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Linear B: Solving an Impossible Riddle

Triumph & tragedy are the costs of cracking the uncrackable

Arthur Evans (in white suit and pith helmet) oversees the restoration of the Grand Staircase at Knossos, c. 1905

The Riddle of The Labyrinth

The Quest To Crack An Ancient Code
By Margalit Fox

Reviewed by R.A. DiDio
Philadelphia Inquirer/June 24, 2013

If George Smith, assistant Assyriologist, stripped and ran screaming through the British Museum upon finally translating the Epic of Gilgamesh, what might happen with a translation exponentially more difficult? One that stretches five decades, consuming three independent hunters of long-lost tongues in a maze of linguistic sleuthing, academic intrigue, global conflict, triumph and tragedy?

Such is the story brilliantly recounted by Margalit Fox in The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

The code is Linear B (named because of its mostly straight-line segments instead of cuneiform squiggles) inscribed on clay-tablets unearthed at Knossos, Crete in 1900. Here archaeologist Arthur Evans had discovered the lost palace of Minos and its underground rooms — the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. The tablets confirmed Evans’ belief that writing must have existed in the Mycenaean world during the Bronze Age of Minos. But who wrote them, and in what language?

Knossos, North Portico (wikipedia commons)

Evans spent the next 41 years attempting to decipher “words” made up of alien symbols such as

Pylos Tablet Ta641 (from Linear B and Related Scripts)

Deciphering an unknown script in an unknown language is staggeringly hard. Preconditioned by prevailing theories of people and languages in antiquity, Evans was ultimately unsuccessful. Whatever Linear B was, though, it wasn’t Greek: the tablets were made many centuries before Greek writing was thought to appear.

Unknown to Evans, Alice Kober, assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, had devoted her life to deciphering the Minoan Scripts. In almost complete academic isolation, she relied on hand-crunched statistics to seek an internal logic in the symbol patterns themselves, with no consideration of the language represented.

Alice Kober

Exhaustively cross-referencing the 200 known Linear B writings, Kober recorded not only how many times each symbol appeared, but also where they appeared, and the probabilities that other characters would appear before and after them. With 78 Linear B symbols, she prepared almost 180,000 separate paper slips, filed in Lucky Strike cigarette boxes, just to begin her linguistic analysis.

Alice Kober wrote information on approximately 180,000 paper slips, stored in cigarette boxes

Kober extracted information from this “database” by punching holes corresponding to each symbol on the slips in fixed positions. The common symbol patterns among words were then found by holding stacks of slips up to the light. After 22 years she was able to determine that Linear B was syllabic rather than alphabetic, and that the language was inflected, i.e. that word endings signified the grammatical attributes of the word.

Tragically, Kober died of cancer in 1950 at age 43, just 2 years before Michael Ventris, a 30-year-old English architect with no formal training in archaeology or classics, solved the riddle.

Michael Ventris with a Linear B shard

For years Ventris constructed symbol tables not dissimilar from Kober’s, unknowingly venturing down the same paths until coming across her published work in 1948. Her arguments and his own intuitive leaps and logic led him to leave the table one night at a dinner party he and his wife were hosting. He returned some time later announcing the solution to his startled guests. Incredibly, the tablet language was a very ancient form of Greek, written 600 years before the appearance of the Greek alphabet in a script presumably used by the original Cretans who spoke a different language.

Unlike Smith, Ventris remained fully clothed. He became world-famous, but the demands on him led to depression and death in a car accident that may have been a suicide four years later.

With very few written samples, no bilingual writings with which to compare it, and no computers, the translation of the Minoan scripts must surely rank as one of the most stunning intellectual achievements of our times.

While The Riddle of the Labyrinth details the crucial roles the three principals played in unlocking Linear B, it is really Alice Kober’s story. Until now, her critical contributions to the decipherment were little known. As a woman in a male-dominated academic field, her situation is similar to Rosalind Franklin’s originally neglected role in the deciphering of DNA. Kober’s untimely death certainly contributed to this omission as well. Fox’s book then is more than a well-told story: it corrects an historically unjust account of the person who formed the crucial bridge between discovery of the scripts and their translation.

Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox is a senior writer for the NY Times with a background in linguistics. Her explanations of writing systems in general, and the linear B decipherment specifically, are excellent, making a complex subject very understandable. These discussions strengthen the important story that Fox tells so well — the uniquely personal quests and contributions of those who spent their lives solving an impossible riddle.

Richard DiDio teaches Physics and Mathematics at La Salle University.

A non-linear space of fractal branches and connections, chaos, complexity, art, life, learning, and everything else.

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Richard DiDio

Richard DiDio

Physicist w/o portfolio seeks good stories, shawarma, and ćevapčići…

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