British archeologist Arthur Evans was convinced that Mycenaean society was too advanced to be without writing, but no firm evidence had emerged. Clues began to point him toward Crete, and he eventually chose Knossos, the seat of Minos’ empire, for his dig in 1900. After only a few days, the first tablet was unearthed. Hundreds more soon appeared. Buried for about three thousand years, the tablets were covered with symbols and pictograms of horse heads, chariots, swords, goats, and humans. It was like no known writing. For half a century scholars tried to decipher the tablets. At last, an amateur, Michael Ventris, accomplished the task. This is the story, widely known, of the writing known as Linear B. But it is missing one little known crucial element: an American woman, Alice Kober. Alice Kober spent her life carefully classifying each symbol, gradually bringing order to chaos, laying the groundwork. Without this work, Linear B would never have been deciphered. If she had only lived a few more years she might have gained the recognition she so greatly deserved.
In addition to writing very readable biographies of the three principal researchers, Margalit Fox has done a remarkable job explaining the science (or is it an art?) of cryptanalysis, enabling someone with absolutely no relevant background to understand the process involved in unraveling an unknown script. I learned a great deal while enjoying a good book.
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