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How One Woman Nearly Deciphered A Mysterious Script

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 30, 2013

Critics have called Margalit Fox’s new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, a paleographic detective procedural. It follows the story of the laborious quest to crack a mysterious script, unearthed in Crete in 1900, known by the sterile-sounding name Linear B.

Fox, an obituary writer for The New York Times, is good at bringing the departed to life. In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, she tells the story of Alice Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College, who worked alone over decades and discovered the essential grammar of Linear B, only to die in 1950 before she could complete her work.

Until now, Kober’s contribution to Linear B had been largely overlooked, but Fox tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the riddle of the script wouldn’t have been solved without Kober.

Interview Highlights

On the mystery of the Linear B script

“Linear B was an unknown script from the ancient past. It resembled no alphabet known, ancient or modern. To make matters worse, it wrote an unknown language. So not only could no one decipher Linear B for half a century, no one even knew what language these strange tablets recorded.”

On how Kober came to be obsessed with cracking the code to Linear B

“When she was an undergraduate at Hunter College in Manhattan, she took a course on early Greek life, and it seems to have been there that she encountered the first glimpse of Linear B. And undeciphered scripts exert a powerful hold on people, and Alice Kober, already confident of her own blazing intellect on her graduation from Hunter College, announced confidently to anyone who would listen that she would one day solve the riddle of the script, and she came very close before she died.”

On Kober’s laborious method of cracking the code

“Kober, who never married and lived in Flatbush with her widowed mother, would sit at her dining table, cigarette burning at her elbow, and sift the hundreds of words and symbols in these strange and Cretan inscriptions. When she started in the 1930s, she kept her statistics in a series of notebooks, but during World War II and for years afterwards, paper was a very scarce commodity in this country. Undaunted, she cut out by hand the equivalent of index cards from any spare paper she could find — examination blue book covers, the backs of old greeting cards, and it must be said an awful lot of checkout slips the she discretely pinched from the Brooklyn College library. Over time until her death in 1950, she hand cut and annotated 180,000 of these cards.”

On why Michael Ventris gets the credit for cracking the code to Linear B

“Ventris, in my opinion and in the opinion of historians of the decipherment, did not give her due credit. Just before his untimely death in 1956, he did give a talk in which he acknowledged her work, but as we say in the book, it really was too little too late.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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