NEW YORK – The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation presented a lecture by Margalit Fox, the award-winning New York Times senior writer.
Fox fascinated the guests who filled the auditorium of the Rubin Museum of Art on February 12 for a lecture on her book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.
Fox’s book “recounts the half-century-long quest to decipher Linear B, a mysterious script from the Aegean Bronze Age, unearthed on clay tablets at Knossos in 1900…this thrilling intellectual detective story also brings to light the forgotten history of Alice Kober the obsessive, overlooked American scholar whose work made the decipherment possible,” according to the program notes.
Fox emphasized that previous histories focused on Michael Ventris, the Englishman – his name only sounds Greek – who ultimately deciphered the script in 1952.
She makes clear, however, that is was Kober who “meticulously and brilliantly brought the decipherment to the brink of fruition,” the notes indicate, “before her untimely death in 1950.”
Some people become disappointed when they learn that the tablets are mainly accounting records, but Fox said, “They are still the records of how flesh and blood people lived.”
The last chapter of the book is a reconstruction of Mycenaean life based on the tablets.
The third member of the team was John Chadwick. The three made use of sophisticated statistical techniques. Today the work of linguists is greatly assisted by computers, but Kober said “I have no use for IBM machines.”
Fox said the meticulous scholar was just right for her time, however. For a long time there was no data to be fed into a computer. “It took 50 years to even determine the character set.” Among the challenges was to study enough tablets to enable them to determine whether some letters were the same or different.
Finding the truth sometimes requires very sophisticated practices and Fox clarified a number of issues non-experts need to understand what the work entails.
Acting on the thought that “this feels Greek” is problematic and deciphering ancient texts illustrates the limits of intuition. If a hunch steers scholars wrong in the beginning, it leads to years wasted driving towards dead ends as their ingenuity finds ways to demonstrate to their satisfaction that their intuition is right Fox said.
Premature reports that Linear A is also Greek illustrate the challenges. When Fox was asked why Linear A has yet to be deciphered, she explained that there simply are not enough text to examine.
That Linear B was deciphered is partly due to the good luck of us moderns, but the misfortune of the ancient writers: the fires that burned down the palaces baked the clay tablets for us.
Nevertheless, years of hard work were required and Fox explained how some the tools work.
She said decipherers look for linguistic survivals of other languages and noted that Kober paid attention to pre-Greek elements in Homer, such as words ending in “ynth” – like Labyrinth, and “inthos.”
Fox also pointed out that the scholars were fortunate to have tablets from Pylos, on the Greek mainland, which were written 200 years after the Cretan materials.
Ventris saw that certain names appeared only in the Cretan texts and he correctly guessed that they were the names of cities on Crete – like Cnossos.
He eventually determined that Linear B was Greek after years of believing that was not the case.
Fox said that Kober, who was born in Manhattan’s Upper East Side Yorkville neighborhood to Hungarian immigrants, “was hungry to see the Pylos tablets” but never did because WWII caused them to be locked up in the vaults of the Bank of Greece.
Although Ventris made great progress, Fox said he panicked at one point because he could not find the word “the” in the text. Chadwick calmed him down by noting that even in Homeric Greek, “the” was rarely used.
The lecture, which was followed by an enthusiastic Q & A, was the first cultural event of the year for the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation. Nicholas Kourides, Chairman of the board of the Foundation, welcomed everyone and introduced Fox, who holds degrees in both journalism and linguistics.
Asked how the Foundation came to invite her, Kourides told TNH “We read the book and were fascinated by it… we look at all aspects of culture and this was an aspect we hadn’t pursed.”
Coming up for the Foundation is the third installment of the Peter T. Kourides Lecture Series featuring a fireside chat between former CIA Director George Tenet and Mike Emanuel, the chief political correspondent for FOX TV in Washington, DC on April 29 at the University Club. In June Joan Mertens, the curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum, will present the essence of her book How to Read Greek Vases.
In October the Foundation will again co-sponsor the New York Greek Film Festival and they also plan a recital by a young trio at Merkin Hall in November.