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What Was Greek to Them?

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Ashmolean Museum, Oxford/Art Archive at Art Resource
The Queen’s Megaron room at Knossos; watercolor, early twentieth century. It was at the Knossos site that Arthur Evans found tablets covered with a script he called ‘Linear B.’

Stories of code-breaking and decipherment usually end at the moment the code is finally cracked, or the once-mysterious language demystified and translated. The narrative thrill is in the chase, in the rivalries between the various would-be code-breakers, and if possible (for this adds another dimension to the excitement) in the vested national interests at stake. The British still like to fancy that Egyptian hieroglyphs were first deciphered by their own polymath, Thomas Young. The French, of course, know that it was all done by Jean-François Champollion.

There tends to be a “tortoise-and-the-hare” element to the tales too. Will the winner be the brilliant maverick who cuts corners, but has the lucky hunch? Or will it be the low-key, patient systematizers, hunched over their boxes of file cards? Is successful code-breaking a collaborative enterprise, on the wartime Bletchley Park model? Or is it a job for a lone—and obsessive—genius? In fact, for the general public, one of the most appealing sides to these stories of decipherment is that the heroes and heroines so often turn out not to be highly trained, narrow specialists, but “outsiders” of different kinds. Linda Schele, for example, who was a key figure in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, had a background in studio art. Michael Ventris was an architect by day; cracking Linear B, the most important script of prehistoric Greece, was his hobby, for evenings and weekends. In our fantasies we can all become code-breakers.

But then what? The sequel to the decipherment is little more than a final, self-evident coda to most of these stories. “Enigma” is broken, so the Allies win the war; hieroglyphs are decoded, so the culture of pharaonic Egypt is revealed to us. What this conceals, however, are all the further disputes and rivalries that regularly follow the successful cracking of the language or of the code. Just how correct was it? And, if it was, what does it tell us about the culture concerned, or the history of the period? Whose theories are now confirmed or disproved? These controversies can be just as exciting and bitter as those leading up to the decipherment, and probably more significant. But we rarely get to hear about them before the heroic tale ends.

Margalit Fox’s account of the decipherment of Linear B—The Riddle of the Labyrinth—falls into the classic pattern of a code-breaking story. She briskly introduces Arthur Evans, who in the early years of the twentieth century first discovered tablets covered in this mysterious script during his excavations of the prehistoric “palace” at Knossos in Crete and who coined the term “Linear B” (to distinguish it from an earlier and still largely impenetrable system of writing that he called “Linear A”). Then, after a few frankly lightweight pages on the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, she brings on her two rivals in the race to crack Linear B.

First: the nervous, chain-smoking, and outwardly “unprepossessing” American Alice Kober, who taught general classics at Brooklyn College, but whose research passion was the Linear B tablets. Second: the British architect and amateur philologist Michael Ventris, who in 1952, just two years after Kober’s early death, solved the puzzle by working out that this strange syllabic script was actually a form of written Greek. It is a woman versus man, American versus British tale (with elements of class and privilege thrown in—Kober, “the upstart…daughter of working-class immigrants” to the US, Ventris, the well-connected son of an army officer, with a public, i.e., private, school education).

Kober plays the part of the careful, patient systematizer—though during postwar austerity, in place of file cards she was forced to make do with cut-up church circulars and library slips, and to store them in used cigarette cartons (in the archive at Austin, Texas, they apparently still exude “a faint whiff of midcentury tobacco”). She deplored any bold speculation or leap of the imagination. In fact, when Ventris, in a gesture of collaboration, circulated a questionnaire to others he knew to be working on the script—including such questions as “What kind of language is represented in the Linear B inscriptions, and to what other known languages is it related?”—Kober was one of only two recipients not to complete it. “I have no intention of answering the questionnaire,” she wrote to Ventris in 1950. “In my opinion it represents a step in the wrong direction and is a complete waste of time.”

For Kober any speculation about what the language might be was useless until the script had been properly catalogued, each symbol inventoried, and its relationship to all the other symbols fully analyzed. Her work consisted in producing grid after grid, attempting to show—with no preconception about the identity or even “family” of the language concerned—how each little squiggle related to the others. It is grimly austere stuff, but on this Fox is at her best. She explains Kober’s analysis of Linear B brilliantly and with a sense of excitement, despite the fact that for most readers this is a still-incomprehensible script of a language they don’t understand.

Indeed, I know of no other account of any decipherment that gives a clearer idea for nonspecialists of how some of the detailed technicalities of the process actually work. But Fox wants to do more than explain the methods. She is also a powerful and partisan advocate of Kober’s critical part in the cracking of Linear B, as rivaling, or even outstripping, that of the more famous Ventris. In her words, he was standing “on the small, round shoulders of an unheralded American giant.”

In her introduction to The Riddle of the Labyrinth, she hints that we should see the Brooklyn classicist rather in the mode of Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist whose critical contribution in the 1950s to the discovery of the structure of DNA was almost entirely written out of the story—as her male colleagues, Francis Crick and James Watson, were given (or took) the credit. There are, it is true, several similarities. Both, for example, died very young (Kober at forty-three), which made it easier for them to be overlooked. Both suffered the kind of discrimination against women in academic life typical of the mid-twentieth century (the sad story of Kober’s failure to secure a research position at the University of Pennsylvania should be recommended reading for any twenty-first-century female professor who would like to count her own blessings). But in the end, it is not clear that Kober’s contribution—in comparison to Ventris’s—was quite as important as Fox would like us to think.

Some key advances toward the decipherment of the script were, in fact, made independently by both of them. They had each worked out—Kober, to be fair, slightly before Ventris—that a little “button” symbol on the tablets must represent the sign for “and” (placed after the word it was linking, like the Latin -que). But as Fox herself concedes, as impressive and rigorous as Kober’s methods were, some of her conclusions were technically incorrect—even if they pointed in the right direction. In particular, she believed that she had demonstrated that the language of the tablets was inflected. Indeed it was inflected, but she had not quite shown that. As Ventris came to realize, the arrangements of symbols that Kober believed to be the signs of inflection were actually different forms of the ending of place names.

As often in the history of decipherment, proper names proved to be the key to unlocking the code. Ventris’s interest in Linear B had started as a schoolboy, and for many years he had cherished the idea that the language of the script was some version of Etruscan. (Kober was right to think that this was completely daft.) By the early 1950s—when many more Linear B tablets had been discovered outside Knossos, from different prehistoric sites in mainland Greece—he began to change direction. He spotted that some of the distinctive groups of symbols that Kober had isolated were found only in the tablets from Knossos. “What sort of words, Ventris wondered, might be particular to one place but not another?” His hunch was that they might be local place names. After all (to use Fox’s modern analogy), people who live in New York now tend to have in their possession many more documents that include the words “City of New York” than “State of California.”

His next step, Fox explains, was a wild experiment. There was later evidence from the island of Cyprus of Greek being written in a syllabary—a system of writing in which each syllable rather than each sound or phoneme has its own sign; and it had long been recognized that this syllabary included symbols that looked rather like some of those used in Linear B. In this case, however, the sound values of the symbols were known. Ventris’s experiment—to oversimplify somewhat—was to match up as closely as he could the symbols in Kober’s distinctive Linear B groups with those from Cyprus. Hey presto, three “words” emerged that sounded much like “Knossos,” “Amnisos,” and “Tulissos”—three well-known Greek place names on the island of Crete.

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An example of Linear B from the Knossos tablets

With a few sound values for Linear B script now tentatively assigned, and with a hint that the language of the script might be Greek, Ventris was able to move ahead relatively quickly to decode more symbols and to convince himself that he really was dealing with an early form of Greek. It was a discovery that he first announced in a BBC radio broadcast on July 1, 1952, opening with a proud comparison of himself to Champollion. Kober’s hard, patient, nonspeculative work had certainly helped; but the final decipherment was made by Ventris in one “great intuitive leap.”

Maybe. But in addition to such speculation, Fox also follows the story of Ventris a little further, to its tragic sequel. For after a few rather unhappy years (in which he drifted apart from his wife and family, and failed to reestablish his architectural career) he was killed in 1956, at the age of thirty-four, when the car he was driving crashed into a parked truck. Like others before her, Fox suspects—though there is no proof whatever—that he may have committed suicide; that the celebrity he won from the decipherment had, in some way, ruined his life. Maybe. But she also, usefully, includes a final chapter reflecting briefly on what the decoding of Linear B has actually told us about the culture of the prehistoric Mediterranean.

It had been long been suspected, simply from their form and layout, that the tablets were not likely to contain any lost prehistoric literature (no ancestors of Homer, for example), but consisted essentially of lists, tabulations, and other administrative documents. And so it proved to be. What we have are bureaucratic records, compiled by the scribes of the so-called “palaces” of prehistoric Greece in the second millennium BC—lists of produce stored and exchanged, inventories of furniture, precious metals, and livestock, details of gifts given to the gods. Though it may have been disappointing to those who might still have held out hope for some primitive epic poetry, the deciphered tablets have given us a clearer idea than we could ever have imagined of the infrastructure underlying the proto-states of the prehistoric Mediterranean.

But it is a pity that Fox has nothing to say on the bitter and very public controversies that followed the decipherment, which became, at the time, even bigger news than the code-breaking itself. For it is misleading to imply that Ventris’s radio announcement in July 1952 was somehow the end of the Linear B story. In rather more interesting ways, it was the beginning.

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