The Riddle of the Labyrinth, by Margalit Fox
Reviewed by Patrick Skene Catling
The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation
Evans excavated more than 2,000 clay tablets bearing the cryptic inscriptions that he classified as the rudimentary Linear A and the more refined Linear B. The tablets had endured only because they had been baked hard by the fire that destroyed King Minos’s palace. Evans published reproductions of fewer than 200 of the tablets, much to the chagrin of cryptographers who believed that more were required for analysis and possible decipherment. However, Evans refused all requests to release additional tablets. As president of the Hellenic Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Royal Numismatic Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he was an Establishment dog in the manger with unassailable archaeological authority. If he couldn’t decipher Linear B, it seemed, he was reluctant to help anybody else to do so. The trouble was that Linear B was an almost inscrutable code. As Fox points out, “An unknown script to write an unknown language is a locked-room mystery.”
50 years to solve
The mystery took 50 years to solve. Fox’s most admirable achievement is to show, in painstaking graphic detail, how two extraordinarily ingenious, skilful and determined cryptographers finally succeeded. Fox’s heroine is the first of them, a truly heroic linguistic detective, who devoted her life to working out what language the Minoans wrote and what they said in it. Alice Kober, an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, “taught a cumbersome load of classes” by day, Fox writes. By night “she chipped away, methodically and insistently, at the script of Minoan Crete”. Her “vital contribution to the decipherment has been largely overlooked”, partly because of her “quiet, deliberate way of working . . . never committing her ideas to print until they met her exacting standards of proof” and partly because of her death, at the age of 43, in 1950, just before she could have completed her task.
With access to Kober’s many letters and other papers at the University of Texas, Fox has been able to portray this unglamorous, reticent academic in all her warm humanity and to give credit to the substantial foundation of scholarly work she left to posterity.
In 1952, about 18 months after Kober’s death, Michael Ventris, a brilliant 30-year-old English architect and phenomenal linguist, solved the riddle of the script, “a solution arrived at”, according to Margalit Fox, “through a combination of genius, perseverance and remarkably inspired guesswork”.
The Minoan language proved to be an early form of Greek, not Etruscan or Phoenician, and the tablets, far from Homeric, were simply records of King Minos’s domestic accounts.