Simanaitis Says

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A NEW book concerning the Bronze Age describes a mystery every bit as intriguing as any faced by Sherlock Holmes.


The Riddle of the Labyrinth, The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, Ecco/Harper Publishers, 2013. The book is listed at and reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, June 16, 2013.  

The tale of the Linear B has ancient script and two Englishmen 40 years apart trying to decipher it. Linking these two men, and deserving full recognition, is an American woman sharing their passion—Alice Kober of Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. See BBC News Magazine for details (


Alice Kober, 1906-1950, devoted her life to deciphering the Mycenaean script show here. Image from BBC News Magazine, the Ashmolean Museum and Brooklyn Collection.

The story begins with Sir Arthur John Evans, an archaeologist who in 1900-1905 unearthed the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete.


Sir Arthur John Evans, 1851-1941, Oxonian, agent in the Balkans, keeper of the Ashmolean, archaeologist.

Like others of his era, Evans appropriately wore coat and tie while working archaeological diggings. At Knossos, he found 3000 clay tablets, seemingly composed in two different idioms which he termed Linear A and Linear B.

The earlier of these was too fragmentary to be analyzed. But Linear B, estimated to date from 1400-1200 B.C., tantalized Evans and others. The challenge was a major one. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, there weren’t several languages to compare. Linear B was a unique—and ancient—puzzle. For a full description, see

The deciphering of Linear B jumps to 1936 and a 14-year-old British lad named Michael Ventris. He too became fascinated by the decoding challenge, and by 1940 Ventris published his first paper on the subject.


Michael George Francis Ventris, OBE, 1922-1956, architect, polyglot, more than amateur classicist.

Ventris continued working on deciphering Linear B. Finally, between 1951 and 1953, he and colleague Charles Chadwick (who had worked at Bletchley Park during World War II) finally accomplished this goal.

Their work depended profoundly on a collection of 186,000 notated cards assembled by Alice Kober. Starting in the early 1940s, she methodically analyzed Linear B with study of its 90-character set and particularly its word stems and endings.


Part of the treasure trove of Kober’s research that gave Ventris and Chadwick the means of cracking Linear B. Image from BBC News Magazine, photo by Beth Chichester.

Because of WWII paper shortages, Kober formed 2 x 3 in. cards from any paper she could find. She used her empty cigarette cartons for filing her research.

To aid her analyses, Kober studied Persian, an alphabetic language; Akkadian, a syllabic one; and Chinese, a logographic one (in which words are the basic units). She spent several years searching Classic Greek for loan words.

Kober accomplished all this—essential to the work of Ventris and Chadwick—while pursuing her own career teaching Latin and Greek at Brooklyn College.

And what of Linear B? Not to sound disparaging, it turned out to be 3000 bits of administrative records, numbers of sheep sheared and the like. Nonetheless, it provided excellent intellectual challenge for four extremely talented people. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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