International Women’s Day: celebrating Alice Kober

Fig. 2 Alice E. Kober
Alice E. Kober in 1946 (Image: Brooklyn Public Library)

As today is International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate the woman without whose work it’s not an exaggeration to say my field of research might well not even exist today: Alice E. Kober, the American classicist who was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the eventual decipherment of the prehistoric Greek Linear B script (first discovered at Knossos on Crete in 1900, and representing a then-unknown language).

Kober (1906-1950) had a full-time job teaching Classics at Brooklyn College, New York; apart from a year spent as a Guggenheim Fellow, which allowed her to work full-time on research, all of her work on Linear B was therefore done in what little spare time she must have had left after teaching. And yet Kober’s research established the methodology which would later enable the decipherment of the script, which means that researchers like me can now read and analyse the Linear B texts in order to reconstruct the society of Late Bronze Age Greece. Continue reading “International Women’s Day: celebrating Alice Kober”


Caius Schools Prizes: Language in Lego, and more

LegoMy college, Gonville & Caius, runs a series of annual competitions for Year 12 students in UK schools, and this year’s linguistics competition challenges students to come up with a language based around Lego! As the competition announcement says,


The term ‘language’ can refer to any coherent systematic communication system. Most of the time we encounter language that is spoken or expressed in writing; but language may also be expressed using other mediums — examples would include sign language and Braille. This year the Caius Linguistics Challenge will be to develop a communication system using Lego bricks (or similar) where the meaning of the language will be encoded in how the bricks are connected together.

Continue reading “Caius Schools Prizes: Language in Lego, and more”

Designing English and Linear B

Image: Bodleian Library
‘Designing English’ exhibition logo (image: Bodleian Library)

This weekend I went to visit an exhibition in the Bodleian Library in Oxford called ‘Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page‘ (on until April 22 2018, and free to visit) – a display of medieval manuscripts, but with the focus not on the content but the way that their writers and illustrators went about creating them. The layout of the text itself and any accompanying images, the use of different coloured inks in different parts of the text, the addition of marginalia, and even the physical format of the book or manuscript were all shown to be just as important to the writer – and the reader – as the actual words themselves.

Illustrations aided understanding (as in herbals, for instance, whose pictures were vital in showing which plants were being described, or in the chess manual which included diagrams of chess boards); key words or passages could be highlighted by the use of colour or through the spacing of the text to draw the reader’s attention (particularly important for texts intended to be read out loud, such as sermons); physical form could relate to function, e.g. in making a book small enough to fit in a pocket to carry around, or to ideology, as shown by the books of royal genealogies, designed to fold out into a single long sheet so as to present one unbroken line of inheritance. Continue reading “Designing English and Linear B”

Colouring in the past

Every February, Cambridge plays host to a festival called “E-luminate“, which the organisers describe as “a celebration of the infinite possibilities created by light at the intersection of art and science” – as well as talks, concerts, and workshops, the most popular feature is always the illuminations on various buildings in the centre of town. One of these is on the outer wall of my college, Gonville & Caius: called “The Colours of Caius College“, it illuminates part of the facade in bright multi-coloured lights:The Colours of Caius College

Continue reading “Colouring in the past”

The decipherment of Linear B

P1090872Now that the Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition is over, I’m able to make my catalogue chapter, ‘The Decipherment: People, Process, Challenges‘, available here for anyone who’d like to read it (click on the link for a PDF file)! It’s about the process by which the Linear B script was deciphered, the main people involved – Emmett L. Bennett, Alice Kober, Michael Ventris, and John Chadwick – and the remaining difficulties involved in reading and interpreting the documents written in this script.

Readers may also be interested in seeing some of the correspondence between Ventris and Chadwick that’s quoted in the chapter – PDFs of a selection of their letters are available on the website of the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group (the research group I’m part of in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics), and you can view them here.

I hope you enjoy the chapter, and if anyone has any further questions about Linear B and the decipherment after reading it, please ask me in the comments!

Last chance to see Codebreakers and Groundbreakers!

CaptureJust a quick reminder for any Cambridge-based readers that this week is the last chance to see the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition about the decipherment of Linear B and WW2 codebreaking, which is finishing on Sunday Feb 4th! It’s been incredibly popular, and I’m told the catalogue has even completely sold out – for anyone who’s interested in reading more about the process by which Linear B was deciphered, and the people involved, I’ll be putting my catalogue chapter up here once the exhibition has finished, so check back for that next week!

New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’

Pylos labyrinth tabletI’m very pleased to say that an article of mine has just appeared in the journal Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici (‘Mycenaean and Aegean-Anatolian Studies’). Although the article is called ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “Labyrinth”‘, it’s not about the mythical Labyrinth in which the Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, or even the possible links this myth could have to the real Bronze Age Cretan palace of Knossos (which I’ve written a bit about before when I made a Labyrinth cake, pictured on the right). Rather, it’s about the Mycenaean Greek word for ‘labyrinth’ and what this can potentially tell us about the value of particular signs of the Linear B script (hence the subtitle: ‘the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs’). Continue reading “New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’”