One woman’s efforts to decode a civilization

In February 1893, a collection of strange semiprecious stones caught the eye of an amateur archaeologist strolling through the flea markets of Athens. They were etched with primitive carvings. “It is impossible to believe that the signs on these stones were simply idle figures carved at random,” the Englishman later confided to his diary. He bought as many gems as he could find. Upon learning that they had come from Crete, Arthur Evans purchased six acres of Cretan farmland rumored to rest over a city mentioned in Homer’s “Iliad.”

Evans dug at Knossos in the hopes of uncovering a prehistoric Aegean writing system. Within a year he had found three. To this day, two of those scripts remain unreadable: the hieroglyphic engravings Evans first spotted in Athens and “Linear A,” the script thought to record the language of the ancient Minoans. For more than five decades after its discovery, the riddle of “Linear B,” the writing system of the mainland Mycenaean civilization, went unsolved. But on July 1, 1952, a young English architect named Michael Ventris informed the world via a BBC Radio broadcast that he had deciphered the script.

The intriguing story behind that decipherment has never been told in full. It forms the subject of Margalit Fox’s bracing new book, “The Riddle of the Labyrinth” (Profile Books). Fox is a New York Times journalist with no background in Mycenaean or Classical studies. Her interests are not with Linear B itself, but the handful of scholars who made a life out of cracking its code. This lends her study an unacademic but grippingly human perspective. Over its most ardent cryptologists Linear B cast a haunting, almost Tutankhamun-type curse. Evans himself was stumped by their dizzying pictograms; he went to the grave tormented by his inability to access the written documents of the very civilization he had unearthed. An American woman, Alice Kober, spent two decades sorting out the intricacies of Linear B. She died unexpectedly on the very cusp of its decipherment. It was Ventris who finally decoded Linear B a year later. He was killed in a car accident shortly afterward, hounded by the lurking suspicion that his findings may have been false.

The problems associated with Linear B were extensive. They started with Classicists themselves, who were too often blinkered in their insistence that the language of the Bronze Age Greeks was not Greek, but a distant relative of Etruscan, Hittite or, bizarrely, Polynesian. Publication posed an additional barrier. Of the 2,000 Linear B tablets that had been unearthed by the early 1940s, only 200 had been made available for scholarly study.

Then there was Linear B itself. The script’s complexities belonged more to the realm of calculus than Classics. The unknown language – composed in an unknown alphabet – offered no documents which, like the Rosetta Stone, placed the unknown language alongside a known language. Working in such terra incognita, noted Ventris, was “rather like doing a crossword puzzle on which the positions of the black squares have not been printed for you.” To decipher Linear B called for a rare kind of intellectual, one as versed in philology as mathematical probability; one undaunted by the prospect of intellectual risk, but disciplined enough to spend decades mapping phonetic values and linguistic relativities.

Ventris was not the only scholar equipped with such skills. “The Riddle of the Labyrinth” shows that it was in fact Kober who laid the foundations for Ventris’s discovery. Her contributions to Linear B decipherment have never been properly acknowledged. Ventris never quite recognized the intellectual debt he owed her. But were it not for her untimely death in 1950, Kober would likely have solved the Linear B enigma herself.

The Brooklyn resident dedicated her life to studying the ancient Aegean (combing through her vast correspondences, Fox found scant evidence of a social life). Kober reasoned that the key to decipherment lay in a scrupulous dismantling of the Linear B text itself. To that end, she charted out every scrap of information she could glean from the fragmentary ancient tablets: character positions, word breaks, sign frequencies, idiosyncrasies of different scribes. Her data sprawled across more than 180,000 index cards. She learned Chinese, Akkadian, Persian and Anglo-Saxon to familiarize herself with the inner workings of different language families. She traveled to Oxford to examine the tablets firsthand for months at a time.

Other scholars used the Linear B mystery to advance their own theories about the ethnicity of the earliest Greeks. That was reckless, argued Kober; it also approached the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. To propose that the Bronze Age Greeks spoke Etruscan, and then to twist and turn Linear B until it read as Etruscan, was simply circular reasoning. “For Minoan, the clue must be sought in the scripts themselves, and no theory – no matter how attractive – can stand up until it is borne out by incontrovertible evidence from the scripts,” she pleaded with fellow scholars.

Kober’s patience paid off. By the mid-1940s, she had determined that Linear A and Linear B recorded different languages. Whatever language Linear B recorded, it was an inflected one; like Latin or German, it had a case system. Kober was able to identify the Linear B character that acted as a “bridge” between the root of a word and its case endings. She discovered the Linear B suffix that denoted “and.” She had also developed a method for differentiating masculine and feminine nouns.

Pinpointing these fundamental grammatical relationships allowed Ventris to unravel Linear B like a loose knot. The architect used Kober’s case system to identify alternative noun-endings of words that continually reappeared in the tablets. He speculated that these were proper placenames. A hit-and-miss process of substituting Cypriot sound values for the words’ Linear B characters returned surprising results: “ko-no-so;” “tu-ri-so;” “pa-i-to;” “ru-ki-to.” The similarities to the ancient Cretan cities of Knossos, Tylissos, Phaistos and Lyktos were unmistakable. These known phonetic values gradually “forced out” the sounds of all 87 Linear B syllabic characters. Within weeks Ventris was deciphering words he recognized from his schoolboy Greek textbook: “polos” (bird), “kerameus“ (potter), “poimen” (shepherd).

Recently listed as one of the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2013,” “The Riddle of the Labyrinth” is a complicated story clearly and passionately told. As Fox rather giddily notes, her book documents “a real-life quest to solve a prehistoric mystery, starring flesh-and-blood detectives with nothing more than wit, passion, and determination at their disposal.”

But Fox’s bounding penchant for historical drama curiously glides over the most dramatic element of the Linear B saga: what the decipherment of Europe’s earliest-known documents actually meant. For all the hype surrounding their translation, the Linear B tablets proved remarkably uninteresting for all but a small circle of Bronze Age scholars. They read like ancient receipts in their terse cataloguing of Mycenaean palace inventories (“Thus the wood-cutters give to the wheeler’s workshop 50 new branches and 50 axles.”).

Their content is not what makes the Linear B tablets fascinating. It is the language in which they are written. Classicists were insistent that, whatever language the Linear B tablets recorded, it was certainly not Greek. Ventris’s announcement upended those theories overnight. The Linear B tablets were written in Greek, “a difficult and archaic Greek, seeing that it is 500 years older than Homer and written in a rather abbreviated form, but Greek nevertheless.”

The finding proved that Greek was Europe’s – and perhaps the world’s – oldest continuously used language. Greek speakers had been inhabiting Greek lands, worshipping Greek deities and acknowledging a certain vision of Hellenism a full millennium earlier than previously believed. Linear B’s decipherment added vast new stretches to the Greek historical narrative. In the diverse ethnic zone of the Balkans, the Hellenes’ presence in Greece could now be definitively dated back at least 3,500 years. Linear B’s decipherment proved that, against considerable odds, today’s Greeks speak a language akin to that which was spoken by Greeks four millennia ago.


‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth,’ by Margalit Fox (Profile Books, 14.99 EUR)