Viewed in a certain light, the thousands of inscribed clay tablets unearthed over the past century on Crete and mainland Greece are profoundly boring. Essentially the scattered files of an early civilization’s accounting department, the tablets list rations of wheat and figs, record the results of the local census, and keep track of broken versus unbroken chariot wheels. Fully 800 of them are, as Margalit Fox writes in her new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, “quite literally devoted to counting sheep.” In short, they are not the world’s most fascinating reading material. But for a long time after their discovery that didn’t matter, because no one had any idea at all how to read them.
What does make for fascinating reading is Fox’s book, which recounts the 50-year quest to decipher Linear B, the writing on those tablets. A few chapters in, I found myself thinking about a specific and unusual form of literary pleasure: that of seeing one’s own pet subjects reflected in a book. In my experience, that kind of bespoke nerdiness is relatively rare. But The Riddle of the Labyrinth—which is about, among other things, history, mythology, ancient civilizations, linguistics, puzzles, code-breaking, Homer, Arthur Conan Doyle, and brainy female academics—has my particular name all over it.
As a rule, I would prefer not to have my name all over Fox’s work, since she is best known as an obituary writer for the New York Times. That beat does not normally make celebrities of its practitioners, so it says a lot about Fox’s writing ability that her obits have acquired something of a cult following. The form demands three things: a nose for interesting facts, the ability to construct a taut narrative arc, and a Dickens-level gift for concisely conveying personality. Fox has all three, in spades, and in The Riddle of the Labyrinth she uses them to capture not the life and death of an individual but the death and afterlife of an entire language.
The result is what Fox calls, aptly, a “paleographic procedural.” It unfolds in three parts: “The Digger,” “The Detective,” and “The Architect.” The digger is the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who discovered the first thousand Linear B tablets in 1900 at Knossos, Crete. The architect is Michael Ventris, who deciphered the writing on those tablets 52 years later, at the age of 29, after a lifelong obsession but just eighteen months of dedicated work. Both men became famous for their discoveries, and their lives have been extensively chronicled elsewhere. But not so the detective, Alice Kober, who forms the literal and figurative center of Fox’s book.
For modern readers, Kober seems like something of a casualty of her times. A workaholic classics professor at Brooklyn College, she poured herself into the study of Linear B—mastering along the way Akkadian, Chinese, Persian, Braille, statistics, archaeology, chemistry, and physics—and became, during her too-short lifetime, the world’s leading scholar on the subject. But she lived in an era when women’s intellectual contributions were routinely ignored or co-opted, she never got to see for herself the tablets that so obsessed her, and she died before she could complete her solution. And, until now, her reputation essentially died with her. History is not kind to those who don’t cross the finish line, even when they carry their competitors for two-thirds of the race.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth sets out to restore to Kober her proper place in the Linear B tale, a project helped along by the fact that her archives were recently made public. But even with those archives open, the woman herself remains something of a closed book, shady not in the ethical sense but in all the others: cool, grave, nuanced, out of the spotlight, deeply interesting yet the opposite of colorful. The one thing that stands out starkly in an otherwise ambiguous character is the force of her intellect. Kober is Fox’s Sherlock Holmes: patient, precise, analytical, unswayed by emotions—indeed, apparently unpossessed of a private life. “It is unfortunate,” she wrote in one characteristic letter, “that it is only in geometry that a scholar must state his assumptions clearly before he begins his proof.” One wants to buy her a deerstalker. But what she wanted, and found, was a mystery worthy of her exceptional mind.
What is the opposite of a hat trick? A hat problem? If so, that’s what Linear B was: a threefold puzzle of fearsome difficulty. Consider: You might not know the meaning of las siguientes palabras or los yog cov lus txawm, but you can recognize the Roman script in which those words are written. Conversely, the famous World War II code-breakers of Bletchley Park in England (Alan Turing among them) could not read the script of the Enigma cipher, but they knew what language it encoded: German. No one knew the script or the language of Egyptian hieroglyphics—but once archaeologists got their hands on the Rosetta stone, they knew what the text must mean, because the mystery message was also written in non-mysterious Greek.
Linear B had none of these advantages. It was an unknown script transcribing an unknown language and encoding an unknown meaning. Fox calls it a “locked-room mystery.” Leonard Bloomfield, the most influential linguist of the first half of the twentieth century, put it to Kober even more succinctly: “Your problem scares me.”
The conventional approach to that problem involved guessing what language people were speaking on Crete in 1500 B.C.—Hittite? Etruscan? Polynesian?—and working backward from there. Kober had no patience for this method. “It is possible,” she said, “to prove, quite logically, that the Cretans spoke any language whatever known to have existed at the time—provided only that one disregards that half a dozen other possibilities are equally logical and equally likely.” Her greatest contribution, not merely to Linear B but to decipherment in general, was to prove that you can crack a script without making assumptions about the language it encodes but simply by studying, with immense exactitude, its own internal relations.
Today, that work would be dramatically eased by technology: computing, crowdsourcing, digital databases, instantly accessible international colleagues, online academic journals, Mechanical Turk. Kober, by contrast, worked without mechanical anything; technologically, she might as well have been a Cretan scribe. Finally granted five weeks in Oxford to study pictures of some 2,000 inscriptions, she spent them frantically copying down as many as possible by hand. (“I’ve timed myself and I think I can copy between 100–125 inscriptions in a twelve-hour day.”) To make matters worse, her deciphering career coincided with World War II–related shortages, which meant she could barely get her hands on one of the most low-tech tools of all: paper. To work out the Linear B problem, she resorted to hoarding the backs of greeting cards and the blank parts of church circulars. That constraint is so startling to read about today that, in a sense, Fox has written another obituary here—not to a dead language but to a bygone era of problem-solving.
In the end, it is the intensity of that drive toward answers, far more than the answer itself, that fascinated me most about this story. Yes, the Linear B solution is elegant and surprising; yes, it sheds light on everything from the chronology of ancient civilizations to an otherwise enigmatic passage in The Iliad. But what really charmed me about this book is how it both describes and demonstrates the unstoppable workings of intellectual curiosity. “The pull of an undeciphered ancient script,” Fox writes, “comes not only from the fact that its discoverer cannot read it, but also from the knowledge that once, long ago, someone could.” Something similar could be said about the pull of this book. Its allure doesn’t lie only with the problem, nor only with the solution, nor even with the people who ultimately solved it. It lies in the impulse—common to all of us yet everywhere remarkable—to look at a scary, unsolved, nearly impossible problem and think: Someone could.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. By Margalit Fox. Ecco.
*This article will appear in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.