Knossos, Crete, 1900
Evans named the ancient writing Linear Script Class B — Linear B, for short. (He also turned up evidence of a somewhat older Cretan script, likewise based on outline drawings, which he called Linear Script Class A.) By the end of his first season's dig, he had unearthed more than a thousand tablets written in Linear B.
Though Evans couldn't read the tablets, he immediately surmised what they were: administrative records, carefully set down by royal scribes, documenting the day-to-day workings of the Knossos palace and its holdings. if the tablets could be decoded, they would open a wide portal onto the daily life of a refined, wealthy, and literate society that had thrived in Greek lands a full millennium before the glory of Classical Athens. Once their written records could be read, the Knossos palace and its people, languishing for thirty centuries in the dusk of prehistory, would suddenly be illuminated — with a single stroke, an entire civilization would become history.
But which civilization was it? As Evans well knew, many ethnic groups had passed through the Bronze Age Aegean, and there was no way to tell whose language, and whose culture, Linear B represented. To him, though, this seemed a small impediment. Evans was already something of an authority on ancient scripts, and with characteristic assurance, he assumed he would one day decipher this one. By 1901, only a year after the first tablet was unearthed, he had commissioned Oxford University Press to cast a special font, in two different sizes, with which to typeset the Cretan characters.
But Evans underestimated the formidable challenge Linear B would pose. An unknown script used to write an unknown language is a locked-room mystery: somehow, the decipherer must finesse his way into a tightly closed system that offers few external clues. If he is very lucky, he will have the help of a bilingual inscription like the Rosetta Stone, which furnished the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Without such an inscription, his task is all but impossible.
As Evans could scarcely have imagined in 1900, Linear B would become one of the most tantalizing riddles of the first half of the twentieth century, a secret code that defied solution for more than fifty years. As the journalist David Kahn has written in The Codebreakers, his monumental study of secret writing, "of all the decipherments of history, the most elegant, the most coolly rational, the most satisfying, and withal the most surprising" was that of Linear B.
The quest to decipher the tablets — or even to identify the language in which they were written — would become the consuming passion of investigators around the globe. Working largely independently in Britain, the United States, and on the European continent, each spent years trying to tease the ancient script apart. The best of them brought to the problem the same meticulous forensic approach that helps cryptanalysts crack the thorniest codes and ciphers.
No prize was offered for deciphering Linear B, nor were the investigators seeking one. For some, like Evans, the chance to read words set down by European men three thousand years distant was compensation enough. For others, the sweet, defiant pleasure of solving a cryptogram many experts deemed unsolvable would be its own best reward.
Today, in an era of popular nonfiction that professes to find secret messages lurking in the Hebrew Bible, and of novels whose valiant heroes follow clues encoded in great works of European art, it is bracing to recall the story of Linear B — a real-life quest to solve a prehistoric mystery, starring flesh-and-blood detectives with nothing more than wit, passion, and determination at their disposal.
Over time, two besides Evans emerged as best equipped to crack the code. One, Michael Ventris, was a young English architect with a mournful past, whose fascination with ancient scripts had begun as a boyhood hobby. The other, Alice Kober, was a fiery American classicist — the lone woman among the serious investigators — whose immense contribution to the decipherment has been all but lost to history. What all three shared was a ferocious intelligence, a nearly photographic memory for the strange Cretan symbols, and a single-mindedness of purpose that could barely be distinguished from obsession. Of the three, the two most gifted would die young, one under swift, strange circumstances that may have been a consequence of the decipherment itself.
Considered one of the most prodigious intellectual feats of modern times, the unraveling Of Linear B has been likened to Crick and Watson's mapping of the structure of DNA for the magnitude of its achievement. The decipherment was done entirely by hand, without the aid of computers or a single bilingual inscription. It was accomplished, crumb by crumb, in the only way possible: by finding, interpreting, and meticulously following a series of tiny clues hidden within the script itself. And in the end, the answer to the riddle defied everyone's expectations, including the decipherer's own.
To Ventris, the solution brought worldwide acclaim. But before long it also brought doubt, despair, personal and professional ruin, and, some observers believe, untimely death.
All this was decades in the future that March day at Knossos, when the first brittle tablets emerged from the ground. But of one thing Arthur Evans was already certain. Guided by the smallest of clues, he had come to Crete in search of writing from a time before Europe was thought to have writing. And there, he now knew beyond doubt, he had found it.
From The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox. Copyright 2013 by Margalit Fox. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.