It’s all in the details.
I read a book recently called The Riddle of the Labyrinth. It was written by Martha Fox. In 1900 tablets were unearthed with a language etched into the clay. This might as well have been an alien language. It resembled no alphabet that was ever seen – a list of swords, chariots and horse’s heads and assorted symbols composed an ancient language. If deciphered, if figured out, it would open up a society that flourished a 1000 years before the rise of Classical Greece.
This book is for the kid that lies below the surface. This is for the dreamer. Have you ever created your own code as a kid? Have you ever learned the Klingon language? Don’t laugh, there is a wonderful production of The Christmas Carol ( in the original Klingon) presented in Chicago every year. Have you ever wanted to jump through the Time Portal as in City on the Edge of Forever? If you’re a Star Trek fan you don’t have to ask. This book is for you.
You might think that deciphering an ancient language is the task for adventurers, but much more likely such things are solved by logical, precise and dogmatic individuals. Men and women with book jacket dust in their lungs, blackboard chalk on their fingers and probably more than a few cigarettes puffed late at night. In fact, I see no difference between those decoding an ancient language, and those that created the first computer language. Which seems to me an amazing similar endeavor.
The heroes of this story are Arthur Evans, a charismatic Victorian Archaeologist, the bookish, college professor Alice Elizabeth Kober, and Michael Ventris, a young and dashing British architect. Ventris, considered an amateur, would be the one to break the code. Kober and Ventris each approached the task with almost systematic precision that has similarities to the mapping out of computer logic.
Take a look on page 35 and tell me that the “Man” tablet from Knossos does not bear an uncanny similarity to a print-out of Hexadecimal code. A language is a language, spoken or processed.
Just a thought.
This herculean task (forgive me…could not resist a classical reference) was completed in the age of pencil and paper, with no computer assistance available. I should point out that computers in the time of Kober and Ventris were just being developed and neither had the funds to build such a device to assist. The British government could afford it (the computer known as Colossus) but they weren’t lending it out to a part time code breaker named Ventris or a teacher of Latin in Brooklyn, New York. The only tools available were: chalk boards, memory, paper, and the ever popular spreadsheet. Note – Alice Kober scissored 180,000 index cards from odd scraps of paper.
In addition what Ventris and Kober had were a strong familiarity of languages (ancient and modern) and what I consider the most important shared characteristic; they were human like the culture that created Linear B.
Linear B did not unearth some Pre-Homerian epic. However, to know something of these people can be surmised from 1,574 litres of barley, 14 ½ litres of cypreus, 115 litres of flour, 307 litres of olives, 19 litres of honey, 96 litres of fig, 1 ox, 26 rams 6 ewes. We can tell what they ate, who they were, what they harvesting and grew from the land. Gods were mentioned (not creations out of the imagination of Homer and Hesiod, but set down and documented generations before), and preparations for war (lists of armor, weapons and chariots). The past opens up, we now know what they ate, who they worshipped, and what they stockpiled to do battle.
And sometimes there is a small spark, something to make you raise an eyebrow and think, “Wow, could it be?” Though it’s not mentioned in the Riddle of the Labyrinth (searched for it, couldn’t find it), it is mentioned in other texts. It is said in the Pylos Linear-B tablets there was mentioned a very special commodity. La-Wi-ai-ai, ‘captives’. They are listed as ‘bath-pourers’, ‘ attendants’, and ‘textile workers’ raided and taken from islands south of Troy. Homer mentioned these islands as being raided by the Archeans: Lesbos, Kyros and Tenados (Illiad 9, 128-30, 270-72, 664-65, 11.625-270).
Could this be a confirmation of Troy itself? A confirmation by a royal scribe just having another day of copying lists? I’d like to think so. The kid in me likes to believe that a few strokes in the clay has confirmed that it all was true.
It’s all in the details.