The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
Author: Margalit Fox
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece’s Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe’s earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery. Award-winning New York Times journalist Margalit Fox’s riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean–the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen–to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the decipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.
Over the last few years, I’ve been turning more and more to non-fiction books by choice when I find myself looking for new stuff to read. Its hard to describe why because growing up, I always avoided it like a bad smell (for lack of a better term), but I’ve discovered that non-fiction isn’t all that bad – especially, if its about a topic that catches my eye. This is probably a book I never would have discovered on my own, if it hadn’t been picked as a group read for a reading challenge that I frequently participate in – the Seasonal Reading Challenge on Goodreads (the specific reading category was “The Unexplained”).
For me, part of the reason I chose this over the 2 fiction options, was the idea of seeing how a mystery that existed for over half a century was solved. I remember going to see Stargate (the original with Richard Dean Anderson) when I was in high school – and seeing the process by which Daniel Jackson (the scientist) broke the code of the Stargate was probably one of the few parts of the movie that I enjoyed (not normally a huge sci-fi fan) – and since Riddle of the Labyrinth had a similar basis – I figured it was going to be an enjoyable read but I wasn’t prepared for how engaged I was going to be. I found myself attempting to sneak away and actually take a lunch break at work, so that I could read “just a little bit more.”
Riddle of the Labyrinth wasn’t a hard read – Fox has an engaging style of writing that was very personable for me – I felt like I was sitting with Alice Kobar in her small home as she worked on breaking the code. Although I will admit, reading about how she was treated by colleagues and others associated with breaking the code kind of irked me. I know that it was likely being that she was a product of the times – where women weren’t taken as seriously – but so many times, I just wanted to yell at the men to listen to her and treat her like the academic that she was (instead of like a secretary like she so often was treated as). Ultimately, the secret of the tablets wasn’t that profound – at the beginning of the book there was a hypothesis of what the tablets might potentially contain – seeing how that in part formed a basis for the research – made the anticipation of the mystery resolution all the more apparent.
I’m pretty sure that I will seek out Fox’s other book -her Goodreads page lists a book about a small town in Israel where the primary language is a form of sign language.