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There’s a lot of strange language around, but IMHO it’s hard to top Linear B, the unknown writing of an unknown language that took more than five pre-computer decades to unravel after it was found etched into clay tablets on Crete.
In “The Riddle of the Labyrinth,” Margalit Fox presents compact biographies of the three main people who worked on what she calls “one of the most formidable puzzles of all time.” An obituary writer at the New York Times, Fox in particular gives one overlooked decoder her due, revealing the key contributions of a college professor and philologist named Alice Kober.
“The stories obit writers love best are those of history’s backstage players,” Fox wrote in a Times article recently. She reckons Kober is “the greatest backstage player I have ever written about.”
The story begins with some productive digging by British archaeologist Arthur Evans, who unearthed the Palace of Minos, “a building larger than Buckingham Palace,” in 1900 at Knossos, Crete. His crew also found clay tablets that, dating from around 1400 B.C., bore Europe’s earliest written records.
Evans spent 40 years off and on trying to crack Linear B, but his preference for conjecture over systematic analysis brought only frustration.
Kober, an outstanding classics student, “declared she would make the Minoan scripts her lifework” in 1928 upon graduating from Manhattan’s Hunter College. Such was the allure of these clay scratchings in some circles.
It was a Herculean task in many senses. As a teacher, Kober had little excess money or leisure. For a good part of the work, the war made paper scarce and Kober kept her meticulous records on homemade cards cut from anything with a blank side (she ultimately created 180,000 cards). She filed these in the empty cartons of the cigarettes she incessantly, lethally smoked.
Along with her linguistic baseline in Greek, Latin, French, German and Anglo-Saxon, she added Hittite, Old Irish, Akkadian, Tocharian, Sumerian, Old Persian, Basque and Chinese (I’m tired just typing all that). She was from the outset hamstrung because Evans refused to release more than a small sample of Linear B, about 200 inscriptions.
Fox is an excellent guide through Kober’s efforts to unlock writing that varies in appearance from Chinese characters to doodles and her crucial eureka moments. The author assumes the reader will possess a basic knowledge of how languages work and brings in conceptual aids where possible.
One is a system of writing called Blissymbolics that is as amusing as it is illuminating. Another is the Dancing Men code in the Sherlock Holmes adventure of the same name, which happily calls to mind Keith Haring’s hieroglyphics. The book stretches the mind in unusual and delightful ways.
The tablets in fact were “administrative records” that revealed the daily workings of the palace. Fox writes: “They would open a wide portal onto the daily life of a refined, wealthy and literate society that had thrived in Greek lands a full millennium before the glory of Classical Athens.”
The laurels for deciphering Linear B went to a brilliant British amateur with an uncommon gift for languages named Michael Ventris. His childhood interest in the inscriptions first bore fruit in a 15,000-word paper published by the American Journal of Archaeology in 1940, when he was 18.
He cracked it just before his 30th birthday. If you stick with Fox into the Ventris section, his intuitive leaps are just plain thrilling.
He couldn’t have done it without Kober’s spadework. That her contribution was largely overlooked for years stems in part from the fact that she died a few eurekas short of the goal.
In addition, Kober’s private writings, correspondence, analysis, Fox writes, “thousands of pages of documents in all, became available only recently.”
It’s fortunate that a writer as versatile and sympathetic as Fox came upon them.
“The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” is published by Ecco in the U.S. and will be published by Profile in the U.K. on July 11 (363 pages, $27.99, 14.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)