is the title of a piece I wrote for Daily Episcopalian published today. It was a sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine this past Sunday July 21st, 2013.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
In The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox (Ecco, 2013), the work of Alice Kober in deciphering Linear B is described. Margalit Fox is a senior staff writer for the NY Times. Her book is summarized here in the Daily Telegraph. Matti Friedman in the NY Times reviewed the book recently here and part of the review states:
Ms. Fox makes a case for Kober, the “unprepossessing” daughter of Hungarian immigrants, as the story’s hero. Her thick glasses, unstylish hair and prim mouth belied the “snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method,” Ms. Fox writes. Kober dedicated her life to solving the riddle, laboring at her dining table in Brooklyn, “ever-present cigarette at hand.” She never married, and her extensive correspondence, we learn, contains a total of two mentions of a social life.
There was hardly time. To aid her quest, she learned Chinese, Akkadian, Persian, Hittite and Basque, among other tongues, and eventually prepared no fewer than 180,000 index cards as she struggled to develop a system that would allow her to crack what Ms. Fox calls a “locked-room mystery” — deciphering an unknown script that an unknown society used to write an unknown language. A Linear B scholar was operating in a “linguistic terra incognita with neither map nor compass at hand.” Without a guide like the Rosetta stone (the multilingual inscription that finally allowed scholars to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs) the task was thought to be all but impossible.
That it turned out not to be is a testament to what the human brain, or at least the rare human brain, is capable of. In explaining the problem and eventual solution, Ms. Fox makes the complexities of linguistic scholarship accessible...
Margalit Fox describes her book as a six year project here. She maintains that Kober's work was "all but lost" and that her book is an antidote to "British male triumphalism." However, Fox's book is also reviewed by Jonathan Lopez in the WSJ on May 16th more critically:
Unfortunately, Ms. Fox's claims about the neglect of Kober's legacy are exaggerated to the point of being misleading. "The Story of Archaeological Decipherment" (1975), by the British classicist Maurice Pope, is an authoritative survey of hieroglyphics, cuneiform and other ancient scripts decoded by modern researchers. Chapter Nine is devoted to the Knossos tablets and is titled "Kober, Ventris and Linear B"—amply demonstrating that Kober is neither unknown nor unsung in the standard histories. The very first (and still the best) book on the subject, "The Decipherment of Linear B" (1958), by Michael Ventris's friend and collaborator, the Cambridge University classics professor John Chadwick—Ventris himself died in an auto accident in 1956—clearly states that "Kober would have taken a leading part in the events of later years, had she been spared; she alone of the earlier investigators was pursuing the track which led Ventris ultimately to the solution of the problem."