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Sun June 30, 2013
Author Interviews

How One Woman Nearly Deciphered A Mysterious Script

Originally published on Mon July 1, 2013 12:17 pm

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."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Critics have called Margalit Fox's new book "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" a paleographic detective procedural. The book follows the story of one of the most fascinating efforts of all time to crack a mysterious script, literally unearthed in Crete, known as Linear B, a rather clinical name for an elegant, alluring set of characters. No one knew how Linear B sounded or what it was, but it dated back to 1450 B.C., the days in which Homer sets the "Odyssey."

Margalit Fox is good at bringing the departed to life. She's a writer for The New York Times who has a cult following for her fascinating obituaries. She's also a linguist herself. In "Riddle of the Labyrinth," she centers on one of the three people who rescued Linear B from oblivion: Alice Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College who died in 1950.

Margalit Fox, welcome to the program.

MARGALIT FOX: Thank you so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: It's just a fascinating detective tale. And just to give people a picture of these pictographs which are being unearthed, there are little spears, little horses' heads, arrows, pots. And the discoverer is a British archeologist known as Sir Arthur Evans. He's quite a Victorian figure.

FOX: Indeed. Arthur Evans was a Victorian man, writ large or, rather, writ small. He was barely five feet tall. He was obscenely wealthy. So when he knew he wanted to excavate at Knossos, he simply bought up the property and bought himself this extraordinary buried Bronze Age palace.

LYDEN: Now, for the next 50 years, Evans doesn't make any real measurable progress. Why was the code so hard to crack?

FOX: Well, you have the linguistic equivalent of a locked room mystery. 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 more than half a century, no one even knew what language the strange clay tablets recorded.

LYDEN: And credit for cracking the code eventually is going to go to this young English architect named Michael Ventris. But the Sherlock Holmes in your telling is an American professor. Her name is Alice Kober. How did she get obsessed with this language, Linear B, in the first place?

FOX: Alice Kober was an overworked underpaid professor of classics at Brooklyn College here in New York. 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.

LYDEN: You've got a special relationship with Kober. You were the very first person to have access to her papers at the University of Texas, and these are note cards that she uses to make sense of these language elements. Could you describe a little bit of her personality and these note cards?

FOX: Night after night, after her classes at Brooklyn College were taught, 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 Cretan inscriptions. When she started in the 1930s, she kept her statistics in a series of notebooks. But during World War II and four 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 that 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.

LYDEN: It's just absolutely astonishing to think about. And she hands Michael Ventris, who eventually cracks the code, a key. What is the key?

FOX: Alice Kober's great discovery made simply by this relentless analysis, she discovered that the language of Linear B, whatever it might have been, was an inflected language. In other words, that it relied on word endings just as Latin or Spanish or German does to give its sentences grammar.

LYDEN: So she meets Michael Ventris, and then she goes home and basically passes away. It's very sad. Did Ventris ever give her credit for cracking the code just a couple of years later?

FOX: Yeah. Alice Kober died almost certainly of some type of cancer at the age of only 43 in 1950, just two years before Ventris cracked the code with the method she developed. And, yeah, she de facto handed him the key through her published papers which were, in effect, a forensic playbook for here's how you decipher an unknown ancient script writing an unknown ancient language. 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.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. You know, this is truly a story of passion. All three of the individuals who are the tent poles of your story - Evans, Kober and Ventris - are consumed by it, and what you also conclude with is the absolute passion of the knowledge that we may not know how this sounds or what it said, but someone spoke this once, and they want to unlock that.

FOX: That's right. That is the lure, truly, of an undeciphered script from the past. Not only that the modern decipherer, looking at these weird symbols, cannot read it. That's exciting enough, but also this compelling awareness that once, long ago, someone could read it. It makes you want to read it again.

LYDEN: Margalit Fox is an obituary writer for The New York Times. Her book is called "The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code."

Margalit Fox, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

FOX: Thank you, Jacki. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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