The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
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In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative.
When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece’s Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe’s earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery.
Award-winning New York Times journalist Margalit Fox's riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean—the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen—to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the deipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.
spot in the thatched roof. That night the rains came, and he awoke in the morning to find the precious unbaked records reduced to mud. In other parts of the palace, however, where the flames had burned hotter, tablets were baked to a permanent hardness. “In this way fire—so fatal elsewhere to historic libraries!—has acted as a preservative of these earlier records,” Evans wrote after the first season’s dig. But baking also made the tablets dry and brittle, and whenever Evans unearthed a cache
to read words set down by European men three thousand years distant was compensation enough. For others, the sweet, defiant pleasure of solving a cryptogram many experts deemed unsolvable would be its own best reward. Today, in an era of popular nonfiction that professes to find secret messages lurking in the Hebrew Bible, and of novels whose valiant heroes follow clues encoded in great works of European art, it is bracing to recall the story of Linear B—a real-life quest to solve a prehistoric
did. “It’s a desk job, really, in the middle of the plane,” an AA classmate, Oliver Cox, recalled his having said. Returning to England after his Canadian training, Ventris took part in bombing runs over Germany. Navigation came so easily to him that, as the British journalist Leonard Cottrell has written, “on one occasion he horrified his captain by navigating his way back from Germany with maps he had drawn himself. On other raids he would set course and then, clearing a space on the
slaughtered,” Hiller writes. “That in Pylos state banquets were performed was concluded from archaeological evidence even before it was understood that several important tablets concerned this topic.” One tablet from Pylos documents the supplies required for such a banquet, possibly the initiation ceremony for the wanax. These include, Chadwick writes, “1,574 litres of barley, 14½ litres of cyperus, 115 litres of flour, 307 litres of olives, 19 litres of honey, 96 litres of figs, 1 ox, 26 rams,
and Chemical Symbolism, 3 vols. (Sydney: Institute for Semantography, 1949). 99 the full solution: The answer to the Blissymbolics problem appears below: 103 “It is possible to prove, quite logically”: Kober, “Form Without Meaning,” 3–4. “I am interested”: AEK to JLM, Oct. 29, 1948, AEK Papers, PASP. “We cannot speak of language, but only of script”: Alice E. Kober, “The Cretan Scripts,” lecture to the New York Classical Club (May 17, 1947); unpublished manuscript, AEK Papers, PASP;