In The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Crack An Ancient Code, Margalit Fox adds a new layer to the story of how the ancient script known as Linear B was deciphered.
In 1900, archaeologist Arthur Evans uncovered a cache of clay tablets in an unknown script on Crete. For fifty years, scholars across the world struggled to decipher Linear B without even knowing what language it encoded. In 1952, an amateur named Michael Ventris solved the puzzle with what is often presented as a single stroke of inspiration. In fact, Ventris’s inspiration was based on the work of another, largely forgotten, scholar– classicist Alice Kober. Working alone in her Brooklyn home, Kober created a new methodology for decoding the unknown script without the benefit of a bilingual text or a computer. She also identified the keys that allowed Ventris to make his imaginative leap.
In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Fox returns Kober to her rightful place at the center of the story. She divides her story into three parts, focusing on the charismatic digger, Evans, the methodical detective, Kober, and the brilliant architect, Ventris in turn. She handles the mix of biography, archaeology, cryptology and linguistics with a sure touch. Technical discussions of how to decipher an unknown script written in an unknown language are as engaging as the lives of her protagonists.
In a satisfying conclusion, The Riddle of the Labyrinth ends where it begins, with the tablets themselves and what we have learned from them.
This review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.