingly or not.
All of it was great and learning stuff about the the Mycenaean civilization back then was even better, especially to what their writings meant and everything about their beliefs, system, trades, tombs, temples etc.
You wanna learn about all that? Go ahead, it's the book you've been looking for.
I love stories about decipherments, cracking of codes. There is something so unabashedly intellectual about these achievements - it really appeals to my sense of nerdy fascination. And the decipherment of Linear B is a rollicking good story (if you're a language nerd), because it combines the adventure and exoticism of archeological finds in sun-baked Crete with the dogged determination of a linguist in Brooklyn and the appealing figure of a semi-outsider who ends up announcing the cracking of the code in a BBC broadcast rather than a scholarly journal (and whose untimely death may very well have been a suicide). The story of Michael Ventris has been told a couple of times already, and this book focuses more on the other contributors to the decipherment, specifically Alice Kober. A rather obscure linguistics professor at Hunter College, she spent her evenings working away at Linear B. Her approach was super-methodological and involved a lot of tabulating and tallying, and then deriving conclusions from the patterns that emerged. All of this done was done manually, with hand-cut data cards that were punched in specific spots to denote the specific position of a given sign... a primitive database that ran to thousands and thousands of cards. And yet she had only a very limited data set to work with (much less than Michael Ventris, for instance) because of Sir Arthur Evans decades-long delay in publishing the tablets and then the limitations of WWII. At the same time, she had a crushing teaching load, an elderly mother to support, and the usual career limitations associated with being a woman in the 1940s and 1950s. I cheered for her when she won a Guggenheim scholarship and was able to travel to Oxford to see some additional tablets with her own eyes, and I fumed when she was turned down for a new position that would have enabled her to spend more time researching and less time grading student papers. She, too, died early, of an unspecified malignancy.
One of the best moments in the book, for me, was when Michael Ventris starts to realize that the mysterious language found in Greece was actually... Greek. An extremely early version of Greek, for sure, predating Homer by several centuries, but still... Greek. Not Etruscan, not Phoenician, and certainly not Polynesian (as one wanna-be decipherer insisted), but the one language every expert had decided Linear B was not.
This is one of those books that you may want to read with a pencil and notepad in hand, just for the fun of trying your hand at copying these elegant, mysterious signs, and even trying to plug in a phonetic value or two.
Totally fascinating book, thoroughly researched. The index and references comprise almost a quarter of the book but the story itself is more compelling than the best mystery writing. It's the perfect read for people who love language, ancient history and the story of genius found where its least expected.