What Was Greek to Them?

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…

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