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The lost history of Dr. Alice E. Kober and her research on Linear B
May 14, 2013 8:34 PM   Subscribe

For more than 50 years, Linear B was an ancient language that hadn't given up its secret. Professor Bennett spent much of the 1940s hammering out a list of about 80 characters, and in 1951 he published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. The next year, archaeologist and Linear B enthusiast Michael Ventris finished "breaking" the code, with some hope from the research of Bennett, and another scholar named Alice Kober, but apparently she was rather hard to get on with and they went their separate ways. Except the magnitude of Doctor Kober's painstaking and self-sacrificing work is still largely unacknowledged.

Margalit Fox, an obituary writer for the New York Times, tapped into the vast digital repository at the University of Texas Libraries and found the lost history of Dr. Alice E. Kober. Alice was an overworked, underpaid classics professor who wrote her notes on tens of thousands of homemade index cards, fitted neatly into “file boxes” made from empty cigarette cartons, made during World War II when resources were limited. The result Fox's six years of research was The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Google books preview). From Fox's research, she discovered a researcher dedicated to decoding an ancient language, whose prior biographies were limited, inaccurately painting a picture of a cold academic.
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fun fact: Margalit also wrote the obituary for Prof. Bennett.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:35 PM on May 14, 2013


She's the Rosalind Franklin of Linear B. Fascinating as hell. Thank you.
posted by mykescipark at 8:49 PM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


In the Omnibus book "The Codebreakers", there's a chapter dedicated to cases where cryptology has served history. The Linear B case is one he devoted extensive time to, and I felt he gave Alice Kober considerable credit for her work.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:06 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Decipherment Of Linear B is one of my favorite books; I've read it over and over with pleasure for many years. If you're at all interested in ancient scripts or codes, I recommend it. John Chadwick took on a potentially dry subject and made it super interesting. So I'm really excited now to read The Riddle Of The Labyrinth. When I had a chance to visit Mycenae in Greece, I skipped the monuments and the artifacts, and asked the museum curators to show me Linear B clay tablets!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:19 PM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle, thanks for that note. The Codebreakers sounds interesting, too. Here's a Google books preview, starting with the first mention of Kober.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:23 PM on May 14, 2013


The Decipherment Of Linear B is one of my favorite books; I've read it over and over with pleasure for many years.

Just ordered. I'm looking forward to this one.
posted by brennen at 10:34 PM on May 14, 2013


apparently she was rather hard to get on with

That seems to be the case with very many pioneering female scientists, at least according to their male colleagues/biographers. You do wonder how much of this was projection, how much just having the necessary attitude to keep up in a male dominated field, not confirming to feminine stereotypes and how much was real.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:52 PM on May 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


There was a story on this on The World the other day, absolutely fascinating.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:14 AM on May 15, 2013


Ohh, fascinating! Fox's book is going right on my to-read list! Also Codebreakers and Decipherment.
posted by halcyonday at 4:18 AM on May 15, 2013


For a second I misread this as Linear A and started getting all giddy.
posted by ersatz at 4:24 AM on May 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Holy Cretan cats. Her papers consist of "58 boxes, and 6 out of 10 drawers in a vertical file cabinet; approximately 188,825 items (28.0 linear feet/13.7 cubic feet)." Including the handmade index cards in cigarette cartons. "She took extra care in cutting a greeting card used as a tabbed divider, perfectly centering a fawn lying in a bed of flowers."

That is my organizational porn fix for the day.
posted by steef at 5:41 AM on May 15, 2013


Emmett L. Bennett was my uncle, FWIW.
posted by matildaben at 5:57 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


just having the necessary attitude to keep up in a male dominated field, not confirming to feminine stereotypes YES this

how much was real probably almost none

I don't wonder about it one bit actually MartinWisse, except to wonder why more guys during this socially toxic post-WWII time period weren't "accidentally" set on fire by rightfully furious women yielding flaming chafing dishes full of Velveeta dip.
posted by SinAesthetic at 6:35 AM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


MartinWisse, Margalit Fox seems to cast the "hard to get along with" element of Dr. Kober as the fact that she was so dedicated to her work, and others think Ventris might have been intimidated by academia, making collaborations hard.

steef, the hand-made nature of her "filing cards" was due in part to supply shortages in WW II, but the attention to detail was all Dr. Kober.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:57 AM on May 15, 2013


I thought Kober's discovery of triplets was well known and well acknowledged?
...others think Ventris might have been intimidated by academia, making collaborations hard.
Ventris sought to understand and share what other workers in the field knew. He sent round questionnaires and then put the results together and sent them out as "research notes" or something similar. Indeed, some have said that his background in architecture made him more open to collaborative work than academics.
posted by Jehan at 7:50 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great post, filthy light thief. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 11:20 AM on May 15, 2013


For a second I misread this as Linear A and started getting all giddy.

Sorry, Linear A, and its predecessor, Cretan hieroglyphs, are still undeciphered.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:32 AM on May 15, 2013


how much was real probably almost none

I don't wonder about it one bit actually MartinWisse, except to wonder why more guys during this socially toxic post-WWII time period weren't "accidentally" set on fire by rightfully furious women yielding flaming chafing dishes full of Velveeta dip.

As toxic and depersonalizing as the period was to women, isn't it also depersonalizing to assume that it's impossible that she could be difficult to work with by our modern, 20XX, standards? Any (or none) of the above could exist as independent, interacting quantities in how she was seen at the time and today.
posted by monocyte at 12:54 PM on May 15, 2013


Sorry, Linear A, and its predecessor, Cretan hieroglyphs, are still undeciphered.

That's why I was getting giddy; I thought we might have breaking news :)
posted by ersatz at 4:08 PM on May 15, 2013


Sure monocyte, that's why I threw in a "probably". :) But in the end, there is a not-insignificant difference between possibility and probability, no? Or so the sweet, sweet, myopically mathematical folks who make sure I never have to fully understand my own experimental data statistics tell me...(may they live ten thousand years).
posted by SinAesthetic at 10:51 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


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