Friday, June 07, 2013

Beware of Crete's Barren Glyphs, Dept.

Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth

Just finished this a few days ago, and it was quite excellent.  A history of the effort to translate the tablets written in Linear B that were found on Crete as part of Arthur Evans' 1900 excavation at Knossos and subsequently on the Greek mainland.  The book focuses on the three principal players in the translation effort: Evans; Michael Ventris, the British architect and language prodigy who eventually cracked the code; and Alice Kober, the American classicist and college professor whose meticulous efforts laid the groundwork for Ventris' eventual success.

As much as a fascinating history of this intellectual crusade, the book is an effort to claim for Kober the credit she'd been denied in her time and since.  She died young, before Ventris finished, and her own reticence and painstaking diligence prevented her from making the sorts of claims that would've drawn attention to her efforts and successes.  And, of course, she was a woman academic at a more-benighted time in American history.

Two thumbs up.  The author is a New York Times journalist--she works in The Grey Lady's obituary department--who trained as a linguist, so she is doubly qualified to write about both overlooked lives and those spent in the pursuit of the key to a language.

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