At the opening of the 20th century, an archaeologist unearthed a Bronze Age palace larger than Buckingham on the island of Crete in the ancient city of Knossos. In that collapsed edifice, which extended some six acres, he found hundreds of clay tablets where small inscrutable symbols danced along horizontal rules.
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Some of the incised drawings surely stood for the things they depicted: horses and pigs and goblets and spears. Others were more puzzling — marks that looked like pitchforks or telephone poles or buttons. Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who uncovered the site, which was abandoned sometime between 1400 B.C. and 1100 B.C., recognized the inscriptions as a writing system never seen before, for a language that was anyone's guess. And for the next several decades, guessing is what many people did, including Evans.
In 1952, a 29-year-old British man named Michael Ventris drew worldwide acclaim when he worked out a way to read that writing, designated as Linear B. But behind his accomplishment — and it was an accomplishment — was the painstaking but unacknowledged detective work of a woman named Alice Kober, whose remarkably thorough and thoroughly logical approach to the squiggles and horses and lines provided the keys that Ventris employed to solve the riddle.
The New York Times senior writer Margalit Fox tells an intricate and riveting story of how the writing system was deciphered in her book, "The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code." What emerges is a puzzle-solvers delight and a detective story full of longing and frustration, discovery and maddening egotism. At the story's center is Kober, a professor at Brooklyn College, laboring under the requirements of teaching a full course load to undergraduates while she works out the secrets of the strange writing system in her spare time.
Undergraduate students were hardly the greatest obstacles in Kober's path. The larger barrier was Evans himself, who published fewer than 200 of the more than 2,000 inscriptions and hid the rest away while he worked on the decipherment — a puzzle for which he was ill-equipped. To his credit, Evans determined the number system employed on the tablets; recognized that they were tallies of things such as bowls, arrows and horses; and determined the symbols for the word "total" by their presence at the bottom of every column. Beyond that, he blundered.
Even after his death at 90 in 1941, the inscriptions remained unpublished, left in the hands of a John Myres. Myres presented a different kind of barrier. To Kober's delight, he allowed her to see and copy the tablets, but he did so on the condition she publish nothing until his own volume was released. At first, this seemed no hardship, and the two scholars formed a warm relationship. But ultimately, the limitations Myres placed upon her proved crushing. In truth, his volume was far from ready for publication. Undoubtedly hoping to hurry it into print, Kober offered to help, and Myres loaded her down with labor that, Fox notes, "at bottom was little more than secretarial work." Myres sent his handwritten manuscript to her for typing — a document that deserved its own team of decipherers to work out his illegible scrawl. And worse yet, to Kober's growing irritation, his work was full of errors. Myres' manuscript devoured her spare time, time that — although she could not have known it — she could ill afford to squander.
With smart pacing and deft balance, Fox turns what might have been forbidding subject matter into a personal drama. Her exposition of Kober's methods transmit the excitement of her discoveries. Making use of a stick-figure language from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tale, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," and a writing system called Blissymbolics, Fox guides readers through the steps Kober took in seeing what others missed, a satisfying process that made me feel I might have uncovered such things myself. Of course, the intellectual preparation such puzzle-solving requires is beyond most of us. Kober, for instance, studied Hittite, Old Irish, Akkadian, Tocharian, Sumerian, Old Persian, Basque and Chinese to help prepare herself for her task. She analyzed such Asia Minor languages as Lydian, Lycian, Hurrian, Hattic and Carian; she studied archaeology, linguistics, statistics and mathematics. Ventris, who finally solved the puzzle, was fluent in many languages, with a capacity to learn new tongues in weeks.
To tease out the clues within the inscriptions, Kober cataloged every jot and tittle to which she had access, creating 180,000 index cards, often cut from scrap paper when stationery supplies were hard to get during World War II. By organizing the 80-some signs — each sign standing for a syllable — and mapping their relationships to one another, she began to see the rules that governed their use, which would prove the key to solving the script and the language it stood for.
While others, including Ventris and Evans, tried to work out sound values for symbols or attempted to determine what language the symbols stood for, Kober eschewed such guesswork, insisting the only proper clues to the symbols could be the symbols themselves. Her standards kept her published papers to a minimum — which may have cost her a second Guggenheim fellowship — but together, Fox says, they are a virtual "how-to manual for archaeological decipherment." The Guggenheim prize she won in September 1946 provided her with the only year in which she was free to pursue the interpretation of Linear B full time.
After that year, the pressures upon her only multiplied, leaving her scant time to focus on her work. By 1952, when Ventris announced that he had deciphered the Linear B script, identifying the language as pre-Classical Greek, Kober had been dead two years.
Her last year seems a depressing struggle under the weight of Myres' manuscript and a never-identified illness that had her often hospitalized, housebound and exhausted. She died at age 43 in 1950.
Although Ventris eventually credited Kober's role, it was, Fox says, too little, and too late. Further insult of another fashion accompanied the 1952 publication of Myres' "Scripta Minoa II," to which Kober sacrificed so much of her own time. Fox notes, "the published book gave scant indication of the full extent of her years of hard labor."
Although Ventris, an architect, came to the effort of deciphering Linear B as a dilettante making wild, uninformed guesses, it was a task he grew into, even working on decipherment while navigating planes through the air during World War II. Sadly, he died four years after his announcement in an automobile accident, which, though ruled an accidental, bears hallmarks of a suicide.
Fox clearly set out to set the record straight about Kober's unheralded accomplishments and manages to do so without taking anything from Ventris, who was uniquely prepared for the role he played. She also presents ample evidence that Kober may well have unlocked those last mysteries had she lived. The result is a gratifying story of the complex characters who threaded their way through the labyrinth of language that lay in the forgotten palace beneath Crete.
Jenni Laidman is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth
By Margalit Fox, Ecco, 363 pages, $27.99