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New Leaf June 2019 Discussion • The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox
#1  issybird 06-01-2019, 06:40 AM
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Minos, a bronze-age king who ruled over the city-state Knossos in Crete, wasn't one for winning hearts and minds. According to Greek mythology, he'd regularly (possibly as often as every year – accounts differ) throw 14 kids to the minotaur in his labyrinth, built by Daedalus, whom he also locked up. He had a mechanical giant who patrolled the shore outside his palace.

He was also real, according to Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist who unearthed an ancient palace with a maze of interconnected rooms at Knossos in 1900. Inside the palace were hundreds of clay tablets written in a script that had never been seen before. The tablets dated to about 1450BC – seven centuries before the Greek alphabet existed – making them the earliest examples of writing ever found in Europe. But if there were revelations in these texts about Minos, they were locked away.
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#2  issybird 06-15-2019, 06:40 AM
It's time to discuss The Riddle of the Labyrinth. What did we think of it?
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#3  issybird 06-15-2019, 01:43 PM
I thought this solid but not stellar. I like both puzzles and ancient history, so this played to both interests.

I was absolutely fascinated by it, by the account of the deciperment. I thought it gave a good feel for both the grunt work involved and the inspired guesses that were equally necessary. I also thought it described linear B and the approaches taken very well, although I found the comparisons to English and Latin to be of more of a dunderhead nature. It's tough to hit the right note with this kind of explanation, especially when what the reader brings to it will be all over the place.

I also was interested in the understory of how Kober's being a woman hindered her, from being her mother's caretaker to the jobs she could get to being used as a glorified secretary. And also her inability to say no; the need for a woman to propitiate rather than strike out on her own course.

Overall, though, I thought the whole account was rather skimpy. Not enough primary resources on Kober, and the Evans and Ventris sections, necessary because the Kober story would be meaningless without that context, were only secondary source retellings. But also interesting to me in that context is how Ventris was a throwback to the earlier age of archeologists, that of the wealthy amateur. I wonder to what extent the antipathy between Korber and Evans was that of one marginalized person for another? Korber resented Evans rich amateur male who had the leisure and the resources to follow his bent, and Evans could allow himself to feel contemptuous toward the Jewish American woman academic who had the training he lacked.
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#4  fantasyfan 06-15-2019, 05:08 PM
Quote issybird
I also was interested in the understory of how Kober's being a woman hindered her, from being her mother's caretaker to the jobs she could get to being used as a glorified secretary. And also her inability to say no; the need for a woman to propitiate rather than strike out on her own course.

Overall, though, I thought the whole account was rather skimpy. Not enough primary resources on Kober, and the Evans and Ventris sections.
I particularly liked the Kober section. Her patient, careful and precise analysis of the syllabary of Linear B and her discovery that it was inflicted proved to be enormously significant. It was certainly the reason that Michael Ventris was finally able to decode the script two years after Kober’s early death—a fact that he later rather belatedly admitted.

Kober brings to mind her contemporary, Rosalind Franklin. Here was another woman whose efforts resulted in the basis for the discovery of the DNA double helix but whose contributions to it were largely ignored while the rewards were reaped by men who built on her indispensable work.

I don’t find the book “skimpy” as an introduction to this intriguing subject which was in process over years. The use of a tri-part structure works fine by focussing on three specific individuals and could certainly provide a basis for further exploration.

I noticed that there are an enormous number of source notes for the materials in the book which could lead to further study. Perhaps more explanatory notes would be useful.
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#5  fantasyfan 06-15-2019, 05:42 PM
BTW If you wish to hear Michael Ventris making his announcement of the decoding of Linear B which took place on July 1, 1952 it is available on You Tube.

https://youtu.be/pOOGJAQ4eg4The
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#6  CRussel 06-15-2019, 08:34 PM
Sorry, folks, I'm dealing with some family health issues, and haven't had time to finish. I'll get there, but it'll likely be another week before I can contribute. Apologies to the group.

Charlie.
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#7  Bookworm_Girl 06-15-2019, 11:35 PM
I thought it was an interesting book. I agree with the good but not stellar and rated it 3.5 stars. I know very little about Greek history and mythology, and it's not something that especially interests me. However, I enjoyed reading the book and was happy to be exposed to a topic that I probably wouldn't have picked out on my own. Therefore, I'm glad it was just enough detail to hold your interest and not too dry.

I liked the human aspect of the story and how it was structured on the biography of 3 key people who all had different backgrounds to contribute to the story of Linear B's decipherment. Just imagine how passionate these people were in pursuit of solving "the locked room mystery" as the author referred to it. It wasn't just passion but I think also obsession which fueled them. There was no prize money as motivation.

What I found particularly interesting is that ultimately it was solved not by being competitive and secretive but by openness and collaboration that helped to link the different pieces of information that different people knew. It's amazing that the decipherment was done by hand without computers or a bilingual inscription.
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#8  Bookworm_Girl 06-15-2019, 11:37 PM
Quote CRussel
Sorry, folks, I'm dealing with some family health issues, and haven't had time to finish. I'll get there, but it'll likely be another week before I can contribute. Apologies to the group.

Charlie.
I'm sorry to hear about your family troubles, Charlie. Join us when you can.
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#9  fantasyfan 06-16-2019, 01:54 AM
Quote Bookworm_Girl
I'm sorry to hear about your family troubles, Charlie. Join us when you can.
Same here, C. R.
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#10  Bookpossum 06-16-2019, 03:32 AM
Yes Charlie, I hope all is well very soon.

I too enjoyed the book, being something of an Ancient History tragic. Linked to that I find archaeology fascinating, and I love puzzles and the ways people go about solving them. So this was definitely ticking all those boxes for me.

For me, the central section on Kober dragged because I thought that Fox was too exhaustive in her detailed study of what Kober was doing. Yes, the work she did was absolutely amazing in terms of her punch card system and the detailed analysis she did. It was all done with pencil and paper at the kitchen table after a demanding day of teaching, marking papers and what have you, and was indeed extraordinary.

However, as Bookworm_Girl said, something like that needs a team of people who bring different skills to the problem. Sadly there was precious little collaboration for much of the time. Arthur Evans refused to make more of the tablets available; Kober rebuffed Ventris very rudely when he suggested collaboration, though others did join him.

Despite Fox's claim that Kober may have solved the riddle, it seems to me that she was not a person able to make the intuitive leap that Ventris did. She was a person obsessed with detail. It needs both sorts to deal with a puzzle like this.
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