On Wednesday night, June 12 at the National Museum of the American Indian, The Smithsonian Associates presented New York Times writer Margalit Fox who revealed the discovery of Linear B, an ancient script whose decipherment had puzzled linguists and scholars for centuries. Fox had recently released her book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, for which she spent over five years researching, writing, and even learning Greek to assist with Linear B translations.
An obituary writer for the New York Times, Margalit Fox received her Master’s in linguistics from Stony Brook University and her Master’s in journalism from Columbia University. When I asked how she got into obituary writing, she responded:
“I spent 10 years as a copyeditor at the New York Times Book Review, and it was a great job but I really wanted to write my own stuff rather than just clean up other peoples’. Obits were the job that nobody wanted because historically, it was considered the worst beat in the news room, even though the secret is it’s the best.”
An aspect of Fox’s writing that is so remarkable is her ability to incorporate quirky details and anecdotes that make a person seem real, a trait she likely honed while writing obituaries for the Times.
Deciphering Linear B
Fox drew from the outline of her book as she transported the audience back to King Minos’s 1450 B.C. kingdom on the island of Crete. His legendary palace was uncovered by archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1900, which in itself could have easily been the greatest archaeological find of its time, since the ruins predated the Greek classical age by several centuries. But even more important were hundreds of clay tablets covered in an unknown script, which were discovered on the same site. Understanding this language, termed Linear B, was to become one of the greatest mysteries of the first half of the 20th century.
Arthur Evans quickly realized that these clay tablets served an administrative purpose. Within a few years, he discovered that the tablets’ Linear B language had pictures of animals followed by a number system, indicating inventory records. But he soon hit a wall when he could not understand the script that appeared immediately before the animal count. After years of scouring the text, he died having learned only one more character of Linear B, which meant “total.”
Form without Meaning
Then Alice Elizabeth Kober took over. Born in New York to Hungarian immigrants, she majored in Latin and minored in Greek during her studies at Hunter College in Manhattan. Rather than speculate on the language of the tablets or the characters’ sounds, she looked only at patterns in the script itself. She studied form without meaning, which enabled her to spot configurations that others had missed. She dedicated most of her life and spare time to decoding Linear B, and if given only a couple more years, she probably would have succeeded and been recognized as its primary rescuer. But after her untimely death, the final player in the story, Michael Ventris, continued the work and finally solved the mystery, writing Kober out of history and earning most of the credit.
Ventris did not have a formal college education, but was a naturally brilliant man who “inhaled languages.” He solved the riddle of Linear B just before his 30th birthday, and died at age 34. Ventris discovered that the particular script that had baffled Adams and puzzled Kober turned out to be the names of places: The administrative records included locations with the inventory item and value.
Ventris appeared on BBC radio on July 1, 1952 where he revealed that Linear B was a dialect of Greek and the earliest documented record of European civilization. And that now, after 30 centuries, Linear B is readable once more.
Alice Kober’s Lasting Influence
In her book, Margalit Fox brought new life into the personalities of the Linear B translators. For example, she revealed aspects of Alice Kober’s character by explaining that paper was hard to come by during the war, so Kober used to take notes on the back of library catalog cards that she would store in empty cigarette cartons. Similarly, Fox revealed a little bit of Ventris’s personality when she wrote that his fascination with Linear B followed him to the war: He brought the script with him so he could pore over it in the back of airplanes.
Alice Kober fell in love with this mysterious script while studying at Hunter College, and Michael Ventris first heard of Linear B on a class trip to a museum when he was 14. Much like the subjects of her book, Margalit Fox became interested in Linear B when she was young. She explained, “I’ve known it since I was a kid. Then just fooling around one day while I was supposed to be writing my first book, I opened up this marvelous reference book that I have called The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and prophetically, it fell open to the entry of Linear B, and so I was reminded of the story.”
In her book’s introduction, she explains that “the story I knew—the only story anyone knew—was incomplete. A major actor in the drama was missing: an American woman named Alice Elizabeth Kober… [Her] story is presented here in full for the first time.” Kober’s contributions were masked by the achievements of her male counterparts, and writing this book helped pay tribute to her life and work while revealing the key to Linear B.
Written by Sonja Trierweiler, social media intern at The Smithsonian Associates.