Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book Review...

I've just finished reading The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox.  It's the story of the decoding of Linear B script, which was much more of an accomplishment than many today remember.  The first clay tablets bearing Linear B script were discovered in the late 1800s, and the form of the tablets made it crystal clear that Linear B was a script.  Prior to that, objects were found with Linear B script on them (especially seals), but nobody recognized the odd symbols as a script; they were thought to be merely decoration.

For over 50 years after the tablets were discovered – until Michael Ventris' key breakthrough in 1953 – nobody knew how to interpret the Linear B script.  For most of that period, even the kind of script Linear B was (alphabetic, syllabic, or logographic) was unknown.  And for that entire period, the language that the script was recording was unknown.

I first read about Linear B something like thirty years ago, and I've long wanted to learn more about how it was decoded.  On the face of it, the problem seemed insurmountable to me: an unknown script, recording an unknown language, and no equivalent of the Rosetta Stone to help.  How in the world could someone decode that?

Like many such achievements, the decipherment involved several people, much cleverness, and had several breakthrough “Ah ha!” moments.  One of the main players (Alice Kober) got little contemporaneous credit.  There were amateurs, professionals, and academic hobbyists.  At least one curmudgeon was present.  There was a borderline lunatic, much obsession, and a possible suicide.  And of course there were academic rivalries and jealousies, and abuse of power.  In other words, it's a pretty typical story of science, with lots of human interest.

I was quite satisfied with the book, especially for telling the stories of all the players in what appears to be an even and fair-minded way.  I wish it had a bit more detail about how the decipherment was accomplished, but there is enough there to give the reader the basic idea without too much work.

Recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, or in ancient languages...

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