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the riddle of the labyrinth
19 july 2016
Some of my best memories of high school involve going across the Delaware River from my Jersey home town and working at the library of the University Museum in Philadelphia. There was probably no great need for me to research ninth-grade social-studies reports at one of the world's top archeological museums. But I remember poring over books of ancient scripts – cuneiform, hieroglyphics, Linear A and B – and dreaming of one day becoming fluent in the techniques needed to decode them.
That dream didn't get further than a classics minor at a different university, and an indifferent reading ability in Greek and Latin that I keep up only intermittently. But it's remarkable now to think of how soon those years were after the greatest of all the decipherings, Linear B, had occurred, a deciphering in which Penn and its ancient-studies faculty had played a tangential role. Margalit Fox's book The Riddle of the Labyrinth recounts that deciphering at fuller length than was previously possible, and revives the work of a key player in the effort.
As Fox notes, the deciphering of Linear B was finally accomplished by English architect Michael Ventris, who was not a classicist or even an academic, but made up for his lack of background with intuitive genius and an (ultimately perhaps unhealthy) degree of obsession. Fox doesn't downplay Ventris's achievement, but notes that previous accounts of the decipherment have downplayed the contributions of American classics professor Alice Kober.
Kober published papers on Linear B before her death in 1950 prevented her from seeing, or perhaps anticipating, the final steps in the decipherment. Fox establishes that Kober's insights were crucial preparation for the breakthrough, and at many points more methodical and correct than the guesswork that led Ventris less systematically to his conclusions. Kober was in some ways a computer scientist before the hardware was available to realize machine algorithms. She kept exhaustive, cross-keyed, manipulable and searchable databases of Linear B characters. What she didn't do was start from unfounded assumptions about the nature of the characters and the language they represented.
Kober's avoidance of assumptions slowed her down but helped her stay out of blind alleys. Fox, whose expository work is remarkable, devotes the middle half of the book to Kober's efforts, bracketing them with shorter sections on Ventris and on Arthur Evans, who discovered the Linear B tablets on Crete in the year 1900. Evans' dogmatic presuppositions led a half-century of researchers down the wrong path (and his insistence on keeping the materials close to his own vest didn't help, either). Evans proclaimed that the language of the tablets could not be Greek. There was some reason for the assumption: the Linear B tablets were from a period long before any known Greek writing. But the assumption was reinforced by what seems to have been mainly a desire to be special. Any idiot could find Greek stuff in the Greek world. It took a great archeologist to find an earlier and hitherto unsuspected civilization.
So Alice Kober did not assume that Linear B was a way of writing Greek, and in fact didn't assume anything about the language. (As Fox continually and skillfully puts it, the decipherment of Linear B was made doubly difficult by both the language and script of the tablets being unknown.) Kober's data analysis indicated that the script was syllabic and the language inflected. She identified characters that stood for what she figured were inflectional endings (they turned out to be derivational endings). She noted patterns of gender modification; she discovered (but did not publish) the use of a suffix morpheme for the concept "and."
But Kober was held back by her sex. An associate professor at Brooklyn College, she made good money for any academic in the 1940s, but was stuck doing routine teaching, committeework, and clerical chores for the late Evans' executor John Linton Myres. A single fellowship year provided most of her research time. Meanwhile, attempts to get her a research position at the University of Pennsylvania failed (thanks to a large helping of gender prejudice), and her mentor there, John Franklin Daniel, also died young, predeceasing both her and Ventris. Ultimately, Ventris would realize that the language of Linear B was an archaic form of Greek, and the pieces to the puzzle came together very quickly after that.
Bad luck in the longevity sweepstakes is a theme in Fox's story. Daniel died of a heart attack, Kober of cancer. The life is short and this particular art was very long to learn. In Ventris' case, a depression that followed on the completion of his life's work may have led him to suicide (though the circumstances of his death remain suggestive, and were officially attributed to accident). It's a sad story of work sustaining people only so long till their bodies or wills give out.
Fox, Margalit. The Riddle of the Labyrinth. New York: Ecco [HarperCollins], 2013.