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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 Civilization That Flowered On Crete , Years Before Greece S Classical Age, He Discovered A Cache Of Ancient Tablets, Europe S Earliest Written Records For Half A Century, The Meaning Of The Inscriptions, And Even The Language In Which They Were Written, Would Remain A Mystery Award Winning New York Times Journalist Margalit Fox S Riveting Real Life Intellectual Detective Story Travels From The Bronze Age Aegean The Era Of Odysseus, Agamemnon, And Helen To The Turn Of The Th Century And The Work Of Charismatic English Archeologist Arthur Evans, To The Colorful Personal Stories Of The Decipherers These Include Michael Ventris, The Brilliant Amateur Who Deciphered The Script But Met With A Sudden, Mysterious Death That May Have Been A Direct Consequence Of The Decipherment And Alice Kober, The Unsung Heroine Of The Story Whose Painstaking Work Allowed Ventris To Crack The Code


10 thoughts on “The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code

  1. says:

    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 consuming pastime And finally, the architect who built on her knowledge to finally establish the language and meanings of the inscriptions.These characters fascinated me because of their imagination and dedication Arthur Evans, a Victorian archaeologist, uncovered the tablets on Crete The peculiar script came to be known as Linear B Evans made a number of assumptions about the writing, some wildly wrong His is the case of a scientist struggling to make his discovery conform to his theory Alice Kober s dedication to the puzzle intrigued me In a time of paper shortage, she made literally thousands of file cards out of whatever paper she could repurpose and used her cigarette cartons as tiny filing cabinets for them She focused pure intellectual power to unravel many clues about the writing Then there is Michael Ventris, the architect who became intrigued with the puzzle, and built on Kober s work to crack the code at last.I recommend this book highly It puts a spotlight on the largely ignored work of Kober, and details her dedication I think I enjoyed that section the most.I had never before pondered how war hinders the advance of science A lack of simple paper was a huge hurdle, and the obstacles to communication was another And how people hoarded their information from one another It s an amazing tale.


  2. says:

    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, who was familiar with the cuneiform script used by ancient Sumerians, called the Cretan writing linear in contrast meaning just that it consisted of lines rather than wedges There were two main classes of this writing, which became known, unimaginatively, as Linear A and Linear B, the latter of which constituted the vast majority of what turned up in Evans s digs.Deciphering unknown writing is hard Sometimes you know the writing is being used to represent a known language, which helps other times, you might have an idea what the characters sound like, but no idea what the sounds mean The Minoan writing of Crete was the worst of both worlds no one knew what the characters sounded like, and no one knew what language they were trying to represent It was a holy grail of linguistics and OK, the French had cracked Egyptian hieroglyphs in the nineteenth century, but that was a parlour game by comparison they had the Rosetta Stone to work from.It took half a century, but Linear B was finally deciphered in 1952 by a quite remarkable armchair linguist then working as an architect called Michael Ventris This book celebrates his achievement, but it also argues that much of the credit for the solution should really go to the American academic Alice Kober, whose role in the story has previously been somewhat under appreciated Well, I had never heard of her at any rate Kober spent years and years meticulously categorising every character used in Linear B not just listing them all, but recording which characters were most likely to appear together, whether they were likely to appear at the front of words or at the back of them, what variant forms they might have and all of this while holding down a full time teaching job and working with the extremely meagre resources that Evans had allowed to be released publicly.It s very difficult to explain exactly what Kober did because Goodreads apparently does not allow any Linear B characters on its site every time I tried to publish this review with examples, the Linear B Unicode character block just blanked the review For a fuller explanation, and if you have the right fonts you can download a good one called Aegean here , you can consult my review on LibraryThing Edit found a workaround by using HTML entities instead It was by analysing this home assembled mass data that Kober eventually realised that Linear B must show an inflected language She spotted recurring patterns in the endings of words such as or which, she thought, could well be the equivalent to related forms in a language like Latin dominus, dominum, domini These patterns were the key to how the language was eventually deciphered From the number of symbols used, everyone knew that Linear B was a syllabary rather than an alphabet each character represented a syllable like ba or lo rather than an individual letter If the words did indeed show inflectional endings, then this was a clue about which characters were linked Consider if the Linear B examples were coding the Latin words I mentioned, with each character representing a different syllable do mi nu suh do mi nu muh do mi niWell, this would explain why the Linear B shows an alternation between and in the third character, and it would strongly suggest that those two characters represent the same initial consonant but with different vowels.Using a combination of such inferences, Kober put together a grid of related syllables, without ever speculating on what the actual phonetic values might be This was in itself rather an inspirational idea, since everyone else working on the problem began by postulating sound values usually based on some theory about how Linear B must be related to Etruscan or Basque or something , and then came up with a grid later That was the wrong way round and when Ventris finally made his own breakthrough, it was firmly based on what he called Kober s triplets.The author of this book reckons that, had Kober lived a little longer she died at 43, while deeply involved in the problem , she may well have got the solution first That s debatable, but it s nice to read a summary of this story that has an argument to make, and the case for Kober is very well put here, based on a cache of her private papers which, apparently, no one had really looked into before.The big leap that Ventris himself made came when he realised that some of the words in Linear B appeared only on the tablets from Crete, and were not found in any of the writing that had been dug up subsequently on the Greek mainland Perhaps, he reasoned, that was because they were local place names This turned out to be the case, and after some trial and error guesswork he eventually found the sound values that would make this work , in fact, is ru ki to or Lyktos, while , ko no so, is Knossos itself Working with these sounds, it soon became clear that the Linear B material was an extremely archaic form of Ancient Greek, now known as Mycenaean Greek This was a shock to everyone, not least Michael Ventris, who was convinced that the Greeks had come to the area centuries later.Most of what is on the tablets turns out to be objectively fairly dry bureaucratic records of crop storage, taxation, censuses But that s for the ethnologists and historians to worry about From a linguistic point of view, the whole story is a phenomenal example of how ruthless logic and leaps of inspiration can combine to produce solutions that seemed almost miraculous Cracking Linear B must be one of the most amazing intellectual achievements of the century, and it sounds silly, but my heart was racing in parts of this like I was reading a detective story Not so much whodunnit, but howthehelltheydunnit Dec 2016


  3. says:

    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 years archaeologists and linguists studied the script, now known as Linear B, attempting to break the writing down to its most basic form and find a key to the mystery of the civilization By mid century, classics professor Alice Kober had inched close to discovering that key, working painstakingly by hand with few resources and little help However, her work was often overlooked and her opportunities cut off due to her gender Across the world unassuming architect, Michael Ventris, had been given every opportunity for success, despite his lack of schooling Through floundering mistakes, Ventris eventually used the patterns that Kober laid out to become the recognized decipherer of Linear B.I was thrilled by how much The Riddle of the Labyrinth surprised me I thought I would spend much of the book trying to wrap my mind around the Linear B puzzle, but I could not stop thinking about Alice Kober and her work The pictures of the coding system she created by hand on scraps of paper during the paper shortage in World War II are absolutely incredible I can t even begin to imagine the amount of time and devotion that goes into creating a database by handand then cutting it small enough to fit into cigarette cartons She is beyond fascinating But my heart just broke repeatedly for her, as she was such a victim of the time she was living in Imagine what should could have done living in 2013, with that drive and ferocity While it would be easy to make Michael Ventris out to be a villain in the story, Margalit Fox draws beautiful parallels between the two researchers Both Kober and Ventris were, at times, highly unappreciated and underestimated by the academic community, though for different reasons They both held strong to beliefs about the texts that, once deciphered, wound up quite wrong In the end, the mystery behind Linear B was uncovered by the combination of their work, not solely one or the other The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a surprising blend of ancient and contemporary history that will have you turning over language, gender and the rigor of academic research posted at rivercityreading.blogspot.com


  4. says:

    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 all that riveting Fox does her utmost to make it seem thrilling, however, and she mostly succeeds, turning long days spent painstakingly and meticulously cataloging thousands of permutations of hundreds of symbols in the pre computer era, mind you into a high stakes race to unlock the secrets of an ancient civilization She imbues her protagonists, including unsung college professor Alice Kober and architect amateur decipherer Michael Ventris, with a well rounded humanity, lauding their brilliance even as she chronicles their shortcomings, both as scholars and as people So, when, spoiler alert, the breakthrough finally happens, it does seem like a monumental intellectual achievement despite being the product of a few nerdy obsessives who d rather do some systematic calculations rather than Netflix and chill Here s the thing, though all that tantalizing information that was unlocked turned out to be pretty dull, mostly accounting records and official tallies of goods and people I mean, maybe if the entries said something like, Traded 7 amphorae of olive oil for 4 young sheep, one of whom turned out to be kind of an asshole, which makes me feel better about having peed in one of those jugs of olive oil well, then we d have something interesting But, it s a pretty dry recitation of quantities It s a little bit like watching an Olympic level athlete, the most talented in the world in her chosen field, miraculously and athletically catching an empty plastic cup dropped by a clumsy friend before it hits the floor Okay, that s a little unfair the information mined from the deciphered tablets has opened up huge swaths of insight into ancient history and the Mycenaean way of life and is pretty historically important but relative to the herculean feats of prestidigitation required to decipher the language, well, the end results are underwhelming You ll need to prime yourself a methodical account, but assuming you re in for that, this is worth a read Now, if you ll excuse me, I need to get back to catching cups.


  5. says:

    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 as well as an explanation of what they discovered.Linear B was a language written on clay tablets at sites in Crete that posed a particularly impenetrable problem Neither the writing system, nor the culture, nor the language they were written in was known By contrast, the decipherers of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics knew what kind of language was probably being written down, and they had the Rosetta Stone which translated between a known language, Greek, and hieroglyphics To decipher Linear B, it was necessary to figure out whether it was an alphabet, a syllabary, or a series of ideograms to posit sound values for the symbols and to match the sounds to some comprehensible language.It s amazing that Kober was able to come so close to solving it based equally on leaps of insight and elbow grease She devised incredibly laborious methods of tabulating the symbols of the language on cards, or scraps of paper during wartime scarcity, which she filed in cigarette cartons and queried with needles, as a kind of database, in a punchcard system Through all this, she taught as a professor of classics and was exploited for secretarial work by the editor of the Linear B tablets catalog Part of the goal of the book is to give Kober her due, but Fox also makes Ventris, the ultimate decipherer, as well as Evans, the discoverer of the tablets, into interesting figures At times, the view into midcentury scholarly practices is simply charming, and at other times infuriating to a modern sensibility In the end, it s simply exciting to learn the answers about who wrote the tablets and what their ancient society was like.


  6. says:

    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 people much like themselves, meaning, people of the same sex, geographical location, and personality In this case, we have the two greatest centers of English language in print self congratulation, London and New York, facing off in a cage match of shameless auto back patting between book covers.A few years ago, I read another enjoyable book on this same topic, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson Robinson and Ventris are men from England New York born and bred author Margarlit Fox and her hero, Brooklyn based classicist, Alice Kober, are women from New York Robinson the earlier book almost completely ignores Kober Fox openly insults Ventris, through the time honored techniques of faint praise and placing the insulting sentiments into the minds or mouths of others in her narrative It s ugly, especially as Ventris was apparently a troubled genius, died tragically early, and is not around to defend himself To be fair, Fox softens her tone toward the end of the book and gives Ventris some props, but it s never unclear where the author s sympathies are.In both books, I see evidence of authors letting their personal narrative of heroism and grievance drive their writing, rather than allowing the facts speak for themselves Brits have this cultish worship of the brilliant amateur, the lonely, socially inept polymath who is in fact clever than the professional nabobs Ventris fits nicely into this mythology Result a book in which he is the hero Women have a justified sense of frustration that, even to this very day, women are routinely dismissed as lightweights, and their accomplishments belittled Result a book about a woman whose achievements are ignored by a simian members of puffed up professoriate To each, his her grievance, packaged and marketed to those who wish to have their previously held narrative re told and confirmed, and who live in a prime publishing market, a London based hero for Londoners, a New York based hero for New Yorkers.It would be great if we could just have the story without the grievance narrative.


  7. says:

    A RAVE REVIEW FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES The Riddle of the Labyrinth, by Margalit FoxBy MATTI FRIEDMANPublished May 30, 2013The events of the past grow 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 lost.Alice Kober, the subject of Margalit Fox s new book, was one such scholar A classics professor at Brooklyn College in the 1930s and 40s, she 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, unearthed amid the ruins of the Minoan civilization of Crete, the mythic home of the labyrinth of Daedalus and the Minotaur.Kober deserves much of the credit for one of the most prodigious intellectual feats of modern times, Ms Fox writes Yet after Kober s death in 1950, she was promptly forgotten.Ms Fox, an obituary writer at The New York Times, set out to rectify this, and by retrieving a woman who might otherwise have vanished, she ends up performing an act of historical redemption akin to the one her subject accomplished The Riddle of the Labyrinth, a gripping and tightly focused scholarly mystery informed by the author s own knowledge of linguistics, recounts the story of Linear B through three people who fell under its spell The first is Arthur Evans, the renowned adventurer and archaeologist who, digging on Crete in 1900, discovered clay tablets with an unknown script It was written with linear strokes, rather than with Egyptian style hieroglyphs or the cuneiform wedges of Mesopotamia, so he called it Linear B An earlier script unearthed at the site was named Linear A Evans was that particular type of Englishman who would say of an attempt by ruffians to assassinate him, People seem excited about it, but what is certain is that I was not He had a low opinion of inferior races and might have brought some of that baggage to his linguistic analysis The script, he thought, belonged to a superior civilization, and the enigmatic symbols seemed to him to have a free, upright European character Back at his mansion near Oxford, replete with models of Minoan thrones and a mosaic of the Minotaur, he tried for decades to decode these symbols but didn t come close.A second Englishman, Michael Ventris, a brilliant and fragile architect and amateur linguist, began trying to crack the code after encountering Evans and his tablets on a school trip in 1936, when he was 14 Working at the same time as Kober and using some of her methods and observations, he finally succeeded just before his 30th birthday.Both men achieved fame in their lifetime, but Ms Fox makes a case for Kober, the unprepossessing daughter of Hungarian immigrants, as the story s hero Her thick glasses, unstylish hair and prim mouth belied the snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method, Ms Fox writes Kober dedicated her life to solving the riddle, laboring at her dining table in Brooklyn, ever present cigarette at hand She never married, and her extensive correspondence, we learn, contains a total of two mentions of a social life.There was hardly time To aid her quest, she learned Chinese, Akkadian, Persian, Hittite and Basque, among other tongues, and eventually prepared no fewer than 180,000 index cards as she struggled to develop a system that would allow her to crack what Ms Fox calls a locked room mystery deciphering an unknown script that an unknown society used to write an unknown language A Linear B scholar was operating in a linguistic terra incognita with neither map nor compass at hand Without a guide like the Rosetta stone the multilingual inscription that finally allowed scholars to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs the task was thought to be all but impossible.That it turned out not to be is a testament to what the human brain, or at least the rare human brain, is capable of In explaining the problem and eventual solution, Ms Fox makes the complexities of linguistic scholarship accessible, weaving observations about language into the stories of her primary characters, two of whom met tragic and untimely ends.When the code was finally cracked, the result did not immediately appear equal to the intensity of the pursuit if the archaeologists on Crete had hoped to find the Minoan equivalent of the Library of Congress, instead they seem to have unearthed the offices of the I.R.S.But even bureaucracy has its poetry thanks to the decoded script, we are introduced to an island where people worshiped familiar gods like Poseidon alongside intriguing ones like the Mistress of the Labyrinth, and where folks were walking around with names like Gladly Welcome, Snub Nosed and here s the guy who must have been the life of Knossos back in the day Having the Bottom Bare.Ms Fox is attentive to touching traces of idiosyncratic humanity, past and ancient The church pamphlets and library slips Kober cut up to serve as index cards during the paper shortages of World War II the scribal doodles a bull, a man, a maze found on the tablets the mark a Cretan scribe made when erasing a character on wet clay with his thumb all those centuries ago To look at the tablets even now is to be in the presence of other people living, thinking, literate people, she writes The Riddle of the Labyrinth leaves one pondering what traces will stand as remains of the present, when there is no longer physical correspondence and much of a scholar s work exists nowhere but in digital form that is to say, nowhere.It s quite possible that our records will be as inaccessible a century from now as those of the ancient Minoans were to the language detectives in this book Figuring out who we were and what we thought should anyone deem that worthwhile might make decoding Linear B look easy.Matti Friedman is the author of The Aleppo Codex In Pursuit of One of the World s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books Algonquin.A version of this review appeared in print on May 31, 2013, on page C27 of the New York edition with the headline The Brooklyn Breaker of Ancient Codes.A version of this review appeared in print on May 31, 2013, on page C27 of the New York edition with the headline The Brooklyn Breaker of Ancient Codes A RAVE REVIEW FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINE 5 16 13 at 5 15 PMBy Kathryn SchulzViewed in a certain light, the thousands of inscribed clay tablets unearthed over the past century on Crete and mainland Greece are profoundly boring Essentially the scattered files of an early civilization s accounting department, the tablets list rations of wheat and figs, record the results of the local census, and keep track of broken versus unbroken chariot wheels Fully 800 of them are, as Margalit Fox writes in her new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, quite literally devoted to counting sheep In short, they are not the world s most fascinating reading material But for a long time after their discovery that didn t matter, because no one had any idea at all how to read them.What does make for fascinating reading is Fox s book, which recounts the 50 year quest to decipher Linear B, the writing on those tablets A few chapters in, I found myself thinking about a specific and unusual form of literary pleasure that of seeing one s own pet subjects reflected in a book In my experience, that kind of bespoke nerdiness is relatively rare But The Riddle of the Labyrinth which is about, among other things, history, mythology, ancient civilizations, linguistics, puzzles, code breaking, Homer, Arthur Conan Doyle, and brainy female academics has my particular name all over it.As a rule, I would prefer not to have my name all over Fox s work, since she is best known as an obituary writer for the New York Times That beat does not normally make celebrities of its practitioners, so it says a lot about Fox s writing ability that her obits have acquired something of a cult following The form demands three things a nose for interesting facts, the ability to construct a taut narrative arc, and a Dickens level gift for concisely conveying personality Fox has all three, in spades, and in The Riddle of the Labyrinth she uses them to capture not the life and death of an individual but the death and afterlife of an entire language.The result is what Fox calls, aptly, a paleographic procedural It unfolds in three parts The Digger, The Detective, and The Architect The digger is the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who discovered the first thousand Linear B tablets in 1900 at Knossos, Crete The architect is Michael Ventris, who deciphered the writing on those tablets 52 years later, at the age of 29, after a lifelong obsession but just eighteen months of dedicated work Both men became famous for their discoveries, and their lives have been extensively chronicled elsewhere But not so the detective, Alice Kober, who forms the literal and figurative center of Fox s book.For modern readers, Kober seems like something of a casualty of her times A workaholic classics professor at Brooklyn College, she poured herself into the study of Linear B mastering along the way Akkadian, Chinese, Persian, Braille, statistics, archaeology, chemistry, and physics and became, during her too short lifetime, the world s leading scholar on the subject But she lived in an era when women s intellectual contributions were routinely ignored or co opted, she never got to see for herself the tablets that so obsessed her, and she died before she could complete her solution And, until now, her reputation essentially died with her History is not kind to those who don t cross the finish line, even when they carry their competitors for two thirds of the race.The Riddle of the Labyrinth sets out to restore to Kober her proper place in the Linear B tale, a project helped along by the fact that her archives were recently made public But even with those archives open, the woman herself remains something of a closed book, shady not in the ethical sense but in all the others cool, grave, nuanced, out of the spotlight, deeply interesting yet the opposite of colorful The one thing that stands out starkly in an otherwise ambiguous character is the force of her intellect Kober is Fox s Sherlock Holmes patient, precise, analytical, unswayed by emotions indeed, apparently unpossessed of a private life It is unfortunate, she wrote in one characteristic letter, that it is only in geometry that a scholar must state his assumptions clearly before he begins his proof One wants to buy her a deerstalker But what she wanted, and found, was a mystery worthy of her exceptional mind The conventional approach to that problem involved guessing what language people were speaking on Crete in 1500 B.C Hittite Etruscan Polynesian and working backward from there Kober had no patience for this method It is possible, she said, to prove, quite logically, that the Cretans spoke any language whatever known to have existed at the time provided only that one disregards that half a dozen other possibilities are equally logical and equally likely Her greatest contribution, not merely to Linear B but to decipherment in general, was to prove that you can crack a script without making assumptions about the language it encodes but simply by studying, with immense exactitude, its own internal relations.Today, that work would be dramatically eased by technology computing, crowdsourcing, digital databases, instantly accessible international colleagues, online academic journals, Mechanical Turk Kober, by contrast, worked without mechanical anything technologically, she might as well have been a Cretan scribe Finally granted five weeks in Oxford to study pictures of some 2,000 inscriptions, she spent them frantically copying down as many as possible by hand I ve timed myself and I think I can copy between 100 125 inscriptions in a twelve hour day To make matters worse, her deciphering career coincided with World War II related shortages, which meant she could barely get her hands on one of the most low tech tools of all paper To work out the Linear B problem, she resorted to hoarding the backs of greeting cards and the blank parts of church circulars That constraint is so startling to read about today that, in a sense, Fox has written another obituary here not to a dead language but to a bygone era of problem solving.In the end, it is the intensity of that drive toward answers, far than the answer itself, that fascinated me most about this story Yes, the Linear B solution is elegant and surprising yes, it sheds light on everything from the chronology of ancient civilizations to an otherwise enigmatic passage in The Iliad But what really charmed me about this book is how it both describes and demonstrates the unstoppable workings of intellectual curiosity The pull of an undeciphered ancient script, Fox writes, comes not only from the fact that its discoverer cannot read it, but also from the knowledge that once, long ago, someone could Something similar could be said about the pull of this book Its allure doesn t lie only with the problem, nor only with the solution, nor even with the people who ultimately solved it It lies in the impulse common to all of us yet everywhere remarkable to look at a scary, unsolved, nearly impossible problem and think Someone could This article will appear in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York Magazine A RAVE REVIEW FROM THE DAILY BEAST May 17, 2013 4 45 AM EDTWhen Alice Kober died at the age of 45, she was a forgotten and ignored classics professor But she arguably did than anyone to decode what was then the oldest written European language known to exist.As Margalit Fox says at the outset of The Riddle of the Labyrinth, the story of Linear B is well known This 3,000 year old language was discovered on clay tablets excavated in 1900 on the island of Crete It thereafter puzzled scholars for half a century before it was decoded by Michael Ventris, an English architect with no formal training in archeology or linguistics Linear B s history is an absorbing tale, full of mysteries both intellectual and historical, and it s been told and retold since Ventris made his breakthrough The problem, as Fox sees it, is that what s been published so far is by no means the whole story Previous versions, she argues, neglect a major player, so much so that the story as we know it amounts to if not a lie then certainly a libel The Riddle of the Labyrinth is her attempt to set the record straight, to apportion credit correctly, and by doing so to explicate the solution of Linear B in a way that at last makes sense.As anyone who eagerly looks forward to the obituaries Fox writes for The New York Times knows, she has an extraordinary talent for teasing out the odd fact and the telling detail in the lives she chronicles In Alice Kober, the linguist and classics professor whose work on Linear B was so crucial to its solution, but whose contributions have heretofore been routinely belittled or ignored, Fox has found a life worthy of her talents.For those who came in late the clay tablets containing Linear B were unearthed by the English archeologist Arthur Evans in 1900 at Knossos on the island of Crete Almost immediately, he knew what he had found in the lines of symbols and drawings horses, chariots, swords the annual records of a lost Bronze Age civilization recording its crops, livestock, weaponry, and slaves, among other things Evans couldn t read the tablets As Fox puts it, an unknown script used to write an unknown language is a locked room mystery But he understood their import here was a written language at least 1,000 years older than any other European language known to exist Once their written records could be read, the Knossos palace and its people, languishing for 30 centuries in the dusk of prehistory, would suddenly be illuminated, Fox observes With a single stroke, an entire civilization would become history Evans spent four decades trying to decipher the tablets, but he died without cracking the code Others failed as well Then came Alice Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College She worked alone, collating information on index cards she cut out herself paper was scarce during World War II and thereafter, when she did a lot of her work Her file boxes were empty cigarette cartons But if her means were humble, her intellect was formidable It was Kober who first realized that the syllabic script on the tablets was inflected, meaning, Fox explains, that it relied on word endings, much as Latin or German or Spanish does, to give its sentences grammar She also figured out that of the four figures in a typical word, the third figure was a bridge between the root and the ending She was also the only authority on the Knossos tablets who refused to believe that the language written there was Etruscan, although she never proved it Nearly every one of her guesses would eventually be proven correct And if Kober ever dreamed of vindication, she could have asked for no better champion than Fox, who brings to life her zealous subject s obsession with a host of vivid details Of a research trip Kober made to England in 1947, Fox writes, Kober boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the six day passage She planned to learn Ancient Egyptian on the boat trip over Kober died in 1950, when she was only 43 Two years later, building on the groundwork she had so painstakingly laid, Ventris successfully solved the mystery the language was Greek, although the written form bore no resemblance to the same tongue that would later be written in the borrowed Phoenician alphabet known to us Fox is never grudging about his accomplishment, but she doesn t need to be By the time we get to Ventris, the extraordinary work done by Kober has been so well documented that what Ventris did almost seems like a footnote and certainly like an anti climax Curiously, he, too, would die young, in a car crash that may have been suicide, only four years after solving the mystery.For those who relish languages living or dead, The Riddle of the Labyrinth should be pure heaven, as it will be for anyone obsessed with puzzles But there is also plenty for us whose knowledge of linguistic mystery is summed up in the comedian Steven Wright s query Why is the alphabet in that order Is it because of that song You don t have to know the intricacies of how language works or how people unriddle it to enjoy Fox s book, although goodness knows she s gone to great lengths to explain it all in perfectly lucid fashion if you re like me, you ll have to reread a lot, but the explanations are there if you stick with it The deciphering of Linear B solved a slew of mysteries in a single stroke For example, by the time of Homer, around the 7th and 8th centuries B.C., Greek had lost its written form, and yet Homer sings of writing in his epics now we know why But the takeaway for the average reader is a splendid detective story that constantly wavers between success and tragedy It s the people in this tale, Kober and Ventris particularly, who stick with you, for theirs is a tale that inspires you even as it breaks your heart Maybe someone could tell this story better than Fox has, but I don t see how.


  8. says:

    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 interest in the subject, as opposed to those with an academic interest.The puzzle was solved by Michael Ventris, who did it with an intuitive leap quite alien to Kober s way of working I enjoyed the sections of the book devoted to him, and to Arthur Evans who found Knossos and the mysterious clay tablets, far than the rather exhausting 100 pages or so dedicated to Alice Kober.An interesting examination of an extraordinary puzzle, and of the people who became obsessed with finding its solution.


  9. says:

    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 Evans, the archaeologist who discovered the first clay tablets with the Linear B script The second part is about Alice Kober, who took some great first steps in deciphering, but unfortunately died early The third part is about the one who finally managed to decipher it Michael Ventris.In an extremely understandable way, Margalit Fox shows how Alice Kober and Michael Ventris eventually managed to decipher the script She shows what principles Alice and Michael have used, what attempts finally led to the decipherment All this in a legible and entertaining way, without ever loosing herself in too much theoretical chatter.The author argues in her book that the role of Alice Kober, in the so far published biographical literature on this subject, has been underexposed In this book, the author tries to put this right and is trying to paint the full picture In her eyes, Alice Kober s work and reputation has been until now underestimated and above all, not appreciated She argues that without the work of Alice Kober, the script could never been translated.It s a pity that the author chose this approach It was not necessary at all apart from the author s attempt to restore Alice Kober s reputation, this book is an excellent and highly readable treatise on the efforts to translate the cipher by the three main contributors That is the real power of this book The so called attempt to reinstate the reputation of Alice Kober is only a distraction.


  10. says:

    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 obscure female scholar into the foreground Fox definitely wants to highlight the work of Alice Kober, who she seems to hold in great affection, but there is quite a lot of space dedicated to the discoverer of Linear B, Arthur Evans, and the man who ultimately deciphered it, Michael Ventris.It s a thorough explanation of the decipherment, so perhaps not for the faint of heart, and it never pretends that the contents of the tablets were expected to be or found to be particularly glamorous it was obvious from the start that the tablets would prove to contain inventories, not great literature The glamour is in the mystery, which for a long time was completely locked the language wasn t known, the script wasn t known, and the contents weren t known It was very hard to get a grip on how to extract meaning Arthur Evans never did he seems to have locked onto what he thought the answers would be, and gone looking for evidence Ventris did the same, initially Kober, of the three, was the one who really began on the right track she studied all sorts of languages to understand how languages in general work, and she did painstaking work on the statistics, until the facts began to emerge for themselves.The book also includes the life stories of the three scholars, particularly Kober and Ventris It was fascinating to read about Kober and her determination, and her career in academia in the 40s the hopes and setbacks she experienced I can understand Fox s fascination with her It sounds like she was a great teacher and a passionate person, for all that you can peg her for the dried up spinster stereotype.Some of the technical details of the decipherment were a bit beyond me statistics and anything to do with numbers just don t stick in my head but I enjoyed this anyway It s a thorough account, which shines some light on a deserving person Kober whose contribution has been neglected.Originally posted here.