More on Alice Kober and Linear B (and Ventris too!)

Since our first encounters meeting Alice Kober and learning about her work with Linear B (Someone You Should Know: Alice Kober  and More on Alice Kober), there have been a few more features out about her and Margalit Fox’s book. Given that Kober was relatively unknown to the Classics world a couple of months ago, it seems useful to collect some of these. First up is a lecture by Fox at CUNY … here’s the blurb:

In her new book, “The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code,” Margalit Fox chronicles the pursuit to decipher Linear B — an unknown script dating to the Bronze Age — and how key research by a Brooklyn College classics professor, Alice Elizabeth Kober, helped to crack its code. But “because she (Kober) was a woman and because history is written by the victor, her contribution was all but lost to history.” In a lecture at Brooklyn College, Fox, a linguist and senior obituary writer for the New York Times, wrote that she wanted to correct a gaping omission in the story of one of the world’s great intellectual puzzles and to narrate a vital piece of American women’s history.

… and the lecture is on this page: Alice Kober and ‘The Riddle of the Labyrinth’ (CUNY)

A lengthy item in BBC magazine includes a bit about the Kober-Ventris relationship:

{…] Kober and Ventris met just once, in Oxford, five years before the decipherment. It’s thought there was no love lost between the two.

“It’s very clear with hindsight that each underestimated the other deeply,” says Fox.

“She underestimated him because he was an amateur, and he underestimated her because she was a woman.”

In a lecture after he had cracked Linear B, and before his death, Ventris did however give substantial credit to Kober for her contribution – but this acknowledgement went largely unnoticed.

Kober has tended to be presented as a harsh, suffer-no-fools, kind of character, says Prof Thomas Palaima, head of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas at Austin, which holds Kober’s archives.

But this reputation is unfair, he says. Her papers show her to be a thoughtful, kind and dedicated person, who, for example, converted test papers for a student who was blind into Braille (which she mastered).

“She has a fine sense of humour,” says Palaima. “There’s an amazing amount of whimsical stuff in there.”

But the bulk of the documents detail her meticulous work – including one key grid, says Palaima, which shows she had correctly deciphered around one third of the Linear B characters.

Had she not died prematurely, he believes history would have turned out differently.

“I really do believe she’d have been the one who’d have deciphered Linear B,” he says.

But still some scholars question whether Kober would have had the creative spark to jump the final hurdle.

And no-one is questioning Ventris’ achievement or claim to be the one who finally cracked it. […]

There are also some really interesting photos in the BBC piece and a link to Michael Ventris talking to the BBC soon after the announcement of the decipherment (it’s here too: Linear B decoder Michael Ventris on BBC in 1952). On a semi-personal note, when one of my former professors at McMaster — Howard Jones — was teaching first year ClassCiv, he used to bring up the story of being in school and someone walking into the class saying “They’ve deciphered Linear B.” …

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