‘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.



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

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.



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Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.



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I met a traveller from an antique land…

September 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm (archaeology, Book review, books)

{D7B7FBC2-DF59-4F95-ADB6-3A2B4D6768BF}Img100  …a post in which I describe the way in which Kerry Greenwood’s novel sent me hurtling back in time to the world’s first great civilization. Out of the Black Land was a great read, for sure, but it was more than that. As a recreation of an almost impossibly remote time, it succeeded magnificently – at least it did for this reader.

The story is told from the alternating point of view of two main characters. First, we meet a young girl named Mutnodjme. This is how she introduces herself:

In the name of Ptah, in the name of his consort Mut after whom I was  called and his son Khons, who is the moon and time, in the hope that my heart will weigh heavily against the feather and I may live and die in Maat which is truth, I declare that my name is Mutnodjme and my sister is the most beautiful woman in the world.

This bravura performance in prose serves as the opening paragraph of the novel. I was drawn in at once. And who is this peerless sister? She is Nefertiti, the soon to be Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhnamen. Names are fluid attributes in this strange and exotic world. Akhnamen’s own will soon be changed,, by his own inflexible will because of an equally inflexible obsession.

Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum of Berlin

Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum of Berlin

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum in Cairo

This is this same man who plucks the youth Ptah-hotep from the school for scribes where he is a student and bids him serve at the royal palace. It’s a great honor, but it also means separation from his fellow student, the dearly beloved Kheperren.

As the author takes us step by step through the tumultuous world of Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty, we follow in particular the lives of Mutnodjme and Ptah-hotep as they grow into adulthood in this strange and fabulous land. It makes for a riveting story.
Out of the Black Land awakened in me a deep fascination with ancient Egypt. I should say, reawakened, because this is an interest I felt as a child, especially after I was given this curious little gift, or one very much like it:

I am now reading a book about the rise and fall of ancient Egypt. Written by Toby Wilkinson, it’s unsurprising title is The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. 9780553384901_custom-03bf62c02636f5ea634b287f063653c82bd55fa6-s6-c30  It resides on my Kindle app, and I read a section or two each day, taking in the vast information in minute doses, the better to retain it. Inevitably, some sections are more challenging than others, but for the most part the book is highly readable. And now that I’ve reached the Eighteenth Dynasty I am filled with anticipation, for soon I’ll be reading about Akhnaten (aka Amenhotep IV), that strong willed iconoclast who was powerful in some ways, impotent in others. I’m eager to see the extent to which Toby Wilkinson’s description of him tallies with Kerry Greenwood’s portrayal.

The Middle Kingdom was the golden age of literature, when many of the great classics were composed. From the heroic Tale of Sinuhe to the rollicking yarn of The Shipwrecked Sailor, from the overtly propagandist Prophecies of Neferti to the subtle rhetoric of The Eloquent Peasant, and from the metaphysical Dispute Between a Man and His Soul to the burlesque Satire of the Trades, the literary output of the Middle Kingdom reveals ancient Egyptian society at its most complex and sophisticated.

This is how Toby Wilkinson introduces Part II of his book, entitled “End of Innocence (2175-1541 BC).” Kerry Greenwood references Satire of Trades in Out of the Black Land. That was the first I’d heard of it. The other above mentioned works were completely unknown to me, and I wondered why. JohnLFosterAncient Egyptian Literature  In his introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature, John L. Foster explains that we have been taught to revere our Greek and Hebraic heritage, particularly the latter, identified as it is with religious observance. These languages have been the lens through which we have seen the culture of the ancient world.

On the other hand:

Egyptian hieroglyphic is a dead language. Its meaning only began to be recovered when Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1822. And it was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that a tradition of translating the hieroglyphs into English could even begin to develop. Translation of ancient Egyptian literature is barely a century old, only four or five generations of Egyptologists have had a chance to work on the language, and most of the effort has of necessity been devoted to basics — vocabulary, word order, and sentence patterns. These efforts of earlier language scholars have been absolutely fundamental to, and necessarily preceded, any attempt to recover ancient Egyptian literature as literature and as poetry. Our cultural traditions, along with loss of the key to the hieroglyphic language for so many centuries, have blinded us to the value of what has survived from the literature of ancient Egypt. It has riches thus far largely unrealized.

Foster’s preface is well worth reading. In it, he enlarges on the challenges of translating hieroglyphic writing, especially into poetic form.  Immediately preceding the preface, and after the dedication, he places this verse excerpt from The Harper’s Song from the Tomb of King Intef:

I have heard the words of Imhotep, and Hordjedef, too,
retold time and again in their narrations.
Where are their dwellings now?
Their walls are down,
Their places gone,
like something that has never been.

Here’s what the original looks like:


The first poems following the preface are love poems. Of these, Foster states succinctly: “Love has hardly altered at all over the millennia.”

Judge for yourself:

Why, just now, must you question your heart?
Is it really the time for discussion?
To her, say I,
take her tight in your arms! For god’s sake, sweet man,
it’s me coming at you,
My tunic
loose at the shoulder!

There are more like this. They took my breath away.

There’s plenty of love in Out of the Black Land; all kinds of love. After reading some the poetry in Foster’s anthology, I could not help but feel that in this novel, Kerry Greenwood got it right.
Composer Douglas Irvine has attempted to recreate the sound of the music of ancient Egypt:

Here is the “Hymn to Aten,” from Phillip Glass’s opera Akhnaten:

There are two online sites concerning Ancient Egypt that I especially like: The Ancient Egypt and Archaeology Web Site  and The Ancient Egypt Site, curated by Belgian Egyptologist Jacques Kinnaer.
In her lively Afterword, Kerry Greenwood reflects with considerable asperity on the widely varying viewpoints of scholars in the field of Egyptology. She has also appended to her novel a highly useful bibliography.

The title of this post is taken from the first line of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The 'Younger Memnon' statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum, thought to have inspired the poem

The ‘Younger Memnon’ statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum, thought to have inspired the poem

Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad reads Ozymandias:

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The pleasures of Archaeology

June 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm (archaeology, books, History)

I don’t normally buy this magazine, even though like most people, I am fascinated by archaeological expeditions and discoveries. I bought this particular issue because of the photograph of the Tollund Man on the cover.

Many years ago, when I was teaching high school English, I used a text book that contained an excerpt from The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, by Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob. At the time, I was faced with the usual cohort of bored, antsy teenagers, and I don’t recall getting mush of a response from them when we discussed this piece. But I have never forgotten the effect it had on me.

The English translation of The Bog People appeared in this country in 1969.

Gods, Graves, and Scholars, another landmark volume on archaeology by C.W. Ceram, was written in 1949. It was translated from the German and published here in 1951, A  revised edition appeared in 1967. That was already some years after my mother had first urged me to read it.

It is the second revised edition, dated 1979, that sits before me on my desk at this moment. Ceram states in his foreward to the first American edition:  ‘My book was written without scholarly pretensions. My aim was to portray the dramatic qualities of archaeology, its human side.” He goes on to describe the fruits of his research:

‘Archaeology, I found, comprehended all manner of excitement and achievement. Adventure is coupled with bookish toil. Romantic excursions go hand in hand with scholarly self-discipline and moderation.  Explanations among the ruins of the remote past have carried curious men all over the face of the earth.

Two stories made a lasting impression. The first was that of Heinrich Schliemann and the search for Troy. This particularanecdote has stayed with me:

‘Incredible as it may seem, this actually happened: the rich and eccentric foreigner one evening sat in the village square and read the Twenty-third Book of the Odyssey to the descendants of those who had been dead for three thousand years. Overcome by emotion, he wept, and the villagers wept with him.

The second is the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The year is 1922. Archaeologist Howard Carter has enlarged a hole in the door to the newly unearthed burial chamber. Lord Carnarvon, his backer on the project, and others, are crowded around him:

‘Nervously Carter lit a match, touched it to the candle, and held it toward the hole. As his head neared the opening–he was literally trembling with expectation and curiosity–the warm air escaping from the chamber beyond the door made the candle flare up. For a moment Carter, his eye fixed to the hole and the candle burning within, could make out nothing. Then, as his eyes became gradually accustomed to the flickering light, he distinguished shapes, then their shadows, then the first colors. Not a sound escaped his lips; he was struck dumb. The others waited for what seemed to them like an eternity. Finally Carnarvon could no longer contain his impatience. “Can you see anything?” he inquired.

Carter, slowly turning his head, said shakily: “Yes, wonderful things.”

As with so many books that shaped my young mind (such as it was),  it is probably time to revisit Gods, Graves, and Scholars. (It is thought that C.W. Ceram – real name Kurt Wilhelm Marek – wrote so eloquently of the distant past in an effort to escape from his own recent past. Read this and judge for yourself.)


While working on a review of Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Fall of Troy, I discovered this fabulous photograph of  Heinrich Schliemann’s wife Sophia wearing some of the jewels comprising what he called “Priam’s Treasure.”


In The Bog People, this is how P.V. Glob describes the discovery, in 1950,  of the body that came to be known as Tollund Man:

‘Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His  face wore a gentle expression–the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.

The men digging up peat to use as fuel thought they had found the victim of a recent murder. They called the police. The officers, knowing that similar mummified remains had been found in the area before, called the local museum. Thus did Tollund Man pass once again into history. (He is thought to have lived during the fourth century BC.)

The men cutting fuel for the coming winter were not entirely mistaken in their surmise about the body they had uncovered. Tollund man was found with a noose around his neck.

The Bog People has been re-issued by New York Review Books, a publisher that’s doing a terrific job of bringing the classics, both fiction and nonfiction, back into print.

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