The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code

By Margalit Fox

Ecco. 363 pp. $27.99

Journalist Margalit Fox puts her storytelling skills and background in linguistics to good use in recounting the tale of the mysterious clay tablets unearthed in 1900 among the ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete. The discovery by British archaeologist Arthur Evans (knighted in 1911) set in motion decades of study and debate regarding the tablets, which are covered by what appear to be images of men, women, horses and a variety of puzzling symbols. Are the characters of this writing system, which came to be known as “Linear B,” pieces of a syllabary or an unknown alphabet?

Drawing on her command of linguistics and philology, Fox guides the reader through the complicated business of deciphering the tablets. In a delightful touch, she employs characters devised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” to explain principles of cryptographic analysis. Fox also introduces a figure who has been largely left out of the story: Alice Kober. Michael Ventris, the gifted British architect who finally deciphered the tablets, often gets most of the credit for the solving the mystery. But much of his work was built on the meticulous research of Kober, a Brooklyn College classicist and philologist who studied the mysteries of Linear B from 1928 until her death in 1950.

Working at home (after teaching classes) with limited quantities of paper and primitive tablet images, Kober painstakingly analyzed the Linear B figures, assembling a database of 180,000 note cards. Her monographs, published in scholarly journals, prepared the groundwork for the breakthroughs made by Ventris in the early 1950s. Fox’s achievement here is to make this fascinating tale accessible to a broader audience.

“The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” by Margalit Fox. (Harper Collins)

Robert B. Mitchell