In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative.
When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece's Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe's earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery.
Award-winning New York Times journalist Margalit Fox's riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean - the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen - to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the deipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.
Knossos, Crete, 1900
The tablet, when it emerged from the ground, was in nearly perfect condition. A long, narrow rectangle of earthen clay, it tapered toward the ends, resembling a palm leaf in shape. One end was broken: That was not surprising, after three thousand years. But the rest of the tablet was intact, and on it, inscribed numbers were plainly visible. Alongside the numbers was a series of bewildering symbols, which looked like none ever seen.
In the coming weeks, workmen would lift from the earth dozens more tablets, some fractured beyond repair, others completely undamaged. All were incised with the same curious symbols, including these:
The tablets were what Arthur Evans had come to Crete to find. It had taken him only a week to locate the first one, but his discovery would forever change the face of ancient history.
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On Mar ch 23, 19OO , Evans, a few carefully chosen assistants, and thirty local workmen had broken ...
Digging into archaeology, linguistics, history and cryptography, Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth solves this jigsaw puzzle for us in an exciting and easily understandable way...One can’t help but remember President Kennedy’s immortal words: “We do these things not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.” In that sense Fox’s book is not just an ode to Alice Kober and the men behind Linear B but to all humanity - to the many who have looked at a challenge and soldiered on because they recognized that the way through would satiate our infinite thirst for knowledge.
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).
Full Review (1222 words).
In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox describes the challenge of decoding Linear B: "An unknown script used to write an unknown language is a locked-room mystery: Somehow, the decipherer must finesse his way into a tightly closed system that offers few external clues. If he is very lucky, he will have the help of a bilingual inscription like the Rosetta Stone, which furnished the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Without such an inscription, his task is all but impossible."
In 1799, in the small village of el-Rashid in the Egyptian delta, soldiers from Napoleon's army discovered the tablet. Because the French troops referred to el-Rashid as Rosetta, the stone came to be known as the Rosetta Stone. After Napoleon...
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