Margalit Fox - The Riddle of the Labyrinth. The quest to crack an ancient code and the uncovering of a lost civilisation.

A book in three parts about the discovery and deciphering of “Linear B”, the script of the ancient Minoan civilisation at Knossos, Crete.

An immediate obstacle with this book is Margalit Fox’s writing style which too often is florid and breathless. In the Introduction she informs the reader that her day job is a writer of obituaries for the New York Times. It shows. The rose-tinted outlook and an uncritical, even adoring, attitude doesn’t do justice to the fascinating subject. The transition from writing short-form obituary notices to production of a book-length treatment has not been an unqualified success. There is plenty of repetition (for example we are told several times not to be misled by Crete now being part of Greece; the Minoans were unrelated to the classical Greeks and came long before the civilisation that gave us Plato, Socrates and the Parthenon). Some constructive editing would have made for a tighter book and one more enjoyable to read.

However the material is splendid, and there is a good story hidden in here. The three main characters in the story of these discoveries neatly map out the three parts of the book.

Part one belongs to the Victorian archaeologist Arthur Evans who in 1900 and the years following, discovered the clay tablets bearing the Linear B script in the ruins of a royal palace at Knossos. Evans, despite being the doyen of British archaeology (or perhaps because of it), was evidently out of his depth in the decipherment game, and likely as an archaeologist too. If his pivotal controlling position in Victorian archaelogy had been less dominating, he would probably have enlisted more methodical collaborators and achieved more. As it is, he never got far in a 40-year effort to decode the script and had the conceit to rebuild the ruins at Knossos reflecting his own interpretation at the expense of preserving the original architecture. Perhaps that is how all archaelogy was done in those days? A cynic might say the whirlwind 3-day dig of a Time Team documentary is little different, but I think I detect some progress from adoration of past civilisations to a more measured respect. Arthur Evans, among other activities, was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and was also active in politics in the Balkans after the First World War, being instrumental in setting up the Yugoslav state. However the author doesn’t allow herself further distraction in that direction. For more on Evans one would have to turn to Sir Arthur Evans, 1951-41: a Memoir by D.B.Harden. Where one would turn for a dispassionate assessment of archaeological methods of Arthur Evans and his contemporaries, I’m not sure. This first section also contains much interesting background on pictographic or logographic (= ideographic, eg Chinese) where each symbol denotes a word, syllable-based (the Cherokee invented one of these) and alphabet-based writing systems such as ours and all other variants of the Roman alphabet. Logographic scripts have to have vast numbers of different characters, syllabic only a few, and alphabets fewer still. The number of distinct characters in Linear B meant that it could only be a syllabic script. The Code Book by Simon Singh also rates many approving references in this section and clearly Margalit Fox is well prepared to write a suitably gushing obituary for Simon Singh when his Dark Day comes.

Parts two and three are all about Michael Ventris and Alice Kober, who betweem them (but not collaboratively) decoded the script. Alice Kober was a classics teacher in New York whose smoking habit killed her at the age of 43, but not before she had made much progress analysing Linear B and had several papers on the subject published in the archaeology literature. Perhaps her most impressive discovery were that Linear B recorded an inflected language (where word endings specify grammatical meaning, “he spoke”, “they speak” and so on). Michael Ventris was an architect, but a skilled linguist but without any academic background in the field which evidently left him with a chip on the shoulder when he got into the company of archaeologists or linguists. Indeed, all three of the protagonists were socially disfunctional in one way or another, and Fox dwells on this and many other barely-relevant historical asides much more than on the process of decoding the script which occupies perhaps a couple of dozen pages in the entire book. Ventris eventually decoded the script, using a more ambitious (and less correct) version of tables first employed by Alice Kober recording associations between the most commonly-found combinations of characters. Ventris had the inspiration that common Linear B words found only in scripts from Crete were probably place names, and from this he ascribed sound values from similar Greek characters and was able to infer new sounds for the other unknown syllables allowing the plausible constuction of place names (“Knossos” and the two other major Cretan towns). Probably Alice Kober would have eventually got there too, except that she delibertely eschewed any attempt to infer sounds to any Linear B syllable (and because she died young, of lung cancer).

The fascinating result of all this is that (contrary to the pre-concieved opinions of Arthur Evans and many others) Linear B is certainly an early version of Greek, written in a combination of syllabic and ideographic characters and predating the much simpler Greek alphabet by several centuries. Linear B was derived from a similar but even older script found on mainland Greece, Linear A. Linear A remains undecoded today, mainly for want of sufficient material. It would be even more fascinating to know how Greek developed from Linear B into an alphabet-based language, but there seems to be no useful archaeological record of that crucial period in early Greek civilisation. Linear B was probably only written by a few dozen scribes in the Minoan civilisation [Fox doesn’t cover this - where did I read this? reference?]. Apparently the palace at Knossos was destroyed by an unknown event about 1300-1400 BC.