The secret woman behind the decoding of this ancient script

Linear B is an ancient European
Bronze Age script, dating back
3,500 years. When a British
architect finally cracked it in
the 1950s, he was hailed as a
genius - but he may never have
succeeded had it not been for a
woman on the other side of the
Atlantic.
For years, Linear B was seen as
the Mount Everest of linguistic
riddles.
First discovered on clay tablets at
the palace of Knossos in Crete in
1900, it was an unknown script,
writing an unknown language.
"It really was the linguistic
equivalent of the locked room
mystery in a detective novel," says
Margalit Fox, author of a new
book on Linear B, The Riddle of
the Labyrinth.
How do you ever find your way
into a seemingly closed system
like that? A solution took more
than half a century to arrive.
In 1952, a young British architect,
Michael Ventris, did discover the
meaning of Linear B.
Frescos at the palace of Knossos in
Crete where the Linear B script
was found
Ventris was the very model of a
solitary, tortured genius - so much
so that the deciphering of Linear
B has often been portrayed as his
accomplishment alone.
But some experts now argue that
Ventris would never have been
able to crack the code, had it not
been for an American classicist,
Alice Kober.
The importance of her
contribution has only come to
light now that her archives - held
at the University of Texas at Austin
- have been catalogued.
"Alice Kober is the great unsung
heroine of the Linear B
decipherment," says Fox.
"She built the methodological
bridge that Ventris triumphantly
crossed.
"As is so often the case in
women's history, behind this great
achievement lay these hours and
hours of unseen labour by this
unheralded woman," she says.
In the 1930s and 40s, Kober was
an assistant professor at Brooklyn
College in New York where she
taught Latin and Greek classes all
day.
Kober lived with her widowed
mother, and there is no record in
her papers of a social or romantic
life of any kind.
Instead, for almost two decades,
Alice Kober devoted herself to
trying to crack this mysterious
Bronze Age script.
"She turned herself into the
world's leading expert on Linear
B," says Fox.
"It was she who was working
hundreds of hours with a slide
rule sitting at her dining table… a
cigarette burning at her elbow,
poring over the few published
inscriptions, looking and looking
for patterns."
Greek had been ruled out by
scholars at the time. The
predominant theory was that the
script documented a form of
Etruscan - an ancient civilisation
of Italy - but there were more
wacky theories too, including that
it might be a type of Polynesian or
Basque.
In the search for clues, Kober
learnt a whole host of languages -
from Egyptian to Arcadian to
Sumerian and Sanskrit.
But Kober was rigorous in her
work - refusing to speculate on
what the language was, or what
the sounds of the symbols might
be.
Instead, she set out to record the
frequency of every symbol in the
tablets, both in general, and then
in every position within a word.
She also recorded the frequency
of every character in juxtaposition
to that of every other character.
It was a mammoth task,
performed without the aid of
computers. In addition, during the
years surrounding World War II,
writing materials were hard to
come by.
Kober recorded her detailed
analysis on index cards, which she
made from the backs of old
greetings cards, library checkout
slips, and the inside covers of
examination books.
By hand, she painstakingly cut
more than 180,000 tiny index
cards, using cigarette cartons as
her filing system.
Kober's filing cabinets were low-
tech, but effective (Photo by Beth
Chichester)
Kober's monumental effort paid
off.
She spotted groups of symbols
that appeared throughout the
inscriptions - groups that would
start the same, but end in
consistently different ways.
That was the breakthrough. Kober
now knew that Linear B was an
inflected language, with word
endings that shifted according to
use - like Latin, or German or
Spanish.
Alice Kober was on the verge of
deciphering Linear B.
But before she could, she fell ill,
suddenly, and died soon after. The
cause of her death is not known
for sure, but it may well have
been a form of cancer. It was
1950, and she was 43.
Still, she left behind, in her
academic publications, a sturdy
bridge for others to cross. And in
1952, Michael Ventris did.
Talking to BBC Radio in the wake
of his successful decipherment of
Linear B, Ventris said: "It's rather
like doing a crossword puzzle on
which the positions of the black
squares haven't been printed for
you."
Ventris - who had been obsessed
by cracking Linear B since he was
a schoolboy - built on Kober's
grids as much as possible, and
then added his own brilliance to
the mix.
He wondered about the repeated
groups of symbols identified by
Kober as evidence of inflection.
What if they stood for the names
of towns in Crete?
Places names are exactly the kinds
of thing you'd expect to crop up
all the time, especially on official
palace documents.
And place names often don't
change much, even after
centuries. Ventris examined three
Cretan names, including Knossos.
In the syllabic form of Linear B it
became "ko-no-so".
The script began to talk.
Knossos was a hub for all sorts of
fine goods - including ivory and
gold
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.
Kober dedicated all her free time
to working on Linear B (Photo by
Beth Chichester)
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.
Linear B, it turned out, was - after
all - a form of ancient Greek,
which had been taken to Crete by
invaders from the mainland.
The Greeks themselves did not
develop an alphabet until
centuries later, but at Knossos
their language was written down
for the first time, using an ancient
script indigenous to the island.
Indeed there is also another -
even older - Cretan writing
system, some of which was also
found at Knossos.
It's called Linear A.
But there's very little of it - too
little to allow a decipherment.
So far.