Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Buzz

Marie Bolchazy, EdD, recommends popular modern fiction and nonfiction with ties to Classics.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
by Margalit Fox
(HarperCollins, 2013)

As riveting as any mystery book, this account of the discovery and decipherment of Linear B will appeal to anyone interested in ancient languages. My handyman gave me his copy telling me that I would find the book fascinating. I waited six months before starting to read it but once I started, I couldn’t put it down. The fact that Linear B was a syllabary made the decoding particularly challenging.

Fox divided the book into three sections, each focused on a key person: the digger, the detective, and the architect.

The digger was Arthur Evans. In 1900 in Knossos, Crete he found a terra-cotta bathtub full of tablets filled with writing in an unknown language and script, which he named Linear B. From the time of the discovery until his death in 1941, Evans tried repeatedly to decipher the mass of symbols but was not successful.

The detective was Alice Kober, an assistant professor of classics at Hunter College. She has been overlooked in the literature on Linear B, but she played a vital role in its decipherment. She refused to make hypotheses regarding the sounds associated with the icons or the language Linear B might be; she wanted the icons to speak for themselves. What she did do was to establish a system by which the language and script of Linear B could be unlocked. She died before she could apply the system she developed to Linear B but had she lived longer, she would have been the one to crack the code. Drawing on a newly opened archive of Kober’s papers, Fox restores this unsung heroine to her rightful place at last.

The architect was Michael Ventris, not an archaeologist nor a classicist nor a scholar in any other field that might have helped him with the decipherment. He did, however, have a prodigious ability to pick up languages. From an early age he was obsessed with this particular script. For a long time he held to the belief that Linear B was an Etruscan language. It was only after giving up that hypothesis that he deciphered Linear B in 1953. And he did that by using the system developed by Alice Kober.

It took over 50 years to decipher Linear B. And there are still 14 icons whose values are still unknown.

I give this book five stars.

Marie Bolchazy, EdD
President, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers