Living Archaeology, Dead Languages and The Riddle of Human Behavior

Riddle of the Labyrinth-Margalit Fox- Ecco Press

As obituary columnist for the New York Times, Margalit Fox has developed a keen eye for the past of those she memorializes. During an engaging and accessible  journey of discovery, author Fox persues the mysteries of language and human behavior with equal focus; revealing as much about those who FC9780062228833[1]tried to solve the riddle of a long forgotten language as the mysteries of the language itself.  The work is a triptych of these individuals: Sir Arthur Evans, Classical scholar Alice Kober, and the man who eventually cracked the mystery of Linear B, architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris.

Sir Arthur Evans first discovered the palace at Knossos on the island of  Crete in April of 1900.  During the excavation, workers discovered hundreds of  clay tablets covered with a completely unknown language  Evans named Linear B.  The inscriptions predated Mycenean culture and offered a new insight into early Aegean culture.

There were problems from the start, not the least of them were Evans colonialist predjudices: he looked down on “primitive peoples”, stuck closely to the prevailing notion that a pictorially based language is logographic (linear B, as it turns out, was both symbol  and syllabary) and, worst of all, refused to release the clay tablets for study by other archaeologists and linguists.

The process of decipherment is a specialized discipline,  but if you don’t know the difference between logographic and syllabic, Fox explains it in straightforward and readable terms, often using the example of Conan Doyle’s Dancing Man code as analogy to the process of breaking into a language without modern reference points.

Second in this triptych of codebreakers is the all but forgotten Scholar and Classicist, Alice Kober.  In truth, this work is primarily Kober’s platform.  It was Kober’s life long devotion and methodical skills which built the solid foundation Michael Ventris used to crack the code of Linear B, yet her substantial contribution to the effort is completely forgotten after her death in 1950.

English architect Michael Ventris began trying to crack the code after encountering Evans and his tablets on a school trip in 1936, when he was 14. Working at the same time as Kober and using some of her methods and observations, he finally succeeded just before his 30th birthday.  We are introduced to a people who kept thorough records of traded goods and had names like Snub-Nose and Gladly Welcome.

Riddle Of The Labyrinth leaves the reader thinking about the possibility of understanding our own language in the distant future. What did we mean? What are the reference points of some as-yet unseen future which will allow those who succeed us to know some small measure of who we are?  How much of that understanding will be based of the biases of the individuals saddled with the task of decoding our communication?  Prelude is the present, and Fox gives us a focused and entertaining journey through the task of knowing the unknowns.

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