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The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  2,786 ratings  ·  520 reviews
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 civili ...more
Hardcover, 363 pages
Published May 14th 2013 by Ecco
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 ·  2,786 ratings  ·  520 reviews

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Robin Hobb
Feb 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I love puzzles. Jigsaws and crosswords and such.

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-consumin
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, w
Apr 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
Being a history nerd, I went into The Riddle of the Labyrinth hoping to find a twisty linguistic mystery I might be able to keep in my back pocket for my World History classes. What I was thrilled to find running parallel to that mystery was a lovely biography of the woman who helped solve it.

In 1900, clay tablets bearing unfamiliar symbols were discovered on the Mediterranean island of Crete, believed to be from a civilization that flowered 1,000 years before the Classical Age of Greece. For ye
Sean Gibson
May 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Aug 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Emily by: Sara
Shelves: 2013, history, nonfiction
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 a ...more
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 Eva
May 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-history
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 pe
Margalit Fox
Feb 14, 2013 added it  ·  (Review from the author)

‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth,’ by Margalit Fox
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 b
Jan 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 abou ...more
Jun 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
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 in
Mar 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Victor Sonkin
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 d ...more
Evelina | AvalinahsBooks
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 so
Melanie Greene
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.

But I'm saddened when I read stories like this, or Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our
Sep 13, 2015 rated it liked it
This book did a good job on explaining the history of writing and the oldest forms found on Linear B.

And how the quest to decipher was so very difficult.

Highlighting the work done by Alice Kober, and the eventual conclusion by Michael Ventris- it seems more like a dissertation than a book. Reads more like one, anyway.

Very sad in parts. And rather disappointed me in that I thought the explanations to the final results would be more inclusive. But it had excellent graphics and proofs displayed.
Maine Colonial
May 28, 2013 rated it liked it
A deskbound adventure

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 Brit
Jun 30, 2013 rated it liked it
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 atten ...more
Ann Schwader
Feb 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
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
Feb 01, 2015 added it
Shelves: library-book
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 fo ...more
May 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Any book that uses the word boustrophedon is worth reading. Over and out.
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Loved it!

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 thre
May 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I was totally enthralled by the concept of this book: the curiosity factor about the process of uncovering an unknown language suited my puzzle-loving brain, the ability to find knowledge from the ancient past that is not conjecture but in the words of those who lived in the time was too good to pass up. Words and language are eternal, as long as you are equipped with the ability to understand the concepts / read the language / understand what concept or information the writer is attempting to c ...more
Mal Warwick
May 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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 individ ...more
Jul 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful account of the solution to an ancient puzzle that stymied scholars for decades. Tablets were unearthed on Crete in 1900 that were inscribed in an unknown script and that dated to 1400 B.C. It took fifty years before anyone could read the script!

Fox, an obituary writer for the NY Times, has turned a potentially arid topic into a page-turning narrative by telling the story of three different people whose lives were dominated by the study of this linguistic cipher. The news here is that
Michael Perkins
May 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is an alternative, or at least a complementary to the "orthodox" text of this story by John Chadwick, in which architect, Michael Ventris gets the full credit for the decipherment. The uncredited Alice Kober is the Rosalind Franklin of this story. Kober was a classics professor at Brooklyn College in the 1930s and ’40s, who 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. Yet after Kober’s death in 195 ...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Really good book on the cracking of the Minoan Linear B clay tablets found in the 1890s by Evans and cracked by Ventris et al in the late forties. The script reveals that the Minoans used a syllabary for an archaic form of Greek language that is the ancestor to the Greek of the classical period. The book tells the story of the cracking of the code and explains the methods used to crack it. It also has a puzzle here and there to demonstrate cryptography and code breaking. More interesting to read ...more
May 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
I received this book in a goodreads giveaway and am very glad I did. The story recounted is fascinating and is approached from an angle neglected in earlier works on this topic. The writing is crisp and engaging. The explanations of the logical work of decipherment are clear and accessible. If you like archaeology, history, language, or code-breaking, you'll want to read this book.
Beth Gutcheon
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was so riveting that we had to go to Crete to see the Minoan ruins for ourselves. Life-changing, and a gripping story, beautifully told. Margalit Fox is a hero.
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I am a senior writer at The New York Times originally trained as a linguist, and I've been lucky enough to be able to combine my vocation with my avocation by writing narrative nonfiction books about language.

My new book, "The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code," the story of the race to decipher the mysterious Bronze Age script known as Linear B, will be published on May

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