The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, Margalit Fox (Profile Books 2013)
I remember starting an Agatha Christie book and being delighted by the simplicity of her style. But I’d got bored long before the end. The Riddle of the Labyrinth was the opposite. I found it dull at the beginning, but was delighted by the end. I look forward to reading it again. Margalit Fox weaves a compelling story out of three complex people: the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the American classical scholar Alice Kober (1906-50) and the English architect Michael Ventris (1922-56); and the complex problem they all worked on: the decipherment of a forgotten script found on the island of Crete.
It’s a story of clay in two ways. There’s the literal clay on which the script was recorded:
It took fire to give us Linear B. In about 1400 B.C., the final conflagration at Knossos destroyed most of the palace [of Minos] and its contents, marking the end of the great civilization that had been rooted there for centuries. But the blaze had one completely beneficial effect: It preserved for future generations the clay tablets that recorded the palace’s final year. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 3, “Love Among the Ruins”, pg. 67)
There’s also the metaphorical clay of humanity and its frailties, physical and psychological. Sir Arthur Evans died at ninety, laden with honours, but Alice Kober died at forty-three, probably of cancer, and Michael Ventris at thirty-four, possibly by suicide. Evans and Ventris have long been famous in the Linear B story, but I’d never heard of Kober until I picked up this book. According to Fox, she was central to the decipherment and made the critical breakthrough: explaining the relationship between two known facts about the unknown script and unknown language of Linear B:
Kober had shown that the Minoans spoke an inflected language. Now came the real payoff from that demonstration: In a discovery that would have enormous implications for the decipherment, she now homed in on precisely what happens when an inflected language is written in a syllabic script. (Book 2, “The Detective”, ch. 6, “Splitting the Baby”, pg. 134 (emphasis in original))
The language of Linear B was infected because it added suffixes to stems, as English still does a little and Latin does a lot. Where English says “I love, you love, he loves”, Latin says “amo, amas, amat”. It’s easy to spot stems and inflexions like am-, -o, -as, and -at in an alphabetic script, which uses single signs for single sounds (generally speaking). But Linear B was syllabic, using single signs for single syllables. For example, ka, ke, ki, ko, ku were all written using entirely different signs, as was every other combination of consonant and vowel. Inflectional patterns are harder to spot in a syllabic script.
But syllabicity itself isn’t hard to spot: the number of signs used by a script is a good indication of whether it’s an alphabet, a syllabary or an ideography. You might say that the decipherment of Linear B rested on three C’s: counting, comparison and compulsion. Counting and comparing the signs established the relationships between them, but it took compulsive people to do that, because it was hard work. And “work” is the word:
Because she [Alice Kober] was under pressure to copy as many inscriptions as possible in her brief time in Oxford, she spent the weeks before her departure training for the task like an athlete preparing for the Olympics. Using the inscriptions in [the Finnish scholar Johannes] Sandwall’s new book as test material, she put herself through rigorous time trials at the dining table. “I’ve timed myself,” she wrote Myres in February 1947, “and think I can copy between 100-125 inscriptions in a single day.” (ch. 6, pg. 133)
“Myres” was the archaeologist John Linton Myres, a former assistant to Sir Arthur Evans who both helped and hindered Kober in her work. He gave her access to a lot of material, but he also made unreasonable demands on her time by asking her to help with his own writing on Minoan archaeology. Kober put up with a lot in her short time on earth, facing obstacles that would have daunted or deflected a less determined woman. But “The Detective”, as Fox calls her, forged on, straining both brain and body in her pursuit of the decipherment. It’s hard in 2014 to imagine having to copy inscriptions by hand, for example. And having to analyze them by hand. Kober used “cigarette-carton card files” and “index cards”:
What she had created, in pure analog form, was a database, with the punched cards marking the parameters on which the data could be sorted. But for all their rigor and precision, the file boxes also “reveal a gentler side to Alice Kober,” as Thomas Palaima and his colleague Susan Trombley have written. On one occasion, they note, Kober “took extra care in cutting a greeting card used as a tabbed divider, perfectly centering a fawn lying in a bed of flowers.” (Book Two, ch. 4, “American Champollion”, pg. 108)
Kober might have had a gentler side, but it’s no surprise that she also had a broad, masculine face and wore her hair short. Her task was a masculine one: systematizing and implicitly using mathematics. In fact, her hand-copying and “analog database” remind me of the enormous labours expended by nineteenth-century mathematicians on calculating the digits of pi or hunting for primes. What then took months and years can be performed in an instant by a computer. The same, I’d guess, is now true of Linear B. If it were discovered today and the necessary data were computerized – unknown signs, known neighbouring languages – its mask would probably be lifted very quickly.
Kober spent years on the task and died without completing it. Would she have beaten Michael Ventris if she’d lived? It’s easy to think so. But work on Linear B was, in effect, her hobby: she had a full-time job as a lecturer in classics at Brooklyn College. With more time, more help, fewer distractions, perhaps she would have solved Linear B in the 1940s.
As it was, the labyrinth was mastered by someone else: “The Architect” after whom the third and final section of this book is named. Unlike Evans or Kober, Michael Ventris wasn’t a professional classicist. And he went astray in a way the more cautious Kober didn’t, because he hypothesized for a long time that Etruscan was the language behind Linear B. It was a “position … to which he would hold fast until only weeks before his decipherment” (Book Three, ch. 10, “A Leap of Faith”, pg. 225).
If he’d been more cautious, might he have made faster progress? Probably, but he still beat all the professionals and deciphered Linear B, which turned out to be not Etruscan but a dialect of classical Greek. Ventris lifted the linguistic veil, but he found no literary treasure beneath:
There are no grand narratives lurking in Linear B – no epic poems, no romances, no tales of gods and their derring-do. Arthur Evans knew as much from the start, as did every serious investigator after him. They were all aware, as Alice Kober reminded her Hunter College audience that June evening in 1946, that “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 B.C.” And that, of course, is precisely what they did find: records of crops harvested, goods produced, animals tended, and gifts offered up to the gods. (“Epilogue: Mr. X and Mr. Y”, pg. 269)
But there’s a kind of poetry in the prosaic, especially when the prosaic is many centuries old. And it’s not just the gifts that are named: so are the gods. This means that if Kober had achieved her ambition, she would discovered an appropriate title waiting for her on the tablets. The names of familiar Greek gods and goddesses appear
with more curious ones, many of them pre-Greek, long-forgotten by Classical times. Among them are various female names – most likely those of local deities – beginning with the word potnia, “mistress”: Mistress of Wild Beasts, Mistress of Horses, Mistress of Grain, Mistress of Asia, Mistress of the Labyrinth. (Ibid., pg. 282-3)
Kober would have been “Mistress of the Labyrinth”, the one who solved Linear B. As it was, the Labyrinth had a master instead. So this book tells the story of three: the master, the mistress manquée and the man who supplied the materia of their obsession. That was Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered the tablets and began the work of deciphering them. His story contains one of the briefest but most memorable images in The Riddle of the Labyrinth. The story of Linear B isn’t all about concentrated effort and mental toil: there are moments of spontaneity too:
Over years of excavation, the palace emerged as a vast, increasingly complex organism. As each section was revealed, Evans gave it a name. Beside the Throne Room, these included the Queen’s Megaron, or great hall, with its elaborate bathroom and graceful mural of leaping dolphins; the Domestic Quarter, with artisans’ workshops in which traces of the goldsmith, the lapidary, and the ceramicist could still be still be discerned; and the Grand Staircase, down which, in 1910, a visiting Isadora Duncan danced an impromptu dance to the horror of Evans’s straitlaced Scottish assistant, Duncan Mackenzie. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 2, “Love among the Ruins”, pg. 77)
Dancing Duncan, dour Duncan and dogged decipherment. I like the contrast and it’s another reason to like this book. But will it ever be matched by one about the decipherment of Linear A, another lost language found on Crete and written in a related script? Perhaps not, because the language of Linear A seems to be an isolate, without living or ancient relatives. Barring some big scientific or linguistic breakthrough, Linear A may remain a labyrinth no-one ever masters. But perhaps Margalit Fox will be telling the story of its decipherers one day too. I hope so.
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