book-reviews

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code

by Margalit Fox

Rating: ★★★

Fox presents the decipherment of Linear B as a story of three scholars. Evans, who discovered the tablets in Knossos and then caused them to be mostly hoarded for the next half-century; Kober, whose careful analysis was able to identify that the language was inflected and solve the gender indicator issue, and Ventris, whose more adventurous approach and key insights led to the final decipherment. As a history of the topic of Linear B, the book is fairly suitable. Fox clearly presents the key elements of the solutions being developed, explaining techniques with reference to more familiar scripts and then demonstrating what the scholars of the past discovered in Linear B.

I appreciated the detail given about the method all the more because I initially had forebodings that Fox was going to cover the material superficially -- this impression was down to Fox's weird habit of quoting verbatim snippets of exposition from other modern coverage of Linear B, like Simon Singh's Code Book. I still don't know why she did that, because she clearly has had access to older material and original source material from the period. Her biography of Kober, at any rate, shows some careful attention.

The major flaw of the book is its partisan stance on the history. Fox tries to argue that Kober is the unacknowledged genius that should really be given more credit for the decipherment, and goes about this not merely by presenting Kober's contribution, which was significant, but by attacking the two other contributors' character (the egotist Evans was typically racist for his era, Ventris was troubled and bordering on a crank) and then positing a number of counterfactuals that might have led to Kober being the one to achieve the decipherment (if she had had more time in her fellowship, if she had followed a clue that her notes show she had once considered [just like Ventris had once considered, before coming back to it and doing the legwork], if she hadn't died).

These counterfactuals are particularly toxic not just because they are pointless speculation, but because the argument undermines the contribution that Kober did make. Academic achievements are built from the community. The insights that Kober had uncovered, along with the others active in the field, formed the resources that Ventris drew upon for his own investigation. Just as Ben Franklin did not create fully-formed a light-bulb where once there had been nothing, Ventris' solution relied upon the hard work of others. Claiming so desperately that Kober could've finished the job herself makes it seem like everything else done in pursuit of the answer was worthless.

This is a decent enough book if you want to learn about Linear B's decipherment, and the final chapters go on to detail what has been learnt from the tablets, which was a nice finishing touch. If you read through the revisionism with a critical eye, it is even fairly detailed and informative.