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Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation Paperback – July 11, 2013

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*Starred Review* Discovered on ancient clay tablets in Crete in 1900 and deciphered half a century later, Linear B is the oldest known dialect of the Greek language, dating from about 1450 BCE. The story of its discovery by British archaeologist Arthur Evans and decipherment by British architect Michael Ventris is often told, but what is less frequently documented is the story of the American woman, Alice Kober, who laid much of the groundwork for the decipherment and who might have cracked the code herself, if she had not died in her early forties. Focusing on Kober’s efforts to tease meaning out of the strange, hitherto unknown symbols, Fox tells the story behind the story. Yes, Ventris made some brilliant deductive leaps, but without Kober’s years of painstaking work, those leaps could not have happened. You might think a book about trying to decipher a 3,000-year-old language wouldn’t be particularly exciting, but in this case you’d be wrong. Fox is a talented storyteller, and she creates an atmosphere of almost nail-biting suspense. We know the code was eventually cracked, but while we’re reading the book, we’re on the edge of our seats. This one deserves shelf space alongside such classics in the literature of decryption as Simon Singh’s The Code Book (1999). --David Pitt --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"As with any good detective story, there's a driving narrative behind the puzzle, peopled by solitary sleuths."--The Guardian US

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books Ltd (July 11, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1781251320
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781251324
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (168 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,214,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.3 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 20, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Margalit Fox is the obituary writer for the New York Times, and she knows how to write. I've always marveled at her way of getting into the essence of the person she was writing about, capturing in a few words how that person affected society and how the contributions s/he made were reflected in their life. Fox shows that same ease of writing in "Riddle of the Labyrinth", her second work of non-fiction.

I think everyone knows by now about the Rosetta Stone and how its discovery in Egypt in 1799 by forces of Napoleon led to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. But it took French, British, and other European scholars until 1824 to finally complete the work. Another such effort was needed to decipher the code on tablets found by British archeologist Arthur Evans, in the excavations on Crete, near the palace of Knossos in 1900. The writing and the language on the tablets, soon referred to as "Linear A" and "Linear B", became the focus for the next 50 years of scholars and archeologists and, one architect, all of whom worked in relative solitude in their attempts to decipher the coded languages. "Relative solitude" because in the days before the internet and the mass sharing of both information and individual effort, attempts to reach out to others working on the same task was difficult.

In the United States, the main scholar working on the code was a Brooklyn College classics professor, Alice Kober, who worked for years by herself. While she did maintain written correspondence with others in England - and visiting Oxford twice to see the original data - she really was alone in her work. And working during the years of WW2 and the post-war, with paper shortages both in the US and the UK, Kober made discoveries that took her to the brink of deciphering the code.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By P. Strayer on July 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The story of Linear B and its decipherment is fascinating...and I am grateful to the author for adding the story of Kober into historical context. However, there is too much context and too little story.

The fascinating story of Evans is much better told in Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth by MacGillivray. The story of Ventris is much better told elsewhere, too.

The main reason this book appears to have been written is to write Kober's work back into the equation, where it rightfully belongs. However, it doesn't seem to have been enough for a book in its own right and so hence is sandwiched between these other two stories.

It also lacks the historical context of the Cretan and Mycenaen civilizations.

It's still worth a read - just don't expect it to be very in-depth.

I am glad to know of Kober's work, and sad to learn how so much of her life ended up being "a contender" and not a victor. Her contribution is rightfully restored, but somehow something is still missing.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Maine Colonial TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, thought to be written in the eighth century B.C., are among the oldest written works of Western literature we know. Imagine the excitement, then, when hundreds of clay tablets were discovered on the island of Crete in 1900, and they were dated back to sometime between 1400 and 1450 B.C.; in other words, hundreds of years before Homer did his work and even before the battle of Troy he described.

During the Victorian era, the sun never set on the British Empire--as you may have heard--and Victorian gentlemen trampled all over the empire and the world digging up artifacts of ancient civilizations. In 1900, one of these gentlemen, Arthur Evans, discovered a huge, ruined palace on Crete, where the clay tablets were preserved by fire after the palace was apparently sacked and torched.

Some of the symbols on the tablets were pictograms, lovely little representations of horses, for example. Mostly, though, the characters were a mystery. Nobody knew what language was used on Crete at the time the tablets were written, and the characters that weren't pictograms were just tantalizingly ornate hints of life in this long-ago civilization.

Margalit Fox tells the story of the three preeminent figures in the life of "Linear B," as Evans called the script on the tablets. Evans, the archeologist whom she calls "The Digger;" Alice Kober, an assistant professor of Classics at Brooklyn College, who spent most of the 1940s sitting at her kitchen table painstakingly making note cards, charts and graphs to crack the code of Linear B; and Michael Ventris, the precocious English polymath with a prodigious systematic memory, who made the final breakthrough discoveries that allowed the mystery of Linear B to be solved.
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52 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Gaele TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I was totally enthralled by the concept of this book: the curiosity factor about the process of uncovering an unknown language suited my puzzle-loving brain, the ability to find knowledge from the ancient past that is not conjecture but in the words of those who lived in the time was too good to pass up. Words and language are eternal, as long as you are equipped with the ability to understand the concepts / read the language / understand what concept or information the writer is attempting to convey. While not written as purely a biography, this book provides great insight into the people thought to be most important in discovering the keys to solve the puzzle that was Linear B.

Dated to 1000+ years earlier than the classical texts of the Ancient Greeks, this treasure trove of artifacts was unearthed on Crete in 1900; yet 50 years passed before the cuniform and pictographic clay tablets were deciphered and understood. Most memorable to me was the work of Alice Kober, a classics professor who spent years, pre-computer, to handcraft her own database / enigma-style machine with matchbooks and bits of paper. While the crafting of the physical accoutrements to solve the puzzle was unbelievably complex and a testament to some serious determination, the continual and systemic discounting of her work, and the lack of recognition that seemed to be wholly sexist in its genesis was frustrating to me as a reader. Often it is said people are born `before their time' - Kober is my new reference point.
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