Imagine this for a minute: You're an archaeologist on an expedition in the countryside in Crete when you come across a tablet that looks like the image below. What is the first impression you get? It is obviously writing. The unmistakable signs of communication are there, but it is not in any alphabet you recognize. What exactly is it trying to tell you?
Answers to questions like these are endlessly fascinating because they trigger our infinite capacity for curiosity. You want to know because you want to know. The drive to solve this particular mystery forms the backbone of Margalit Fox's The Riddle of the Labyrinth. The book is a fascinating insight into the race for decipherment of this alphabet that was labeled "Linear B." Hundreds upon hundreds of these Bronze Age Linear B tablets were discovered, dating to about 1450 B.C., nearly seven centuries before the advent of the Greek alphabet that we know today.
Addressing students at Hunter College about Linear B, Alice Kober, a professor of classics at Hunter, once explained why its decipherment was such an endlessly appealing challenge: "We may find out if Helen of Troy really existed, if King Minos was a man or a woman, and if the Cretans really had a mechanical man who marched along the cliffs of Crete and warned the inhabitants when hostile sea-farers tried to land. On the other hand, we may only find out that 'Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 B.C.' But that is one of the hazards involved. After all, solving a jigsaw puzzle is no fun, if you know what the picture is in advance."
Fox walks readers through this jigsaw puzzle process beginning with "The Digger," archaeologist Arthur Evans who found these tablets in 1900 and was the early architect of the process of solving the code of Linear B. When a set of wrong assumptions stymied his progress, the process was furthered by Kober, who announced in 1928 that she would work on decoding the alphabet in her limited spare time. Kober, whom Fox labels "The Detective," recognized early on that she needed to create a science of graphics and spent countless hours using the methods of frequency analysis and tireless documenting to solve the code up to where she did. Unfortunately Kober died in her early 40s in 1950, and "The Architect," Michael Ventris, who was also concurrently working on Linear B, eventually cracked the code in 1952. Ventris is widely credited as the principal player in the race, Fox laments, and she makes clear that the work he did was only possible, in significant part, because he had been standing on the shoulders of giants. When it comes to Kober, Fox makes the mistake of falling too much in love with her own subject but one can excuse this as a byproduct of her zeal to make sure that Kober gets the spotlight she so richly deserves.
Kober's efforts were especially noteworthy at a time when there was not much in the name of technology - no computers to do the grunt work, and even paper was in short supply as World War II meant rationing of most commodities. Worse, Kober faced endless obstacles as a woman and if it weren't for a couple of benevolent mentors who allowed her access to the materials, her work might have been blunted even further. "The job that I like - pure research - is open only to men," she once wrote. Margalit Fox is an obituary writer at The New York Times and points out that even her newspaper ignored Kober when she died. Fox recently made up for the oversight - better late than never.
It's not entirely clear why Margarlit Fox chose the book's title, but it's likely a reference to the Greek myth in which Daedalus builds a labyrinth for King Midas on the island of Knossos (where the tablets were uncovered) to imprison the Minotaur. Digging into archaeology, linguistics, history and cryptography, Margalit Fox's The Riddle of the Labyrinth solves this jigsaw puzzle (as Kober called it) in an exciting and easily understandable way. We might know what the "picture is in advance," yet decoding it along with her is exciting and fun. 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. Reading this wonderful book makes you realize that whether it was the race to the moon or the one to decode Linear B, our big discoveries have always been driven by our most basic questions: Who? Why? How? When? What?
This review was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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