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Originally published July 14, 2013 at 5:04 AM | Page modified July 14, 2013 at 7:56 AM

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‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth’: decoding an ancient language

Margalit Fox’s “The Riddle of the Labyrinth” tells the true story of three researchers who cracked the code of an ancient language, one inscribed on clay tablets and unearthed on the island of Crete.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code’

by Margalit Fox

Ecco, 384 pp., $27.99

In 1900, the young British archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating a huge Bronze Age building on the north coast of Crete near present day Heraklion. Because of the site’s location, impressive size and complexity, he dubbed these remains the Palace of Minos, after the mythological Cretan king who made human sacrifices to the Minotaur in the labyrinth.

The structure Evans unearthed had been used for centuries but burned down in the early 14th century B.C. and was abandoned. The silver lining to its destruction was that caches of unfired clay tablets were baked, preserving strange forms of early writing.

Evans thought they were administrative records but not Greek. He identified three scripts: one hieroglyphic and two “systems of linear writing,” now known as Linear A and B. “Linear” refers to the fact that scribes wrote on wet clay with a stylus instead of stamping with a wedge-shaped tool as in cuneiform.

The Linear A sample is too small to decipher. But Evans found more than 2,000 Linear B tablets. It’s these, along with determined efforts of many individuals to unlock the tablets’ tantalizing mysteries, that Margalit Fox, a New York Times journalist, examines in her fascinating new book.

She begins with an overview, then focuses on Evans’ efforts, followed by those of an American assistant professor, Alice Kober, and, finally, the British architect Michael Ventris, who solved the riddle of the mysterious writing in 1952. Ventris instantly became famous but Kober, “working quietly and meticulously from her home in Brooklyn,” was “a major actor in the drama.”

Fox examines how Kober paved the way. “Cautious and methodical,” Kober began work in 1928 at age 21 and kept on until her untimely death in 1950.

And what a puzzle Linear B presented. Which language was it? Which direction should one read it? Left to right, right to left, perhaps both like writing called “boustrophedon” — back and forth, as an ox plows?

Which system was used? The number of symbols suggested too few to be logographic like Chinese but too many to be an alphabet like English. Clearly, symbols such as horses and people represented whole words. So, like Egyptian, was Linear B a mixture, part whole words, part syllabary, in which each character stood for a consonant with a vowel?

It’s hard to write clearly about complex subjects. Fox succeeds, leading readers through the maze of achievements and failures, collaborations and delays, providing copious line drawings, explanations of usage from several languages, quotations from correspondence, organizing her book chronologically so the pieces gradually fall into place. And she renders personalities well — Evans, rich but secretive; Kober, disciplined but driven; Ventris, inspired but insecure — also illustrating the huge challenge of analyzing a script without aid of computers or Internet.

Kober, Fox believes, “very nearly solved the riddle.” Even while teaching a full load at Brooklyn College, she eventually filled 40 notebooks and systematically cut and annotated some 180,000 paper cards showing “statistics for various signs.” The few articles she published provided key concepts.

Fox reveals how Michael Ventris then cracked the code and how decipherment revised understanding of ancient history. She interprets some of what we’ve learned from these lists — yes, Evans was right that they’re ledgers but wrong about the language: it’s Mycenaean Greek — without which “We would know nothing of the written records of ... the Bronze Age heroes of whom Homer would sing.”

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.

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