I’ve been fascinated by the story of decipherment of Linear B, the language originally found by Authur Evans on Crete and eventually deciphered by the troubled amateur Michael Ventris, for years. It was a great puzzle — a sort of black box of a language. For many years scholars knew neither thecharacters (i.e. the signs) the language (i.e. the sounds) or the meaning. It appeared at first to undecipherable. But with years and years of false starts and hard work (much of it done by the heroine of this book, the largely un-sung Alice Kobler) it was eventually determined that the language is a form of Greek. The code was broken. What did the world get from solving this mystery? Largely lists of palace goods.
But it isn’t the prize, right? It’s the hunt.
The story of Linear B has it all (ancient mysteries, amateur geniuses, crackpots) but it hasn’t gotten a real, full, popular telling until this book. Fox does an excellent job of recounting the history of the discovery and decipherment of the text. She includes just enough linguistic theory so the reader can understand what the men and women involved in this project were up against, but not so much as to bore the lay reader. Most especially, she focuses much of the book on the fascinating, and largely overlooked, Kobler who spent years and years struggling with the text while working as a professor at my alma mater, Brooklyn College. Kobler comes off as a determined, hard working, brilliant, and, at times, prickly women fighting against a culture that preferred her to view her as a secretary than as the world class philologist she was.
Her’s was not an easy life, and after reading of the hundreds of hours she spent laying the ground work for Ventris, its tragic to know she died just a few short years before his successful translation. I need to get out to Brooklyn College and see if there is any sort of dedication to her. If there isn’t, there should be.
Recommended for the enthusiast.