Being a history nerd, I went into The Riddle of the Labyrinth hoping to find a twisty linguistic mystery I might be able to keep in my back pocket for my World History classes. What I was thrilled to find running parallel to that mystery was a lovely biography of the woman who helped solve it.
In 1900, clay tablets bearing unfamiliar symbols were discovered on the Mediterranean island of Crete, believed to be from a civilization that flowered 1,000 years before the Classical Age of Greece. For years archaeologists and linguists studied the script, now known as Linear B, attempting to break the writing down to its most basic form and find a key to the mystery of the civilization.
By mid-century, classics professor Alice Kober had inched close to discovering that key, working painstakingly by hand with few resources and little help. However, her work was often overlooked and her opportunities cut off due to her gender. Across the world unassuming architect, Michael Ventris, had been given every opportunity for success, despite his lack of schooling. Through floundering mistakes, Ventris eventually used the patterns that Kober laid out to become the recognized decipherer of Linear B.
I was thrilled by how much The Riddle of the Labyrinth surprised me. I thought I would spend much of the book trying to wrap my mind around the Linear B puzzle, but I could not stop thinking about Alice Kober and her work. The pictures of the coding system she created by hand on scraps of paper during the paper shortage in World War II are absolutely incredible. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of time and devotion that goes into creating a database by hand...and then cutting it small enough to fit into cigarette cartons. She is beyond fascinating. But my heart just broke repeatedly for her, as she was such a victim of the time she was living in. Imagine what should could have done living in 2013, with that drive and ferocity!
While it would be easy to make Michael Ventris out to be a villain in the story, Margalit Fox draws beautiful parallels between the two researchers. Both Kober and Ventris were, at times, highly unappreciated and underestimated by the academic community, though for different reasons. They both held strong to beliefs about the texts that, once deciphered, wound up quite wrong. In the end, the mystery behind Linear B was uncovered by the combination of their work, not solely one or the other.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a surprising blend of ancient and contemporary history that will have you turning over language, gender and the rigor of academic research.
(posted at rivercityreading.blogspot.com)