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Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Book Review and a Necklace

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox concerns the decipherment of Linear B, the writing system used by the Mycenean Greeks in the late Bronze age.  It's not about Michael Ventris, the man who actually cracked the code, however, but about Alice Kober, who worked for decades on the script but died before she could decipher it.  It was her insights and tremendous cataloging efforts that gave Ventris the tools he needed to succeed.  Not surprisingly, Kober's efforts have been overlooked by academics who generally didn't pay too much attention to women at that time, no matter how smart.  This book is Fox's attempts to correct that, and to bring both Kober and her work to light.

It is a fascinating book, not just for the gender politics but also for the enormity of the project; Linear B, first discovered at Knossos in Crete, was an unknown script encoding an unidentified language. The intuitive leaps and careful calculations Kober and others made -- that it was a syllabic script with some ideograms, that the language was inflected (very hard to write in a syllabary), that the language was Greek (an idea almost everyone resisted) -- are impressive, to say the least.

Linear A, on the other hand, is an unknown script encoding an unknown language.  The two scripts are related, as it is most likely that the Myceneans took the script of the Cretans and adapted it for their own language, but because we have no idea what language the Minoan civilization used, any attempts to decipher Linear A have stalled.  And then there are the Cretan heiroglyphs, yet another undeciphered script.  A little research into these two writing systems (fascinating!) led me to the Phaistos Disc, a clay disk with apparently Cretan heiroglyphs that were actually typeset over 3000 years before Gutenberg. There are all sorts of wacky theories about it, but it most likely relates to Linear A and the Minoan language.

And what do you know, I have a tiny replica of the Phaistos Disc in the form of a pewter pendant that I picked up ages ago!  So a necklace had to be made:
At first I planned on using glazed ceramic beads in colors similar to those in Minoan art, but the plain clay beads went so nicely with the leather cord I stuck with them; I have so little neutral-colored jewelry anyway.

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