‘Like so many canonical narratives of achievement, this story has a quiet backstage figure behind the towering public one.’ The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

January 27, 2019 at 11:28 pm (archaeology, Book review, books)

Ah, the mystery of an ancient tongue….

Is it a secret plan of attack? A poem? A testament of undying love? Well, not quite…

This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers.

Aminoapps.com

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Linear B is the oldest preserved form of written Greek that we know of. By the time we first meet this writing system, Greece and different areas of the western coast of Asia Minor were already Greek-speaking. Linear B was used to write an archaic form of Greek known as Mycenaean Greek, which was the official dialect of the Mycenaean civilization. The inscriptions found in Crete appear to be older than those discovered in mainland Greece. The oldest confirmed Linear B tablets are the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets from Knossos and have been dated to c.1450-1350 BCE, while the tablets found at Pylos have been dated to c. 1200 BCE.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Numerous tablets with Linear B inscribed upon them were unearthed during the excavation of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The principal work was begun in 1900; the archeologist who headed up ‘the dig’ was Sir Arthur Evans.

Sir Arthur Evans

The Riddle of the Labyrinth (a title I love) is not so much about the excavation per se as it is about the decades long effort to render this ancient script comprehensible to modern readers.  Many linguists and classicists worked on this incredibly complex puzzle.

First: here is the main syllabary, so called because these signs indicate syllables rather than sounds, as our alphabet does:

 

In addition, Linear B also makes use of ideograms, somewhat in the manner of Egyptian heiroglyphics:

From Ancientscripts.com
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If you’re thinking that this is a fiendishly difficult subject, you’re right. But the stories of the people involved, brilliant scholars with egos to match in many cases, is fascinating.

One of Margalit Fox’s chief purposes in writing this book was to highlight the work done on this project by one particular woman:

The woman was Alice Kober, an overworked, underpaid classics professor at Brooklyn College. In the mid-20th century, though hardly anyone knew it, Dr. Kober, working quietly and methodically at her dining table in Flatbush, helped solve one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the modern age.

In addition, Fox observes:

The scholarly field on which Kober did battle in the 1930s and 40s was very much a msn’a world, and it is understandable, if now unpalatable, that her male contemporaries so often characterized her in terms of maidenish qualities. That at least some twenty-first century writers continue to accept this appraisal is far less understandable, and far less palatable.

Despite her unrelenting efforts, which did result some major breakthroughs, Alice Kober didn’t quite manage to crack the code. That goal was achieved in 1952 by Michael Ventris, a British architect who, like Kober, had long been obsessed by Linear B.

Fox states firmly that Ventris’s blazing success would not have been possible without Kober’s foundational work. Had she lived long enough, in good health, she probably would have gotten there herself:

That she very nearly solved the riddle is a testament to the snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method.

As it was, she died before she could complete the task, in 1950, at the age of 43.

Alice Kober

Michael Ventris’s story is actually quite tragic. In 1956, while driving late at night, he slammed into the back of a truck parked by the side of the road. He was 34 years old. The death was ruled accidental; not everyone considers it so.

Michael Ventris

There’s an interesting article on the subject by Theodore Dalrymple in the New English Review.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. alison41 said,

    What an achievement – to decipher such an ancient language to any degree.

  2. Christophe said,

    Thanks for posting the video, too. The lecture was quite interesting and delivered well.

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