The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox

I am fascinated by languages and always have been. And I have long felt that there is a special kind of glamour attached to languages that have not been deciphered yet. With a combination of mystery, the chance of finding out fascinating facts about ancient times, thanks to what turn out to be mystical and profound or mundane and boring documents, and the thrill of the chase associated with code breaking, surely everyone would love to be a decipherer. This has to be a dream job if you’re up to it, a mix between sleuthing and archeology, with the added bonus of field work minus mud Imageor dust…

I can’t quite remember how we came to talk about this with a distinguished mathematician I was sharing a train ride with back from London, but early on in our conversation, George spoke of the book Margalit Fox has written about the decipherment of Linear B. His description of the book was guaranteed to make me want to read it. How could I resist the story of the deciphering of an early Greek language far predating Homer’s (before it was cracked, there were all sorts of fanciful theories as to which ancient civilisation the language belonged) a woman insufficiently recognised for her major contribution to this fantastic achievement, Alice Kober, and a sort of almost revenge of the Egyptian-mummy-disturbed type story afflicting her and another key player in the decipherment, Michael Ventris.

Needless to say, I was whipping my Kindle out before the train arrived, only to be muttering a few seconds later about the failure of the connection to the Amazon store (this is admittedly an infrequent problem but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to the “Quick! Give me my book fix now!” essential to modern readaholics, and how badly you miss it if the reading craving can’t be assuaged instantly…). However, a short while later, George very kindly gave me a copy of the book and I got stuck in. Not for very long, because as usual when I’m enjoying a book, I read it quickly. So I absorbed in quick succession the chronicling of the adventures of the British discoverer of those precious tablets, the indefatigable worker and unsung heroine and finally the  architect-turned-decipherer-turned-celebrity. Also known respectively as Arthur Evans, Alice Kober and Michael Ventris.

I don’t think it’s just my sense of justice or feminine solidarity that makes Alice Kober the subject of my strongest admiration out of the three dramatis personae. But there is no question hers is a story that needs to be told and Margalit Fox has done a great job of telling it. Indeed she is upfront about her wish to see Alice Kober given her proper place in the pantheon of great contributors to our advancement of knowledge. Because let us not forget the magnitude of the challenge involved in cracking this particular code. This was an ancient language, lost to human understanding, with no obvious indication of whether it used an alphabet, a syllabary or pictograms, and with no handy Rosetta stone, providing a trilingual text from which to work. Champollion had it easy in comparison… Alice Kober, a hard working professor and talented classicist, denied a post she was ideally suited to for probably no better reason than the anti women professors prejudice sadly very prevalent at the time, worked on the language known as “Linear B” despite many obstacles. She was greatly hampered by very limited access to the tablets, at least until at great cost to herself in time and labour, and many years after she started working doggedly on Linear B, by becoming an unpaid asssitant to SirJohn Myres in the preparation of his “Scripta Minoa”. And her health failed her, she tragically died, probably of cancer, before she could see the work completed. Her decipherment work was essentially a labour of love: practically all the important decoding she did do was in her spare time, on top of her teaching load and looking after her mother. All this for next to no recognition during her lifetime!

ImageWhat particularly fascinated me in her work was that she effectively created a paper database, with hundreds of cards cut to the exact same dimensions recording statistics including every occurrence of the Linear B symbols, and information on where one was placed in relation to another, with an an ingenious punching system designed so that punch holes in precise spots made it easy, by simply stacking them, to extract all the cards with a given characteristic to facilitate analysis. With this meticulous and breathtakingly painstaking work, Alice Kober made several breakthroughs, such as identifying male/female symbols and proving the language was inflected.

There is less about Alice Kober’s personal life than on the other two contributors to the work on Linear B featured in the book. The author probably had less to go on. I don’t want to be overly sentimental, especially on the basis of so little knowledge, but Alice Kober does seem to have led a lonely and ultimately sad existence. A heavy workload and no recognition for her toil, no obvious companions in her life, then ill health and death in her forties. I find one detail particularly poignant. Asked if she had a large table (to spread out photos of the inscriptions she was finally able to see), she replied that yes, she had a ping pong table. I wondered why she would have such a thing. Did she buy it? Did she ever play table tennis? Or was it just something that had been stored forever in her basement? That tiny detail somehow feels incredibly poignant to me, so far removed from a life of practically single minded focus on an arduous task.

The descriptions of Arthur Evans’s and Michael Ventris’s lives, whilst interesting and also not devoid of adventure and indeed tragedy, somehow felt more mainstream, doubtless simply because they are much better documented, with more dots connected to conjure up a fuller picture.

ImageBut what an extraordinary achievement they arrived at, between the three of them: learning fascinating details of a 1500 year old civilisation, minutely chronicled in administrative documents. Reading lists has surely never been more thrilling and is unlikely ever to be again. Unless… fancy a go at cracking Rongorongo, anyone?

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