Sometimes people ask me if I want my kids to grow up to be doctors. I usually half-jokingly say something about how I hope they do something more interesting, like become archeologists or paleontologists or travel writers. “Half-joking” because, of course, I want them to do what makes them happy and what they feel passionate about. But I do think it would be really awesome if I got to visit one of them on a dig in Egypt one day. Just as a hypothetical example.
I’ve always had a fascination with archeology and with codes. The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox fully satisfied both interests while telling an engaging, page-turning story. The riddle in the title is Linear B a script discovered in 1900 on Crete by archeologist Arthur Evans in a Bronze Age palace. The new script was previously unknown and belonged to a time that had been believed to be pre-literate and to a people whose language was unknown. The deciphering of an unknown language written in an unknown script seemed to be an impenetrable puzzle. However, the puzzle was solved in 1952 by thirty year old Michael Ventris, an architect and amateur classicist.
Fox tells the story of Evan’s discovery and Ventris’ ultimate solution. However, both of these stories have been told before and she chooses to focus on the achievements of Alice Kober, a talented classical scholar and linguist who devoted much of her life to working on Linear B. Fox shows how Ventris’ solution relied heavily on work that Kober did first but that has been mostly overlooked, due in part to her gender.
Fox does a beautiful job of telling the human stories of all three players: Evans, Kober and Ventris. She also gives just enough historical background on the time period that Linear B belonged to. And she brilliantly explains the difficulties in deciphering an unknown script in a way that a layperson can easily understand. If you like codes or linguistics or archeology or history or just an excellent non-fiction story, I would recommend this one highly.