The Riddle of the Labyrinth:
The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
By Margalit Fox
New York: HarperCollins, 2013, 363 pp., $27.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis
How can something once so well-known become so lost? Margalit Fox’s engrossing The Riddle of the Labyrinth asks the question twice: once about the writing on tablets unearthed in Knossos, Crete, in the first years of the twentieth century; and again about the crucial contribution of Alice Elizabeth Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College, to their eventual decipherment decades later. Kober published her key papers on Linear B, as the script on the tablets was called, in the mid-to-late 1940s. Within a very few years her work had disappeared almost completely from the record.
This won’t surprise any student of women’s history—but The Riddle of the Labyrinth reminds us of how quickly languages and even whole civilizations can vanish from sight. The scribes of Knossos wrote in Linear B around 1450 BCE. The script could still be read and written 250 years later, around 1200 BCE, but by the time of Homer, around 800 BCE, not only Linear B but writing in general was unknown. Homer’s epics were originally sung or told, not written down. By Homer’s time, Minoan Crete was as mythical as the Olympian gods, and by the time Plato (427–347 BCE) walked the streets of Athens, Homer was somewhat legendary himself.
When the British archaeologist Arthur Evans found the tablets in the ruined palace at Knossos, history was turned on its head. As Margalit Fox writes: “Nineteenth-century scholars dismissed Homer’s accounts of Bronze Age life as pure poetic fancy. The glories of Classical Greece, the strong implication went, had sprung full blown from the long cultural vacuum that preceded them.” Thanks to his father, a dedicated amateur geologist and archaeologist, Evans had grown up around tangible evidence that history didn’t work like that. Now he had proof that a previously unknown civilization had preceded Classical Greece by a thousand years—and evidence that writing had existed in Europe many centuries before scholars thought it had.
But now what? Evans called the script of the tablets Linear B, not because it was written on a line, though it was, but because it was written with linear strokes, as opposed to, say, cuneiform, whose strokes are wedge-shaped. For would-be decipherers, it posed the most daunting challenge of all: an unknown language written in an unknown script. No Rosetta Stone appeared, pairing the unknown script and unknown language with a known language in a known script. Linear B came with only two clues: a place, Crete; and an approximate time, the middle of the fifteenth century BCE.
The riddle of Linear B fascinated scholars and amateurs alike, but more than fifty years elapsed before it was solved. The Riddle of the Labyrinth comprises three parts, one for each of the three individuals most crucial to the decipherment: Arthur Evans himself, “The Digger”; Alice Kober, “The Detective”; and Michael Ventris, “The Architect,” who finally cracked the code. Evans and Ventris were acclaimed for their work and are remembered today. Kober is not, although, Fox argues persuasively, “without Kober’s work, Linear B would never have been unraveled as soon as it was, if ever.”
Fox, who trained as a linguist and clearly would have made a wonderful teacher if she hadn’t become a journalist, does a masterful job of introducing the nonlinguistically trained reader to the categories and concepts essential to decipherment. She walks us through Kober’s analysis step by step until we grasp just how crucial her contribution was. She indeed laid the foundation on which Michael Ventris stood.
Evans, through careful observation, persistence, and deep knowledge of the ancient Aegean, had determined that Knossos was the place to dig. He financed the excavation out of his own deep pockets. Of course he wanted to decipher the inscriptions himself, but his efforts were hampered both by his unsystematic methods and by his romantic assumption that the Bronze Age Cretans—Minoans, as Evans thought of them—were “superior to [the mainland Greeks] in every conceivable way,” and thus that the language of Linear B could have nothing to do with Greek. By force of personality and his position as keeper (curator) of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, Evans was a powerhouse in early-twentieth-century archaeology. “The few scholars who dared to question him met with swift and certain professional punishment, and for the first half of the twentieth century, the idea of Minoan supremacy was almost universally accepted,” explains Fox. He controlled access to the inscriptions, which hindered others’ efforts to crack the code. And unlike Kober and Ventris, he lived a very long life, dying in 1941, at the age of ninety.
Kober and Evans, though linked by their devotion to Linear B, could not have been more different. The “upstart American daughter of working-class immigrants,” as Fox describes her, Kober supported herself as a professor of classics at Brooklyn College. Her course load was heavy, her academic obligations considerable, and her pay poor. She worked on the inscriptions in whatever spare time she had. As far as Fox can determine from her private papers, Kober never had a romantic partner or even any social life to speak of. Those papers weren’t made publicly available until recently, and thus she has been too easily pigeon-holed, and dismissed, as a stereotypical spinster schoolteacher.
But Kober had the scholarly discipline and integrity that others working on Linear B lacked. Like Evans, they all had their pet theories about how the script worked, what language it wrote, and what sound each character represented. (It was recognized early on that Linear B is primarily a syllabary, in which most symbols represent a consonant and a vowel. It also includes dozens of logograms, signs that stand for particular objects.) Their assumptions led them astray. “To Kober,” Fox writes,
While Evans sat on the inscriptions, Kober “systematically acquire[d] every needed weapon in the decipherer’s arsenal. She learned a spate of ancient languages and scripts . . . She studied archaeology, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics.” This preparation took more than a decade. Once enough inscriptions were available to study, about 200, the real work began: creating an analog database of Linear B that recorded how each symbol appeared in relation to other symbols, where it occurred in a word, and much more. Kober filled forty notebooks before World War II paper shortages made notebooks unavailable. Then “she began hand-cutting two-by-three-inch ‘index cards’ from any spare paper she could find: church circulars, the backs of greeting cards, examination-book covers, checkout slips from the college library, and whatever else she could lay her hands on,” writes Fox. Eventually she produced 180,000 index cards, which she filed in cigarette cartons.
Fox writes, “What [Evans, Kober, and Ventris] shared 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.” What Kober lacked, which the men had in abundance, was time. Research positions were scarce for women in those days. Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 – 1947, Kober was able to take a sabbatical from teaching and devote herself to Linear B full-time for a year. During that year, she spent six weeks at Oxford copying inscriptions, which were now in the charge of Sir John Linton Myres, Evans’s successor as “the grand old man of Aegean prehistory” and, unfortunately, the person charged with preparing four decades’ worth of Evans’s unruly notes for publication. The inscriptions had to be copied by hand: office photocopiers hadn’t been invented. As Fox notes, “[T]he techniques available to scholars in the mid-twentieth century had not advanced much beyond those employed by the Cretan scribes three thousand years before.”
From this point on, one setback after another further constricted the already limited time Kober had available for her work: the nonrenewal of her fellowship; the unexpected death of John Franklin Daniel, a respected colleague on whom her future plans had depended; and Myres’s liberal use of her secretarial services in preparing Evans’s volume for publication. Here Kober was in a bind: the task ate up much of her precious free time, but Myres’s transcriptions were often inaccurate and his understanding of Linear B inadequate. Kober couldn’t bear the thought of the book going to press with preventable errors. And Evans was still controlling the inscriptions from beyond the grave: no one else could publish them until his Scripta Minoa II came out. Thus she had a strong incentive for hastening the process however she could.
Readers of Riddle of the Labyrinth, knowing what Alice Kober did not—that she was going to die in May 1950, at the age of 43—may be justifiably tempted to rail at fate for being so cruel.
So it was Michael Ventris, not Alice Kober, who finally deciphered Linear B, two years and two months after Kober’s death. From Fox’s account, he seems to have been the best suited by training and temperament to build on Kober’s sturdy foundation. In addition, he had resources that Kober did not: access to additional Linear B inscriptions that had been found on the Greek mainland, and, perhaps most important, time, bought by his success in the stock market. Until now, writes Fox, “the process by which Ventris cracked the code has remained something of a black box all these years.” By documenting Kober’s work, Fox has illuminated the inside of that box.
Fox poses the inevitable, unanswerable question: Could Alice Kober have made the breakthrough had she lived a little longer?
As a freelance editor, Susanna J. Sturgis thinks that translating English into English is quite challenging enough. She keeps a blog about year-round Martha’s Vineyard at http://squattersspeakeasy.com and is the author of the novel The Mud of the Place (2008).