No prize was offered for deciphering Linear B, nor were the investigators seeking one. For some, like Evans, the chance to read words set down by European men three thousand years distant was compensation enough. For others, the sweet, defiant pleasure of solving a cryptogram many experts deemed unsolvable would be its own best reward.
Today, in an era of popular nonfiction that professes to find secret messages lurking in the Hebrew Bible, and of novels whose valiant heroes follow clues encoded in great works of European art, it is bracing to recall the story of Linear Ba real-life quest to solve a prehistoric mystery, starring flesh-and-blood detectives with nothing more than wit, passion, and determination at their disposal.
Over time, two besides Evans emerged as best equipped to crack the code. One, Michael Ventris, was a young English architect with a mournful past, whose fascination with ancient scripts had begun as a boyhood hobby. The other, Alice Kober, was a fiery American classicistthe lone woman among the serious investigatorswhose immense contribution to the decipherment has been all but lost to history. What all three shared was a ferocious intelligence, a nearly photographic memory for the strange Cretan symbols, and a single-mindedness of purpose that could barely be distinguished from obsession. Of the three, the two most gifted would die young, one under swift, strange circumstances that may have been a consequence of the decipherment itself.
Considered one of the most prodigious intellectual feats of modern times, the unraveling of Linear B has been likened to Crick and Watson's mapping of the structure of DN A for the magnitude of its achievement. The decipherment was done entirely by hand, without the aid of computers or a single bilingual inscription. It was accomplished, crumb by crumb, in the only way possible: by finding, interpreting, and meticulously following a series of tiny clues hidden within the script itself. And in the end, the answer to the riddle defied everyone's expectations, including the decipherer's own.
To Ventris, the solution brought worldwide acclaim. But before long it also brought doubt, despair, personal and professional ruin, and, some observers believe, untimely death. All this was decades in the future that March day at Knossos, when the first brittle tablets emerged from the ground. But of one thing Arthur Evans was already certain. Guided by the smallest of clues, he had come to Crete in search of writing from a time before Europe was thought to have writing. And there, he now knew beyond doubt, he had found it.
From The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox © 2013 Margalit Fox. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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