Margalit Fox's fantastic The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is where puzzle solving, detectives, and history meet. Fox, a linguist and senior writer for the New York Times, talks about the famously impenetrable Linear B.
It was one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the modern age, and it took half a century to solve. In the end, it was unraveled through the combined efforts of three brilliant, obsessed and ultimately doomed detectives who devoted their lives to the problem.
The mystery centered on the strange, hauntingly beautiful script from the Aegean Bronze Age known as Linear B, whose decipherment became one of the most challenging intellectual puzzles of the 20th century.
Linear B was unearthed at Knossos, Crete, in 1900, amid the ruins of a lavish Bronze Age Palace that had flourished a thousand years before the Greek Classical Era. Set down circa 1400 B.C., the script – consisting of outline drawings of swords, chariots, horses’ heads, pots and pans and other tiny pictograms – resembled no writing ever seen. (Kimberly Glyder, who created the glorious jacket for The Riddle of the Labyrinth, did a masterful job of incorporating the characters of Linear B, now available in several digital fonts, into the design.)
No one knew what language Linear B recorded, much less what the curious inscriptions said. As a result, the tablets were the linguistic equivalent of a locked-room mystery, with no key like the Rosetta Stone at hand to help unlock the door. In retrospect, it is remarkable that the decipherment took only 52 years, a testament to the ferocious dedication of our three detectives.
The first of the three is the distinguished English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. It was he, excavating at Knossos, who first unearthed the tablets in 1900. Driven, imperious and immensely wealthy, Evans was a one-man embodiment of the Victorian Age.
Evans recognized immediately that the tablets were the archival records of a 3,000-year-old European civilization. If Linear B could be deciphered, it would illuminate this wealthy, literate and previously unknown society – one that had flourished in the days of Odysseus, Helen and Agamemnon, the Bronze Age heroes of whom Homer would sing.
Though Evans tried mightily to solve the riddle of the script, he never succeeded. But by the time he died in 1941, at 90, that obsession was burning in two others, the second and third of our real-life detectives.
One, Michael Ventris, was a young, melancholic English amateur – an architect by profession – who had been captivated by the script since he was a schoolboy. The other, Alice Kober, was a feisty classics professor at Brooklyn College, whose crucial contribution to the decipherment has been almost unknown until now.
In June 1952, Ventris, not quite 30, deciphered Linear B in what seemed to be a single, inspired stroke. News of his triumph, one of the foremost intellectual achievements in history, made him an international celebrity.
Linear B, he discovered, recorded a very early dialect of Greek, spoken centuries before Hellenic peoples were believed to have existed, and written down more than half a millennium before the advent of the Greek alphabet. Tragically, Ventris died at 34 just four years after cracking the code, in a swift, unexplained accident that may well have been a consequence of the decipherment itself.
Though the Linear B story endures as a canonical British narrative, an essential player has long been missing: Kober, who by the mid-20th century, though few people knew it, was the world’s leading authority on the script.
The daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Kober was born in New York City in 1906. A brilliant student, she came under the spell of the script at Hunter College, and on graduating announced that she would one day decipher it. Though no one believed her, she almost succeeded before her own premature death in 1950.
Because Kober was an American – and a woman – her work went largely unrecognized. But scholars now agree that it was her meticulous analysis of Linear B, available to Ventris through her few published articles, that made the decipherment possible.
By happy coincidence, an archive of Kober’s private papers had opened at the University of Texas, Austin, shortly before I began my work. As a result, I was the first person to have full access to her voluminous correspondence about the script, and to the handmade card files in which she documented her ceaseless investigations.
I found it gratifying – and heart-rending – to come to know Kober intimately. Day after day, after teaching a cumbersome course-load at Brooklyn, she came back to the house she shared with her widowed mother and spent hours at her dining table poring over Linear B. There, on her own time, and for no recompense and little recognition, she scoured the inscriptions, hunting down and tabulating any internal clue (including repeated patterns of words and characters and the contexts in which they occurred) that could be discerned amid the thicket of symbols.
During World War II and afterward, paper – so vital to the decipherer’s art – was a scarce commodity. Undaunted, Kober recorded her tabulations on some 180,000 “index cards” she cut laboriously by hand from any available scrap paper: old greeting cards and examination blue books, and checkout slips she discreetly lifted from the Brooklyn College library. She filed her cards carefully away in the one paper product of which, sadly, she seemed to have no shortage: empty cigarette cartons, which, even today, from their archival perch in Texas, exude the aroma of mid-century tobacco.
As a result of her labor, Kober’s major articles, published in scholarly journals in the late 1940s, stand as a forensic playbook for deciphering an unknown language in an unknown script. Alas, Kober, who died at 43 on May 16, 1950, almost certainly of some type of cancer, did not live to see her impeccable, hard-won methodology applied successfully to Linear B.
Today, historians of the decipherment concur that had she lived, Alice Kober would very likely have deciphered the script. With The Riddle of the Labyrinth, at least, I can – with pleasure, pride and more than a touch of wistful sadness – give this remarkable woman, too long unsung, the place in history she so amply deserves.