In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, linguist and obituary writer Margalit Fox chronicles three key figures in the decipherment of Linear B, an ancient Mycenaean script.
Did the obsessive work ethic of the Linear B decipherers influence you as you wrote about them?
There does seem to be something about decipherment that if your life isn’t messed up going into it, it kind of messes you up. It attracts obsessional types and there is something about it that just takes over your life and you have to solve it. And sadly, very often you can’t, or even if it does, as you’ve seen from the Linear B story, it kind of destroys you. I have the advantage of 50 years of hindsight. So for me the obsessive work ethic came just in making sure I could finish the book in at least a timely way. It was an intense experience, but I certainly wasn’t laboring under the same onus that the decipherers were, thank goodness.
What initially compelled you to write this book?
I was procrastinating while trying to finish the manuscript of my first book. Sitting at home to kill time I picked up one of my all-time favorite reference books, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems, edited by Florian Coulmas. It’s this very thick book of every kind of alphabet, syllabary, ideographic writing system from around the world, thousands of years of history with gorgeous illustrations of all kinds of weird scripts. Prophetically, that day, the book fell open to the entry on Linear B, and I was reminded of the story, which was at that time the only story anyone knew, that Linear B was this mysterious script dug up on clay tablets on Crete in 1900, and deciphered in 1952 by an amateur, the English architect Michael Ventris, and that was pretty much end of story. That’s a cool enough story.
From that beginning, how did Alice Kober, whose groundbreaking work on Linear B has been previously unknown, become so central to the narrative?
I cold-called a guy named Tom Palaima. He runs the archive of the program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas, which is the premiere archive in this country for documents related to the Linear B decipherment. I called him to ask can I come look through the archive and write about Michael Ventris, because that was the only story anyone knew. And Tom, to my astonishment said, “You’re welcome to come, but the real story here is, we’ve just finished cataloging the papers of Alice Kober.” And I said, “Who?” And that was how the story became so much richer than I, or almost anyone in the world, knew at that time.
Did you go to Texas and access all of this archive personally?
I did, at Tom’s invitation, once I realized the treasure trove he was sitting on. The timing of my call was serendipitous, and this was down to nothing more than dumb luck. When I called Palaima, they had just finished cataloging Kober’s papers: thousands of pages of correspondence; her homemade, hand-cut index cards; her decipherment notebooks. I had the great advantage of being the first researcher of any kind to have full access to her papers.
So I went to Texas, made PDFs of every single document that could be copied, and unfortunately for me, the PDFs were not labeled, so I spent a miserable six months doing, in effect, the work of a decipherer, putting together unlabeled broken tablets.
Do you wonder what legacy Kober’s work will leave for future generations?
I hope that part of the legacy will be in this book, and that it’s something worthy of her, because she was brilliant and more than deserves a good place in history, and a good historical treatment. I hope that the book can at least begin to give her that, because that’s the other piece of the puzzle. It’s an important piece of women’s history, because here’s this extraordinary woman who has been all but lost, and I hope that my book will bring her back to life again.
In using this massive amount of research material to write the life stories of the decipherers, did this project feel more like your work in linguistics or your work as an obituary writer?
It’s both, and that’s what I love about my book writing life. At times I have a dream job where, as a senior writer in the obituary news department, I am paid to write life stories, to write personal narratives of people who have done really interesting things. But of course, you’re only allowed to have a little bite of it. You’re writing 800-1000 words, in rare cases, 2000 words a day. Here, I’m able to combine my real love for writing personal stories with my academic training in linguistics, and do the same kind of thing but at marathon length.