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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required reading!
I visit Knossos and Mycenae regularly, leading tours. In the little museum at Mycenae (and the grander one in Heraklion) we look at the 'shopping lists' of Linear B, the itemizations of cattle, grain, olive flasks, wine . . . This book gives the best overview of the translation of the Linear B tablets I have ever seen, and is written like a thrilling detective story...
Published 11 months ago by DixieAl

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great central message: pity about the padding
This book draws on new material from Alice Kober's archive, only recently catalogued, to present an overdue reevaluation of her life and work - which led to a much increased understanding of the structure of Linear B. It is only a pity that Fox found it necessary in doing so to score cheap points against the person who eventually completed the decypherment, Michael...
Published 9 months ago by Enthusiast


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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required reading!, 19 Aug 2013
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I visit Knossos and Mycenae regularly, leading tours. In the little museum at Mycenae (and the grander one in Heraklion) we look at the 'shopping lists' of Linear B, the itemizations of cattle, grain, olive flasks, wine . . . This book gives the best overview of the translation of the Linear B tablets I have ever seen, and is written like a thrilling detective story. No dry history tome, this! And it gives credit to the hardworking American lady who laid the groundwork, painstakingly, to their decipherment. I read it on Kindle. I'm now buying it for some of my Greek friends in paperback so they, too, can share the discoveries . . .
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new slant on a familiar topic - Linear B., 18 Aug 2013
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This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
I felt that this was a well-researched book - particularly of course on Alice Kober whose papers had only recently been explored and so inevitably had remained in the shadows somewhat. It was also interestingly written.
We were invited to consider whether Alice Kober would have "cracked" Linear B herself if she had lived. Margalit Fox thinks it might have been possible. I rather doubt it, but there is no doubt at all in my view that her work gave a great boost to Michael Ventris's attempts to unravel the script.
Would he have done it eventually without her help? Perhaps, but of course we will never know.
A very valuable addition to the books on the subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quite interesting..., 30 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
Quite interesting... although I have the feeling that the author is a bit biased with one of the three protagonists: Alice Kober who happens to be an American female scholar... more or less like the author... So, I have perceived a sense of distortion in telling the facts. On the other hand, my guts say that the other two ones were really the hand (Arthur Evans) and the mind (Michael Ventris) of the decipherment: both British guys... And I am Italian so I am not biased by nationality... Anyhow a great book I truly recommend to anyone willing to go to Crete and to better understand the story of the island.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The quest is more intriguing than the solution, 5 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
Read this book because I knew 'zilch' on the matter and it intrigued me. The book is split into 3 parts each of which deals with one the 3 characters connected with cracking the code. The author concentrates (and favours the 2nd) whom she feels has not received the attention that she deserves (echoes of the DNA code). I found the characters more interesting than the code (which turns out to be stockroom inventory) and which proves that when it comes to academic disputes Brutus does not get a look in!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Human Cost of Obsession, 28 Aug 2013
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The deciphering of the Minoan tablets spanned 50 years, and required obsessive effort by the chief amateur codebreakers. In both cases, the effort was costly, and the human stories behind the decoding are vividly portrayed. I would have liked to have seen more examples of the tablets, with their decoded messages since the story of the people whose lives were recorded is astounding.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great central message: pity about the padding, 7 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
This book draws on new material from Alice Kober's archive, only recently catalogued, to present an overdue reevaluation of her life and work - which led to a much increased understanding of the structure of Linear B. It is only a pity that Fox found it necessary in doing so to score cheap points against the person who eventually completed the decypherment, Michael Ventris.

The book makes the valid point that some of the fundamental work presented (in Chadwick's book) as if Ventris originated it, in fact first appeared in print in a seminal 1948 methods paper by Kober (notably the use of the two dimensional syllabic grid, set out by Kober 3 years before the critical Ventris worknote of 1951). But I do not like her amateur psychologist's attempt to "prove" that Ventris committed suicide, a suggestion with little real evidence. Nor - for example - the claim that Ventris deserves no credit for interpreting the "button" sign: Kober never published her findings on this, and there is no evidence that Ventris plagiarised her work or was even aware of it. We would not suddenly deny Einstein credit for relativity if it were discovered that an unpublished MSS anticipating it by 10 years lurked in the Willard Gibbs archives. A small point, but symptomatic of a bias that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Kober does not need this: the facts are striking enough without journalistic exaggeration.

One more quibble: the page layout with double spacing and large print means you are getting much less for your money than meets the eye: at a rough estimate about 190 pages (main text, absent footnotes etc) of normal printing, not much more than in Chadwick's brief account of the decypherment. And of this, the first and last "books" are largely padding: good accounts of the work of Evans and of Ventris have appeared elsewhere. That said, Fox does give a good account of Ventris' decipherment: her linguist's training comes out in the very clear explanation of how he achieved this. In my view, her account is at least the equal of that of Chadwick, in his book on the decipherment.

A couple more criticisms, though rather marginal. Fox quotes an estimate by Shelmerdine of the combined population of the "Mycenaeanized" bronze age communities in the Greek world at about 50,000. M.I. Finley estimated the total at an even smaller level, possibly just a few thousand, with each community containing "several hundred" individuals. However, John Chadwick, who spent years working on the Linear B tablets from just one community, that of Pylos, estimated the population of that one kingdom on its own as "at least" 50,000, an estimate supported by other scholars. Chadwick's work was based on actual totals given for specific trades and groups of people in the kingdom of Pylos, including for example 400 bronzesmiths, and adding them together, with inevitably some assumptions.

I am no expert but Chadwick's methodology seems reliable, and in that case the total population of the Mycenaean world must have been considerably more than 50,000. I'm wondering if Shelmerdine in fact agreed with Chadwick's estimate, and her number referred to the population of Pylos alone: I don't have access to her book so can't check it. In any event, given the scale of the Mycenaean settlements and what we can deduce from the extent of their trade (eg the ubiquity of the characteristic stirrup jars) suggests that a total overall population of 50,000 is absurdly small.

Lastly, and perhaps this is a pedantic objection, but Fox twice tells us that Chinese is a logographic language, in which each ideogram is essentially a picture of what it represents: each symbol stands for a separate word, or concept. This is distinguished from syllabic languages in which the symbols represent sounds.

This is a longstanding fallacy, repeated endlessly by people who have never studied the language, and as a qualified linguist, Fox should have got this right, or at least consulted someone familiar with Chinese. Firstly, most Chinese words are composed of two (or more), not one character. But more fundamentally, the great majority of Chinese characters are composed of two parts, squashed together as it were, a radical and a phonetic element. The radical serves as a kind of determinative, but most of the information content is represented by the phonetic element.

Enough said about that: if you don't believe me, go and read a good account of the matter (eg of how the phonetic value is based on Shang dynasty pronunciation, so a character's phonetic element is only a partial guide to its sound in modern Chinese, etc etc; as always, there are endless complications. I still bear the scars of learning this language). Ironically, Andrew Robinson's book "The Story of Writing" cited by Fox makes this point very forcefully and clearly, showing clearly that Fox has not read it all through! This will not surprise anyone familiar with the habits of writers (including academic writers) but it is a bit of a give-away.

But all this is secondary. The main reason for reading this book would be to get access to the new material, and to enjoy a much overdue and much merited acknowledgement of Kober's immense, original work, which makes this book essential reading for anyone interested in the area, despite all the flaws in Fox's presentation. Even if you do not want to pay the rather excessive bookshop price to buy it yourself, get it via your college library or local public library as I did, and help put the record straight over Alice Kober, a woman who, if anyone ever did, gave too much and died as a result of overwork and stress and sheer dedication to the quest for truth. A real heroine of our time.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Book, 14 Aug 2013
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W. Scott "elenkus" (Bute, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
This is by a New York Times journalist and it shows. The prose is very clear. This is the history of the decipherment of Linear B and it is riveting.
For me, after the Chadwick book many years ago, there is a great deal of new work, especially on the contribution of Alice Kober, a Classicist of Brooklyn College, a first rate scholar whose very original, procedural and other advances alone made possible the solution discovered by Ventris.
We learn that Kober learnt about a dozen other languages (above Latin and Greek) which she expected might empower her quest for a decipherment, a marvellous beginning.
What a scholar Kober was! Teaching and marking papers, a deadly grind, necessary for money to sustain her, (A Guggenheim Scholarship lasted only a year) and her tremendous labour fixing the second volume of Minoan papers in the hands of Myers, who was too old and too careless to be entrusted with them. She was plainly overpowered by routine work she judged necessary and killed herself because of it, ruining her immune system, no doubt.
How sad that she should have died before the solution arrived and missed out, until now, because the credit went not just to Ventris but others less important than her. Ventris, we realise, committed suicide, just as his mother had done.
His linguistic skill was unusual, continued long beyond the time, the sensitive period when the child learns languages easily. As his father was hospitalised in Switzerland with TB, Michael learned French, German and Sweisserdeutsch, being already proficient in Latin and Greek. To these, other languages were added very easily. Swedish in a few weeks there while performing an architect's commission. No wonder he was obsessed with Linear B from the age of 14.
But what a strange person he was: full of doubts which made him flee on occasion. Myers and Kober were just too much for him at Oxford, her most of all: her exacting rigour, the one thing as an amateur he did not have. He never attended a university, you see; became an architect by training, all there was before WWII. As a navigator, we learn, having set the course for the bomber, he would get out his Linear B papers and work on these until the next change of course over the target, Berlin or Hamburg, etc as the case may be.
He could not handle the unaccustomed fame partly because his upbringing had been eccentric: his mother and father lived in separate hotels in Eastbourne, meeting sporadically, since they did not get on.
Is the decipherment completely clear? I do not think so. It requires careful reading many times to grasp all the details. It cannot be fully absorbed at one sitting.
Yet a marvellous book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing story, excellent writing, good Kindle presentation, 5 April 2014
This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
Even if one has no knowledge of Linear B, this account of the discovery of the Linear B tablets and the decipherment of the code is intriguing and easy to grasp because it is thorough, very well written and logically organized.
The inclusion of charts and samples of the Linear B characters facilitates a better understanding of what the researchers were dealing with in trying to crack the code. That the code was cracked in a day when there were no computers, photocopiers, etc. is one of the most striking aspects of the story.
Recommended for: history buffs, archeology enthusiasts, linguists, and anyone interested in reading something rather different from the usual novel or non-fiction book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great story, 21 Jan 2014
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Don't be put off by the academic nature of this book. Margalit Fox turns the cracking of an ancient code into a cracking story. Meet Alice Kober - and why haven't we met her before? What a towering intellect, what a scholar. She worked day and night to translate a language with no reference. And she did. If someone explained this book to me I would never have read it - probably because it sounds a bit dull. But I am so glad I did.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My book of the year, 2 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation (Paperback)
Beautifully written for the layman, without over-simplication, Fox took me through the whole Linear B story in an involving way that kept me page turning. Having known about Evans and Ventris for 50 years, the book had enlightening surprises for me. The description of different methodologies is clear, with ample depictions of Linear B script tables. I enjoyef the final chapter, which mAkes me wonder: is thr a science of paleo-economics?
A great read!
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