The events of the past grow more alien as our distance from them increases, receding until they become, finally, unknowable. Unknowable, that is, but for those who take it upon themselves to decode the symbols, to examine what others see as indecipherable or unimportant, to sift a story from the chaff and to resurrect names, places, actions and ideas that would otherwise be lost. Alice Kober, the subject of Margalit Fox’s new book, was one such scholar. A classics professor at Brooklyn College in the 1930s and ’40s, she played a key role in solving one of the 20th century’s great academic riddles: how to read a 3,400-year-old script known as Linear B, unearthed amid the ruins of the Minoan civilization of Crete, the mythic home of the labyrinth of Daedalus and the Minotaur.Kober's contribution was neglected in favor of that of Michael Ventris, who built on her work and finished cracking the code of Linnar B.
Kober deserves much of the credit for “one of the most prodigious intellectual feats of modern times,” Ms. Fox writes. Yet after Kober’s death in 1950, she was promptly forgotten.
Kober, like Ventris, was an amateur scholar.
I'm reminded of the brilliant student of Syriac, and other ancient dialects, C.R.C. Allberry. Like Kober and Ventris, he devoted his life to "decoding" without a Rosetta Stone a ancient language with the result that, for the first time since Augustine's time, written work of the Manichees themselves could be read, instead of relying on what their more orthodox foes described them as believing. Allberry published the portion of the psalms as A Manichaean Psalm Book-Part II in 1938; he died in World War II, in combat. Allberry's achievement is hailed, and his work used as a means of exploring the poetry and theology of the Manichees by Saeve Soederbergh, who pays generous tribute to Allberry.
(By the way, this is so not my field. I discovered Allberry's work through the depiction of him by his close friend C.P. Snow, in Snow's novel The Light and the Dark; Snow's evocation of the life in Cambridge between the wars, his skill at sounding the depths of his friend's character drew me in, and when I discovered there was a real life model for the fiction, I was curious to find if Allberry had left any trace. I found very little accessible--but stumbled on a copy of the Psalm Book, which is the only genuinely rare book I own. I doubt it's terribly valuable, mind you; too old brandy as Allberry and Snow would say.)
As to Kober, as a result of her work:
When the code was finally cracked, the result did not immediately appear equal to the intensity of the pursuit; if the archaeologists on Crete had hoped to find the Minoan equivalent of the Library of Congress, instead they seem to have unearthed the offices of the I.R.S.For me, that's worth the price of admission. I have an affection for scholars who expand our horizons and whose work lives on even after their names are brushed aside in history. I look forward to "meeting" Alice Kober, and am glad that she is being accorded the recognition that is her due, at long last, her due. At least she, unlike Allberry, didn't have to become fictional in order to do so.
But even bureaucracy has its poetry; thanks to the decoded script, we are introduced to an island where people worshiped familiar gods like Poseidon alongside intriguing ones like the Mistress of the Labyrinth, and where folks were walking around with names like Gladly Welcome, Snub-Nosed and — here’s the guy who must have been the life of Knossos back in the day — Having the Bottom Bare.
Ms. Fox is attentive to touching traces of idiosyncratic humanity, past and ancient: The church pamphlets and library slips Kober cut up to serve as index cards during the paper shortages of World War II; the “scribal doodles” — a bull, a man, a maze — found on the tablets; the mark a Cretan scribe made when erasing a character on wet clay with his thumb all those centuries ago. “To look at the tablets even now is to be in the presence of other people — living, thinking, literate people,” she writes.