Mystery of the Labyrinth

05.17.13

Who Actually Cracked Linear B, the Ancient Code of the Mysterious Knossos Labyrinth?

When Alice Kober died at the age of 45, she was a forgotten and ignored classics professor. But she arguably did more than anyone to decode what was then the oldest written European language known to exist.

As Margalit Fox says at the outset of The Riddle of the Labyrinth, the story of Linear B is well known. This 3,000-year-old language was discovered on clay tablets excavated in 1900 on the island of Crete. It thereafter puzzled scholars for half a century before it was decoded by Michael Ventris, an English architect with no formal training in archeology or linguistics. Linear B’s history is an absorbing tale, full of mysteries both intellectual and historical, and it’s been told and retold since Ventris made his breakthrough. The problem, as Fox sees it, is that what’s been published so far is by no means the whole story. Previous versions, she argues, neglect a major player, so much so that the story as we know it amounts to if not a lie then certainly a libel. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is her attempt to set the record straight, to apportion credit correctly, and by doing so to explicate the solution of Linear B in a way that at last makes sense.

As anyone who eagerly looks forward to the obituaries Fox writes for The New York Times knows, she has an extraordinary talent for teasing out the odd fact and the telling detail in the lives she chronicles. In Alice Kober, the linguist and classics professor whose work on Linear B was so crucial to its solution, but whose contributions have heretofore been routinely belittled or ignored, Fox has found a life worthy of her talents.

For those who came in late: the clay tablets containing Linear B were unearthed by the English archeologist Arthur Evans in 1900 at Knossos on the island of Crete. Almost immediately, he knew what he had found in the lines of symbols and drawings (horses, chariots, swords): the annual records of a lost Bronze Age civilization recording its crops, livestock, weaponry, and slaves, among other things. Evans couldn’t read the tablets. As Fox puts it, an “unknown script used to write an unknown language is a locked-room mystery.” But he understood their import: here was a written language at least 1,000 years older than any other European language known to exist. “Once their written records could be read, the Knossos palace and its people, languishing for 30 centuries in the dusk of prehistory, would suddenly be illuminated,” Fox observes. “With a single stroke, an entire civilization would become history.”

Evans spent four decades trying to decipher the tablets, but he died without cracking the code. Others failed as well. Then came Alice Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College. She worked alone, collating information on index cards she cut out herself (paper was scarce during World War II and thereafter, when she did a lot of her work). Her file boxes were empty cigarette cartons. But if her means were humble, her intellect was formidable. It was Kober who first realized that the syllabic script on the tablets was inflected, meaning, Fox explains, “that it relied on word endings, much as Latin or German or Spanish does, to give its sentences grammar.” She also figured out that of the four figures in a typical word, the third figure was a bridge between the root and the ending. She was also the only authority on the Knossos tablets who refused to believe that the language written there was Etruscan, although she never proved it. (Nearly every one of her guesses would eventually be proven correct.) And if Kober ever dreamed of vindication, she could have asked for no better champion than Fox, who brings to life her zealous subject’s obsession with a host of vivid details. Of a research trip Kober made to England in 1947, Fox writes, “Kober boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the six-day passage … She planned to learn Ancient Egyptian on the boat trip over.”

Kober died in 1950, when she was only 43. Two years later, building on the groundwork she had so painstakingly laid, Ventris successfully solved the mystery: the language was Greek, although the written form bore no resemblance to the same tongue that would later be written in the borrowed Phoenician alphabet known to us. Fox is never grudging about his accomplishment, but she doesn’t need to be. By the time we get to Ventris, the extraordinary work done by Kober has been so well documented that what Ventris did almost seems like a footnote and certainly like an anti-climax. Curiously, he, too, would die young, in a car crash that may have been suicide, only four years after solving the mystery.

For those who relish languages living or dead, The Riddle of the Labyrinth should be pure heaven, as it will be for anyone obsessed with puzzles. But there is also plenty for us whose knowledge of linguistic mystery is summed up in the comedian Steven Wright’s query: Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? You don’t have to know the intricacies of how language works or how people unriddle it to enjoy Fox’s book, although goodness knows she’s gone to great lengths to explain it all in perfectly lucid fashion—if you’re like me, you’ll have to reread a lot, but the explanations are there if you stick with it. The deciphering of Linear B solved a slew of mysteries in a single stroke. For example, by the time of Homer, around the 7th and 8th centuries B.C., Greek had lost its written form, and yet Homer sings of writing in his epics—now we know why. But the takeaway for the average reader is a splendid detective story that constantly wavers between success and tragedy. It’s the people in this tale, Kober and Ventris particularly, who stick with you, for theirs is a tale that inspires you even as it breaks your heart. Maybe someone could tell this story better than Fox has, but I don’t see how.