Margalit Fox: “The Riddle of the Labyrinth”

The Riddle of the Labyrinth

Full Title: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
Pages: 346
First Published: 2013

Synopsis: In 1900, while excavating on Crete, the charismatic Victorian archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed inscribed clay tablets amid the ruins of a lavish Bronze Age palace. Written by palace scribes circa 1450 B.C., the script they displayed – featuring outline drawings of swords, chariots, and horses’ heads, as well as other tiny pictograms – resembled no alphabet ever seen. Evans named the script Linear B, and from the start it posed a deep mystery. No one knew what language Linear B recorded, much less what the curious inscriptions meant. If the tablets could be deciphered, they would open a portal onto a refined, wealthy, and literate society that had flourished in Greek lands three thousand years earlier, a full millennium before the glories of the Classical Age.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the true story of the quest to solve one of the most mesmerizing riddles in history – Linear B – and of the three brilliant, obsessed, and ultimately doomed investigators whose combined work would eventually crack the code. […] Following the three investigators as they hunt down, analyze, and interpret a series of linguistic clues hidden within the script itself, The Riddle of the Labyrinth offers the first complete account of one of the most fascinating conundrums of all time.

My Thoughts: So you may have guessed that this book is not very much about the story of the Trojan War! But it’s about a Bronze Age script and it mentions the war enough that I feel justified posting about it, although in a rather shorter post than usual.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth tells the story of the decipherment of Linear B by following its three major players: archaeologist Arthur Evans, professor Alice Kober, and architect Michael Ventris. According to its introduction, this book is “the first complete account of the decipherment,” filling in what was previously unknown about Alice Kober’s years of work on the script. All three sections of the book are interesting, but I especially enjoyed reading about Kober and how dedicated she was to the decipherment at a time when it surely couldn’t have been easy to be a female scholar. I really appreciated how Fox handles this section, especially the way in which she only briefly mentions Kober’s apparent lack of interest in traditionally “feminine” goals, doesn’t disparage her for it, and then never brings it up again. Awesome!!

Before reading this book, I glanced at a couple reviews that suggested that a background in Linguistics would help readers to understand the discussions of the decipherment. I happen to have such a background, but I think what was more helpful was my familiarity with Japanese, a language that uses syllabic writing systems similar to the syllabic writing system Linear B turned out to be (spoiler?). But this book is definitely written for the general reader, and Fox includes enough explanation that I don’t think there’s any reason to worry. I suspect that anyone who’s interested in reading this book will have little problem understanding it.

As a big fan of Bronze Age Greece and an even bigger fan of languages, I super enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about how one goes about deciphering an ancient script and it was fascinating to read about the kind of perseverance the process requires. I even nerdily enjoyed reading the correspondence between scholars discussing their theories about Linear B. If any of the above appeals to you, I suspect Riddle of the Labyrinth will be as unputdownable for you as it was for me.

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5 Comments to “Margalit Fox: “The Riddle of the Labyrinth””

  1. I loved this book, too.

  2. I even nerdily enjoyed reading the correspondence between scholars discussing their theories about Linear B.

    This sounds like the neatest part!

  3. Thanks for this review. I’ve read Andrew Robinson’s biography of Michael Ventris and look forward to learning this aspect of the story of the decipherment of Linear B.

    I’m a Classics student whose hobby is reading ancient historical fiction, and I’m really happy to have found this blog which is introducing me to a lot of novels I hadn’t known before. I hope you’ll get around to reviewing these books that fit your theme, since I’d like to hear your opinions of them: Christa Wolf’s _Cassandra_, Margaret George’s _Helen of Troy_, Zachary Mason’s _Lost Books of the Odyssey_, Laurel Corona’s _Penelope’s Daughter_, and V. M. Manfredi’s recent novel about Odysseus. Are you interested in books about Odysseus/Penelope and their post-war story or do you like to focus on stories about the Trojan War proper?

    • Thank you for your comment and the recommendations! I haven’t read any of the books you listed yet, although I am pretty intrigued by “Penelope’s Daughter.” I either somehow missed or totally forgot that Manfredi had a book out about Odysseus! Have you read it? I read his “Heroes,” which was mainly about Diomedes, and I didn’t love it, but I might be willing to try another one by him.

      I’m definitely not opposed to reading novels that focus on Odysseus and Penelope but, now that you mention it, I realize I haven’t done so in quite some time! I read Clemence McLaren’s “Waiting for Odysseus” not long after it was released … and I’ve seen two stage versions of Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” (and LOVED both of them) but I’ve yet to read the book. I think I do tend to focus on books that take place during the war itself. My favourite post-war stories are the ones about Agamemnon’s family. But, as I said, I’m not opposed to branching out a bit!

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