The Riddle of the Labyrinth

RiddleOfThe LabyrinthMuch as I love words and enjoy arranging them in pretty patterns, I am completely hopeless when it comes to crossword puzzles and anagrams. I just don’t have the kind of mind that can crack a code. So I wondered how I’d get on with The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox, the story of an academic relay race to solve the mystery posed by Linear B, the oldest discovered language on earth. Learning it had made the New York Times Notable Books list spurred me to pick it up (I am so shallow), and I was so glad I did. It’s a fascinating account of three eccentric and gifted individuals who shared a violent obsession and who, between them, proved that the impossible just takes a little longer.

The story begins in 1900 when the Victorian archaeologist, Arthur Evans, broke ground at Knossos in the wild northern reaches of Crete. He came looking for a bronze age settlement, unpersuaded by current thinking that the magnificent race of the Ancient Greeks had sprung into being as fully formed as one of their own Gods. And he was amazingly lucky. Before the week was out, his workmen had hit upon huge building blocks of gypsum, the walls of a vast prehistoric building that predated the earliest recorded Greek settlement by a thousand years. Evans believed he had found the palace of Minos, famous for its labyrinth and the Minotaur that lurked in its depths. The building had contained hundreds of rooms, linked by a complex mass of passages; surely the literal foundation on which the legend would grow.

What was certain was that the excavation had hit the administrative centre of a sophisticated civilization. The fire that had destroyed it had served to bake hard and preserve its records, over two thousand clay tablets inscribed in an unknown language. The find was of immense proportions, the kind of discovery that would see an archaeologist through to the end of his life. Arthur Evans then did what any ambitious academic would do – he sat on his laurels, not allowing anyone else to view his finds, determined to crack the language as the prime achievement of his career. But he was a busy man, and an unknown language in an unknown script offers a fairly daunting obstacle. He published a little, revealing pictures of two hundred or so of the tablets, and made very little progress in decipherment before his death at the ripe old age of 90.

Now I would have absolutely no idea where you would begin with such a task, but it turns out that languages come in a limited range of sizes and varieties. Essentially they are either logographic (little pictures), syllabic (symbols for each different syllable) or alphabet based, as English is. You can tell quite quickly which you are dealing with because of the number of symbols encountered. If every word requires its own picture, then you end up with thousands of symbols. When it comes to syllables, you’ll need 80 or so, and an alphabet is the most economic with symbols, our own a mere 26. Linear B as the language was called, was syllabic, with a few hieroglyphs thrown in for good measure. These were pretty helpful in recognising basic words like man and woman, horse, goblet, cauldron, your average Bronze Age necessities. Arthur Evans also figured out that a mark like a straight comma was used to separate words, and that the script read from left to right.

The meagre publications Arthur Evans made unleashed a coterie of impassioned linguists and classicists onto the problem. But this was the middle of the twentieth century, telecommunications networks were in their infancy and two world wars had left nations poor in resources. Scholars were forced to work in isolation. This was one of the reasons why the middlewoman in the chain of decipherment, the woman who did all the hard graft, has received no recognition for it before Margalit Fox’s book, being somewhat lost to history. Alice Kobel, a hardworking classics teacher in Brooklyn, painstakingly wrote out every word from the 200 or so tablets in the public domain on the few scraps of paper she could get her hands on – the backs of greeting cards, hymn sheets, checkout receipts (wartime rationing left everyone in this era short on paper), then she filed them in boxes made out of the cardboard from cigarette cartons. She noted all the patterns she could find and punched holes in her index cards appropriately, so that when lined up, matches could be found. It was, in essence, an early database. Kober’s approach was rigorous and scientific – no fun guessing at what the language could be. She would work purely with its form alone, teasing grammatical rules out of it, and eventually plotting syllables on a grid, rather like an enormous sudoko puzzle.

It was this painstaking work that left the way open for a British architect, Michael Ventris, who was something of a linguistic genius on the side, to eventually crack the code. Kober and Ventris were both doomed individuals, people who did amazing things and who seemed to have to pay a price for that. Polite and helpful Alice Kober, out of a pure love for scholarship and an absence of competitive spirit, ended up appallingly abused by the male scholars she admired (that bit made my blood boil), and the reader is reminded, once again, that even those who should know better mistake fervent belief for knowledge. This was a surprisingly compelling book, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that when humans overreach themselves the results are always hypnotic. And it’s fairly mindblowing to consider a literate civilization in existence some three thousand years ago. If you know a fan of cryptic crosswords, thrust this one into their hands, and for even the most anagramatically-challenged (like myself) it’s a wonderful story.

25 thoughts on “The Riddle of the Labyrinth

  1. I’m sure I saw something about the lady involved, either in an article or on tv. It always seems that to victor the spoils obscures a host of others in most developments. Traditionally, as you are sure to know, it seems to be the women. Glad things, at least in dealing with the past, are changing.

    • I believe there was a TV documentary on Michael Ventris , so maybe that’s what you saw? It is true, in arts and sciences alike, that the first person to publication is usually the one credited with the achievement, even if it has just been a case of dotting the i’s. You are so right that women so often missed out and Alice Kober was definitely a case in point. Mind you, all kinds of skulduggery goes on, particularly in the sciences. I’ve heard of the editors of one magazine delaying publication of a groundbreaking article to give the group they have an interest in the chance to publish first. And I heard that story not that long ago! Academia, what can you do? It’s a jungle out there!

  2. This sounds fascinating. I can’t imagine sitting on such a find and not enlisting the help of other expert minds to help me out. But then I’m not an academic. I do live with one, though, and I know he gets excited about hardly decipherable marginalia in the archives but he’s happy to share. Obviously not ambitious enough!

    • Oh there are lovely, generous-spirited academics like your husband. Alice Kober, after all, kept saying it didn’t matter who cracked the code so long as it was cracked. The only problem is when the nice people get taken advantage of! And in this case, the academics couldn’t easily share their work – we forget how long it took even a letter to travel the Atlantic back in the 50s! But Arthur Evans definitely should have published a bit quicker and made the tablets available. That 1900s Empire spirit wasn’t exactly pretty.

  3. I love puzzles, although I’m better with numbers than I am with words. But trying to work out the grammatical rules of a new language is right up my street. It’s what we tagmemisists are all about. This is definitely one for the book list.

    • I am so glad you saw this review! I would have dropped you a line if you hadn’t. I thought of you a lot while reading this book because it seemed so perfect for you. I would love to know what you make of it!

    • Archie!! Well how the devil are you? It’s so good to have you drop by! Yes, I think you would appreciate this one. I learned a lot, though I doubt my crossword-puzzle-solving skills have improved!🙂

  4. Just curious: Can you manage American crosswords at all? I’m tolerably good at them now (not as good as my mother), which took a while because you have to get accustomed to the conventions the puzzlemakers are using. I can’t get anywhere with British crosswords. I think I’d need to see more of them with solutions — a lot more — before I could get any good at them.

    I hadn’t heard of this but I’m adding it to my list of course. Nothing fascinates me more than stuff like this, clever people trying very hard to figure out a puzzle. Esp. a linguistic puzzle.

    • Do you know, I don’t think I have ever tried an American crossword. Do you have them in your newspapers? I’d have a look out of curiosity! I also thought of you reading this, because I figured you’d get a kick out of the Bronze Age Greece thing. I do think you’d like it, and I’d love to know what you make of it.

  5. I thought this was such an interesting book- both for the stories of all the scholars involved and for the way it explains the details of the decryption process (great for people like me who have no clue how it could be done!). Fascinating all round.

  6. At first I thought this wouldn’t be for me but the you wrote a but Knossos – a place I love and cracking language codes – a thing you need to learn as a linguist and anthropologist. I found the courses we had to take on that very fascinating. In brief – it goes on the wish list.🙂

    • Oh I definitely think this is a book of interest to any linguist. The way Alice Kober made progress on the code was to look for grammatical structures in the total absence of meaning – amazing! But once you’ve learned a different language, you do begin to see how it could be done. Would love to know what you think of this.

  7. Wonderful review, Litlove. Are you familiar with “Tocharian”? A lost language discovered with two variants in central Asia. (I think near China.) Indo-European, and presumably of European origins. It reminds me of those Caucasian corpses discovered preserved in China, which no one can explain, in highly decorated shrouds. We’ve often been wanderers, I guess–Marco Polo just wrote down a coherent narrative!

    • I am not familiar with Tocharian, no. But I certainly have huge amounts of respect for the people who go and find these languages and then figure out how they worked. It did make me wonder how many mysteries there are out there still – like your Caucasian corpses. Those kind of enigma really do exert a fatal fascination. And thank goodness for Marco Polo! One student – this was many years ago – came for interview at Cambridge wanting to study linguistics. In his spare time he’d copied out this book, as thick as the phone book, in which he’d written a few phrases in goodness knows how many different languages. I wondered if we should wrestle it off him and bury it under the UL, so that in the event of nuclear armageddon, some future race had a means of deciphering most of the languages of the world!

  8. Love me some crosswords. So, spoiler: did anyone get hold of the other 1800 pieces and decipher them? Kober reminds me of the middle class couple in the movie about the Zodiac killer, just average puzzle geeks, who cracked his code.

  9. Pingback: Best Books of 2014 | Tales from the Reading Room

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