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

3.89  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,780 Ratings  ·  368 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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May 04, 2013 Shannon 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
Sep 04, 2013 Emily rated it really liked it
Recommended to Emily by: Sara
Shelves: 2013, nonfiction, history
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
Margalit Fox
Jun 01, 2013 Margalit Fox 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 be
Apr 08, 2015 Nikki 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
Nov 24, 2015 Jeanette 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.
Jun 25, 2013 David 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
May 12, 2013 Gaele 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
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
Ann Schwader
Mar 23, 2014 Ann Schwader 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
Jul 23, 2013 Dave 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
Sep 12, 2015 Robin rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Any book that uses the word boustrophedon is worth reading. Over and out.
Derek Haddad
Nov 02, 2014 Derek Haddad rated it really liked it
With the final decipherment of Linear B by a young, ingenious architect, it was only inevitable that commentators link Michael Ventris to Daedalus, the architect of the mythical Labyrinth of King Minos. Yet, in her book on the history of the decipherment of this enigmatic script, Margalit Fox alters the narrative framework, as well as how the reader views the making and shaping of history. In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Fox depicts Sir Arthur Evans as an old, ruthless “King Minos” of Archaeolog ...more
Maine Colonial
May 28, 2013 Maine Colonial 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
Mark Flowers
Jul 10, 2013 Mark Flowers rated it it was amazing
At long last, I've posted my review (plus extra thoughts) of one of my favorite books of the year:

FOX, Margalit. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. 400p. Ecco. May 2013. Tr $27.99. ISBN 978-0-06-222883-3.

Adult/High School–In 1900, an archaeologist named Arthur Evans, digging in Crete, uncovered a trove of tablets written in a 3000-year-old script he named Linear B: an unknown script recording an unknown language, the most dif
Jun 30, 2013 Rick 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
Feb 08, 2015 Maggie 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
Nov 08, 2013 Jennifer rated it really liked it
This book is fascinating, sort of an historical mystery, and I found it hard to put it down and go back to regular life. Margalit Fox's account into the work of deciphering Linear B script--especially the look at Ms. Kober's crucial work, which has too often been overlooked--reads like a thriller, and there's enough human interest in pathos to keep a reader hooked even if they're not as fascinated by lost languages as I am. I think this would also be a useful text for someone who's constructing ...more
Dec 14, 2014 Gary rated it it was amazing
The author tells the story in three acts: the discovery of the tablets, the unsung heroine, Alice Kober, striving to crack the code, and the actual code cracker Michael Ventris.

There's so much of human nature tied up in this story. You have the discover of the tablets, Arthur Evans, not wanting to share the tables as a whole and wants to keep them as esoterica for his own attempts at solving them. The story of the obsession and logical approach that Alice employs is inspiring and is tinged alwa
Having hit the wrong key, I have lost the review. Maybe I can reconstruct it later.

Semi-scholarly book about scholarly folk attempting to seek the meaning of a Bronze Age form of writing in use from 1400-1200 BC.

Take home lesson: thankless work for a female scholar; perfect activity for "acting out" and wasting time for male scholars.
Dec 17, 2015 Daphne rated it really liked it
I really liked this one. I love the story of deciphering and translating ancient texts. Learned so much from this book, and the writing here was done very well.
Mar 16, 2013 Amy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2013
This is an incredible, fascinating book!
This book offers an interesting three-part examination of the quest to solve the riddle of Linear B and be able to translate its characters.

The book focuses on three people, "The Digger", Arthur Evans, who discovered the tablets; "The Detective", Alice Kober, who worked tirelessly during her short adult life to decipher the language; and "The Architect", Michael Ventris, who is credited with cracking the code.

While the author seems most sympathetic to Alice Kober, I appreciated learning about a
Jim Angstadt
May 09, 2015 Jim Angstadt rated it really liked it
Margalit Fox has crafted an interesting story about discovery,
brilliance, and lasting value.
Decoding ancient marks in clay, is not quite like breaking a secret code.
There is a lot more to know, or that is not known.
Yet there are some similarities:
- frequency counts for characters, and also by position of the characters.
- finding recurring patterns.
- knowledge or guesses about the context.

The book has numerous, accessible examples of decoding techniques
that can be carefully followed and understoo
Apr 04, 2014 Lori rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club, nonfiction
Ever since I took an art history course, I've been fascinated by the Minoan civilization, and the Linear B story. Coincidentally, I'm headed to Crete in a few weeks and already planned to visit the Palace at Knossos, so when my book club selected this book I was thrilled. It did not let me down.

The book is organized around the three important people who contributed to the deciphering of the ancient language: Evans, who discovered the site and tablets; Kober, who did computer-processing level of
Hélène Wilkinson
Jan 12, 2014 Hélène Wilkinson rated it really liked it
I am fascinated by languages and always have been. And I have long felt that there is a special kind of glamour attached to languages that have not been deciphered yet. With a combination of mystery, the chance of finding out fascinating facts about ancient times, thanks to what turn out to be mystical and profound or mundane and boring documents, and the thrill of the chase associated with code breaking, surely everyone would love to be a decipherer. This has to be a dream job if you're up to i ...more
Bob Offer-Westort
Jan 16, 2015 Bob Offer-Westort rated it really liked it
The Riddle of the Labyrinth is clearly written for a popular audience, but it has the merit of not oversimplifying the issues involved. A person interested in the detailed process of decipherment will need to look at Kober's papers and Ventris' notes directly, but Fox does the process the kind of justice that can be done in a 285-page book, & is able to provide the reader a much clearer understanding of the process of decipherment of Linear B than has been previously accessible in a single v ...more
Oct 05, 2013 Kerfe rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Fox was interested in the story of the decipherment of Linear B, a written language first discovered by archeologist Arthur Evans on the island of Crete. Although she knew about Evans and the finding of the tablets, and Michael Ventris, the architect who cracked the code, her investigation revealed a key and neglected figure, the scholar Alice Kober, whose hours of classification work on the script led to the insights that gave Ventris a framework for finally solving the mystery.

It's a good dete
Apr 25, 2014 Jane rated it really liked it
The strength of Fox's book is also its weakness. Fox has written an encomium to Alice Kober and her foundational work in the decipherment of Linear B. Fox certainly makes her case for Kober as the workhorse that dissected the tablets and revealed the mechanics of the language. It's worth reading just for this account. However, too often I was struck with the feeling that the mundanity of scholarly work was being inflated to cliff-hanger just to fill space (Will she get the second Guggenheim or n ...more
Aug 13, 2013 Fil rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Linear B - just saying it sends chills down my spine. Athena's name is immortalized in Linear B tablets at Knossos, before any mention of Zeus. Linear B, thought to be a writing system of some unknown language ultimately discovered to be Greek. Its name is awe-inspiring.

This book is full of information, full; quick biographies of three major players regarding its discovery and decipherment (Arthur Evans, Alice Kober and Michael Ventris), description of said decipherment and includes some very il
Mar 03, 2015 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I loved this book! I took a couple of college courses in linguistics and loved the topic. This combined with my interest in Bronze Age history made the icing on the cake. I knew nothing about Linear B, the writing found in Knossos, Crete, then attributed to the Minoan civilization. I liked the author's take on the subject, using letters from the three individuals who were key to cracking the Linear B script, Arthur Evans, Alice Kober and Michael Ventris. She focuses on Alice Kober, whose contrib ...more
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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
More about Margalit Fox...

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“After all, solving a jigsaw puzzle is no fun, if you know what the picture is in advance.” 1 likes
“AND SO THE STORY ENDS, bracketed by two architects: Daedalus, who built the Minoan labyrinth, and Ventris, who found the thread that unraveled the tangle of writing unearthed there.” 0 likes
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