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.” …

Someone You Should Know: Alice Kober

Yesterday’s New York Times brought an opEd/hypish sort of thing by the author of a book on Alice Kober, whom I had never heard of and I’m sure many of you haven’t either. Here’s some in medias res:


Little did I realize six years ago, when I began work on a new book about the decipherment of an ancient script, that I would encounter the greatest backstage player I have ever written about: a woman who helped illuminate a world that flourished 3,000 years ago.

The woman was Alice Kober, an overworked, underpaid classics professor at Brooklyn College. In the mid-20th century, though hardly anyone knew it, Dr. Kober, working quietly and methodically at her dining table in Flatbush, helped solve one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the modern age.

The mystery centered on a long-lost script from Aegean antiquity known as Linear B. Inscribed on clay tablets around 1450 B.C., Linear B was unearthed in 1900 on Crete, amid the ruins of a lavish Bronze Age palace. The script, which teemed with pictograms in the shape of arrows, chariots and horses’ heads, resembled no writing ever seen. No one knew what language it recorded, much less what it said.

An unknown language in an unknown script is the linguistic equivalent of a locked-room mystery, and despite the efforts of investigators around the globe, Linear B endured for more than 50 years as one of the world’s great unsolved puzzles.

Then, in 1952, against all odds, the script was deciphered — seemingly in a single stroke. The decipherer was an amateur, Michael Ventris, a brilliant, melancholic English architect who had been obsessed with Linear B since he was a boy. He discovered that the script was used to write a very early dialect of Greek; set down in wet clay centuries before the advent of the Greek alphabet, it recorded the day-to-day workings of the first Greek civilization.

Though Mr. Ventris’s achievement brought him worldwide acclaim, it also left many unanswered questions. He had planned to write an account of his work, describing the incremental steps that led to his inspired solution. But he was unable to do so before he died in 1956, at 34, in a swift, strange car crash that may have been suicide. As a result, the story of one of the most breathtaking intellectual achievements in history remained incomplete for more than half a century.

Like so many canonical narratives of achievement, this story has a quiet backstage figure behind the towering public one. And here, too, as in other such stories (recall Rosalind Franklin, whose work, long unacknowledged, informed the mapping of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson), that figure is a woman.

Alice Elizabeth Kober was born in Manhattan on Dec. 23, 1906, the daughter of recent immigrants from Hungary. A brilliant student, she earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from Hunter College, and it was there, in a course on early Greek life, that she appears to have encountered Linear B.

Enthralled — and already confident of her own blazing intellect — she announced on her graduation that she would one day decipher the script. She came within a hair’s breadth of doing so before her own untimely death, at 43, just two years before Mr. Ventris cracked the code.

Dr. Kober never married, nor do her hundreds of pages of correspondence reveal the faintest glimmer of a personal life. Each night, after her classes were taught and her papers graded, she sat at the table in the house she shared with her widowed mother and, cigarette burning beside her, sifted the strange Cretan inscriptions.

It was Dr. Kober who cataloged every word and every character of Linear B on homemade index cards, cut painstakingly by hand from whatever she could find. (During World War II and afterward, paper was scarce, and she scissored her ersatz cards — 180,000 of them — from old greeting cards, church circulars and checkout slips she discreetly pinched from the Brooklyn College library.)

On her cards, she noted statistics about every character of the script — its frequency at the beginnings and ends of words, and its relation to every other character — with the meticulousness of a cryptographer. Sorting the cards night after night, Dr. Kober homed in on patterns of symbols that illuminated the structure of the words on the tablets. For as she, more than any other investigator, understood, it was internal evidence — the repeated configurations of characters that lay hidden within the inscriptions themselves — that would furnish the key to decipherment.

DR. KOBER and Mr. Ventris met only once, and by all accounts did not like each other. But through her few, rigorous published articles, which together form a how-to manual for deciphering an unknown script, she handed him the key to the locked room. After her death, using the methods she devised, he attacked the mystery with renewed vigor and brought about its solution.

It is now clear that without Dr. Kober’s work, Mr. Ventris could never have deciphered Linear B when he did, if ever. Yet because history is always written by the victors — and the story of Linear B has long been a British masculine triumphal narrative — the contributions of this brilliant American woman have been all but lost to time.

By fortunate coincidence, an archive of Dr. Kober’s papers had opened at the University of Texas shortly before I began my research. As a result, I was the first journalist to have the privilege of seeing her groundbreaking analysis of the script in full.

Dr. Kober’s work on Linear B spanned more than a decade, and the archive includes sheaves of her correspondence with the few would-be decipherers she respected, plus her tens of thousands of homemade index cards, fitted neatly into “file boxes” made from empty cigarette cartons. Like so much of women’s lives at midcentury, all this — which reveals the steps Mr. Ventris took in his triumphant decipherment — had long existed outside the reach of posterity.

I am not certain how Dr. Kober would feel about her role in the decipherment being brought to light today. “The important thing is the solution of the problem, not who solves it,” she wrote to a young American colleague in 1949. But I prefer to take my cue from a letter she wrote two years earlier, on the publication in an academic journal of her scathing critique of another scholar’s misguided attempt to decipher Linear B.

“I hope he will not be too annoyed with my review,” Dr. Kober wrote. “But I feel that in scholarly matters the truth must always be told.”

So, too, in obits. After Dr. Kober died, on May 16, 1950, The Times published a short obituary article under the headline, “Prof. Alice Kober of Brooklyn Staff.” The article — the dutiful roster of job titles and professional memberships that typified obituaries of the period — devotes less than a sentence to her work on Linear B.

As many on the Classics list noted, Kober is mentioned in various books on the decipherment of Linear B, but it seems to be usually in the introduction or other parts of the text where undergrads and other budding professionals probably won’t look. I’m sure I’m not the only person who went through my undergrad knowing of Michael Ventris and probably no one else, and operating under the impression that it was a one-man show, even though you knew there were others in the race. Seems to be something we should be making amends to bring up Kober’s name more often, especially since she can’t really be called an ‘amateur’, which is the epithet we often give to Ventris. There are probably quite a few others in that category as well …

Linear B Conference

Cambridge University had some hype for a conference on Linear B this past weekend:

When during the early 20th century archaeologists excavated some of the most famous sites of Ancient Greece – notably Knossos on the island of Crete and Mycenae and Pylos on the mainland – they found large numbers of clay tablets inscribed with a type of script that baffled them. It was significantly different to any other script known at the time. Moreover, it was immediately clear that there were at least two variants of this type of writing.

These scripts – characterised by about 90 different characters, and on the clay tablets interspersed with signs for numerals as well as the depiction of every-day objects and commodities such as pots, cloth and grain – acquired the name ‘Linear’. Linear because they were more abstract and characterised by a more linear style than the earlier hieroglyphic type of writing, also found on Crete. The two variants were given the names Linear A and B. It was clear that Linear A was the earlier type, much rarer and restricted to the island of Crete. The younger type B was found in significantly larger numbers and found at Knossos, Mycenae and Pylos. Since the original excavations evidence for the same type of writing has come to light at other places, including Thebes and Tiryns on the Greek mainland and Chania on Crete.

Today scholars are gathering at Cambridge University for a conference marking the extraordinary story of the decipherment of Linear B, a narrative that brings together some of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds in the fields of not only classical archaeology but also specialist areas ranging from philology and epigraphy to experts on Greek religion and economy. While celebrating what is often seen as the greatest advances in classical scholarship in the last 100 years, the scholars taking part are also looking at the challenges that remain in piecing together the story of the Mycenaean world, a civilisation known for its stunning art and complex and highly developed economy.

In the wake of some of the most famous excavations in history, the classicists who put their minds to the tantalising puzzle of deciphering Linear B included the best-known names in the field. After the German scholar Heinrich Schliemann had excavated Troy (or a site compatible with Homer’s famous city) and Mycenae and thereby opened the door to Greek archaeology of the second millennium BC, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered these inscribed tablets in large numbers at Knossos in the year 1900. Evans and other scholars knew that the tablets held the key to a fuller understanding of the Mycenaean civilisation. But deciphering what was inscribed on them seemed an impossible task, given that both the script and the language behind it were unknown.

After many unsuccessful attempts by would-be decipherers from all over the world, it was a brilliant British amateur called Michael Ventris who was to prove pivotal in the unlocking of the secrets of Linear B. Ventris was an extraordinary scholar, largely self-taught, with a phenomenal talent for languages. His first encounter with the script occurred when as a schoolboy he was shown some of the clay tablets found at Knossos by Arthur Evans.

This chance meeting prompted a fascination that lasted right up until Ventris’s tragic death in a car crash in 1956. He set himself the task of working out the nature of the writing system and deciphering it. He worked largely alone on making sense of the script but circulated all his thoughts to the greatest scholars in the field in a series of “Work Notes on Minoan Language Research” while pursuing a career as an architect. Then, on 1 June 1952, he sent around his Work Note 20 entitled, with typical modesty, “Are the Knossos and Pylos tablets written in Greek?”. Building on earlier work, notably by the American scholar Alice Kober, he had – through a combination of sober considerations, the development of a rigorous methodology, the ingenious integration of clues of very different kinds, brilliant assumptions and patient experimentation – singlehandedly deciphered the script.

Much against his own original assumptions, Ventris was able to show, ever more clearly over the months that ensued, that the language behind the script was Greek – in his own words “a difficult and archaic Greek, but Greek nevertheless”. Lacking the necessary background in Greek philology and linguistics, in July 1952 he turned to John Chadwick, a newly-appointed lecturer in classics at the University of Cambridge, for professional support. Chadwick was an outstanding classical scholar who had worked on code-cracking in the Second World War. He helped to develop Ventris’s original decipherment and was able to elucidate the historical linguistic background and provided many interpretations of individual tablets.

In this way, Cambridge soon became established as one of the world’s leading centres for Mycenaean studies and Dr Chadwick continued to work on Linear B right up to his death in 1998.

“The decipherment of Linear B opened up, and indeed created, a whole new branch of scholarship. It added about 500 years to our knowledge of Greek, catapulting our understanding of early Greek history and society back into the second millennium BC, to the end of the Bronze Age at about 1200BC,” said Dr Torsten Meissner, organiser of today’s conference. “Suddenly the places of the figures of Greek mythology – like the legendary King Minos of Knossos or Homeric heroes like Nestor, king of Pylos, or Agamemnon, king of Mycenae – could be placed in a real setting through the clay tablets that record their administrative and political organisation.”

Many parts of the jigsaw that is the Mycenaean world are still missing – for example the relationships of the various sites with one another. However, the ways in which Ventris and Chadwick worked across disciplines and specialisms laid the foundations for scholarship that is seeing the pieces come together, one by one.

… not sure if there will be any followups …

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem iv idus quinctilias

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National Ar...
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ante diem iv idus quinctilias

  • ludi Apollinares (day 7) — games instituted in 212 B.C. after consulting the Sybilline books during a particularly bad stretch in the Punic Wars; four years later they became an annual festival in honour of Apollo
  • 100 B.C. (?) — birth of G. Julius Caesar
  • 67 A.D. — martyrdom of Paulinus of Antioch
  • 1536 — death of Erasmus
  • 1922 — birth of Michael Ventris, who would decipher Linear B