Pre Release Review: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox


I adore puzzles, I do crosswords regularly, enjoy anagrams and codes. It’s a joy I passed on to my daughter, who asked for several years for an Enigma Machine – she caught the puzzle  bug too.  While I can’t claim to be terrific at cracking codes, the whole puzzle aspect of the pictorial symbols and the discovery of a whole new, and earlier civilization through their records was a read too good to pass up.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Title: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
Author: Margalit Fox
Format: Hardcover and eBook
Publisher: Ecco
Pages: 384
ISBN: 978-0062228833
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Genre: Grammar and Linguistics History
Stars:   5
Preorder Now: Hardcover §  eBook

About the Book: 

In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative.

When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece’s Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe’s earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery.

Award-winning New York Times journalist Margalit Fox’s riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean—the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen—to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the deipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.

Book Review:

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.

While Kober was working with bits of paper, matchbooks and cigarette cartons to test out her various translation options in the United States, in England the architect with a fascination and interest in codes and linguistic translations since early childhood, Michael Ventris was working at his version of translating the same tablets. With careful use of compare and contrast, Fox manages to provide a parallel view of the two translation attempts – showing their similarities, differences and incorrect leaps of ‘discovery. While neither was entirely correct, the decades of diligent attention to the puzzle that was Linear B would both heavily influence the actual final translations.
I thought this book would have me puzzling over Linear B, trying to see if I could understand and follow the story of decoding a language: what appeared was a captivating story of determination and dedication, the application of rigorous methods to substantiate claims, and the extreme unfairness of sexism that have suppressed and ignored the diligent work of Kober, in favor of celebrating the man who discovered the tablets, and the man credited with the ultimate translation of Linear B. Ultimately, everyone involved in the processes with the Linear B tablets was serving their curiosity in a very human way: seeking to read words written long ago from humans, finding that connection in the written word.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
About the Author:
An award-winning journalist originally trained as a linguist, Margalit Fox is a senior writer for the New York Times, and the author of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics from Stony Brook University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, the writer and critic George Robinson.

Visit her online at Facebook


One thought on “Pre Release Review: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox

  1. Pingback: Decipherment of the oldest Greek language inscriptions | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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