Book Review: The Riddle Of The Labyrinth

The Riddle Of The Labyrinth:  The Quest To Crack An Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox

The author of this book, in providing a detailed and thoughtful look at three people whose efforts were crucial in solving the puzzle of the Linear B syllabary, makes an explicit comparison between one of those three people (Alice Kober) and another female researcher who had a similarly tragic fate (Rosalind Franklin) in a different epic quest in which both of their efforts were pivotal but in which both died before their time and neither of their contributions have been fairly rewarded in praise and awards.  Moreover, both Kober and Franklin had a similar pattern of behavior when it came to their investigations, ruthlessly logical, intolerant of wild speculation, and prone to publish far less than was known because of a desire to focus on that which was known for sure and that which would allow for further sure knowledge rather than a tendency to want to gain publicity through unsubstantiated guesses.  Whether or not this disinclination to publish more widely but also less accurately hurt both of their legacies and represented a defensive strategy for women working in male-dominated fields to avoid making unnecessary mistakes that would be viewed with less tolerance than that of men in their field is something that deserves to be considered by someone in greater detail.

This book of about 300 pages is divided into three parts.  The author begins with an introduction and a prologue that looks at the buried treasure of the initial linear B inscriptions.  After that there are three chapters that deal with the initial attempts by archaeologist Arthur Evans to decipher the works and his refusal to let such works that he was unable to properly catalogue enter into the public domain for others to work on, which greatly hindered the speed of deciphering Linear B.  The author then moves on to the role of Alice Kober in providing the framework which eventually allowed for Linear B to be deciphered, which involved a great deal of effort spent working on that which Evans had left unfinished and a great deal of discussion and review of the efforts of others, who often made wild leaps of speculation that upset the rather cautious Kober.  The author makes a great deal out of the fact that Kober’s research was necessary for the eventual deciphering of Linear B and of the fact that she died very prematurely, unable to receive the proper credit for her efforts, which were conducted in the midst of an extremely busy life as a teacher at a New York woman’s college.  The third part of the book discusses the life of Michael Ventris, the architect and amateur paleolinguist who eventually cracked the code of Linear B and was able to demonstrate incontrovertibly that it represented an archaic form of Mycenaean Greek written in an unsatisfactory CV syllabary alphabete adopted from the Linear A that was used for the indigenous and very likely non-Indo-European language of the native Minoan culture.

There is something deeply tragic and moving about the book as a whole.  Arthur Evans’ own explorations were done in a state of mourning after the premature death of his wife, and involved fantastically complex politics in the Balkan region.  Alice Kobel was able to do a great deal of the work of sifting through inscriptions and recognizing the structure of the Linear B syllabary to understand its form and to do the necessary work of preparing the way for its initial complete deciphering, but was prevented by illness and death from making the final leaps of intuition to recognizing and being able to prove that the language represented was a very archaic form of Greek.  Michael Venter himself is a tragic figure as well, for even though he did finish the work that Kobel and others had done before him in being able to fully decipher Linear B, his own inability to successfully relate to others or deal with the stress and pressure of academic politics led to the decay of his marriage and to his own early death in mysterious circumstances.  In a book like this, there is much room for pity and compassion, and little for crowing about who deserves credit for the solving of a genuinely impressive mystery of solving the riddle of Linear B, even if nothing particularly fascinating has been written in the texts of that language that we now possess.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Riddle Of The Labyrinth

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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