Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit FoxThe 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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Guida alle Piramidi d'Egitto Alberto SiliottiGuide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, preface by Zahi Hawass (White Star Publishers 2000)

When Herodotus was young, the pyramids were ancient. That was in the fifth century B.C., when the pyramids were already two millennia old. And if that’s not astonishing enough, consider how long the pyramids had been in the making. Not just the building: the evolution of a civilization that could conceive and complete them. Homo sapiens was not capable of building pyramids when he first emerged in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, some modern human races still aren’t. Something special took place in the populations that migrated into the Nile delta and Mesopotamia. It probably centred on something much smaller but much more significant than the pyramids: the invention of writing.

If literacy enhanced reproductive success, it would have altered the genetics of Egypt, raising intelligence, enhancing foresight, improving the ability to delay gratification. All of those were necessary for the construction of those mountains of stone that have awed men for more than four millennia. Shelley’s famous poem about the vanity of megalomaniac monuments was based on the legs and “shattered visage” of an Egyptian statue. But the poem doesn’t apply to the pyramids:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Ozymandias, 1818 )

A lot remains in Egypt beside the pyramids, which number far more than the famous three at Giza. And that’s also home to the mysterious and oneiroleptic Sphinx. But this is really a study of two great civilizations: the ancient Egyptian one and the modern European one that began to study its predecessor and eventually deciphered its forgotten hieroglyphs. The mountainous bulk of the pyramids is founded on minute symbols, because civilization can’t exist without record-keeping and bureaucracy. That demands counting and the pyramids are monuments not just to the pharaohs, but also to mathematics:

In fact the British museum has a famous mathematical papyrus, known as the Rhind Papyrus, which dates back to the Second Intermediate Period [1750-1550 B.C.] and includes a series of arithmetic and geometry problems such as: “A pyramid is 93 cubits and 1/3 high. What is the angle if the height of its face is 140 cubits?” A study of this papyrus has, among other things, made it clear that the Egyptians were familiar with and made practical use of Pythagoras’ theorem, although they never theorized or enunciated it. (“The Construction of a Pyramid”, pg. 41)

Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt by Alberto Siliotti

(English edition)

The Greeks were awed by Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization, but they built on what they inherited from their predecessors. Unlike the Egyptians, they didn’t just practice maths, but proved it. Proof is a leap into the abstract and the infinite that the Egyptians never seem to have made. Greek sculpture and stonework achieved new freedom too. It wasn’t static and stylized like the sculpture here. But Egyptian sculpture has its own genius and the Greeks never matched the pyramids, only marvelled at them.

And misinterpreted them. The pyramids weren’t simply commemorations of the pharaohs, but stairways to heaven for their souls. Literally so, with the early step pyramids, but later:

As religious thought developed, it was no longer considered necessary to have a celestial highway, for the steep sides of the pyramids, a materialization of the rays of the sun in stone, also permitted the pharaoh to make his heavenly ascent. (“Egypt in the Old Kingdom”, pg. 13)

So pyramids on the outside were vast, awe-inspiring and austere. On the inside, they could contain other aspects of Egyptian genius, like star-strewn ceilings and the delicate and intricate “gold pectorals with amethysts, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and vitreous pastes” buried with Princess Mereret in the pyramid of Sesostris III (Middle Kingdom, 1878-1839 BC). Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt is a feast for both the eye and the intellect, a well-designed and well-translated book with one big flaw: there’s no index. So it’s rather like the noseless Sphinx: magnificent but with something important missing.

The pyramids are missing something too: the limestone sheathing that would once have made them blaze in the sun. What must Egypt have been like in her heyday? Or rather: her hey-centuries, because civilization lasted there a very long time. To glimpse that grandeur, open this book.

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Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

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