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. Kober’s work was characterised by an insistence on rigorous analysis of the data — the script itself, and particularly the patterns of distribution of each of its different signs — before making any speculation on the (then unknown) language the Linear B texts were written in. As she wrote in her 1948 article, ‘The Minoan scripts: fact and theory‘ (which reviewed the current state of knowledge of Linear B and other related scripts from Crete),
The task before us is to analyze these scripts thoroughly, honestly, and without prejudice. Any discussion of the possibility of ultimate decipherment is premature. Decipherment must begin with the transliteration of the signs used in a given Minoan script. This means we must know what phonetic values are to be assigned to each symbol. Before that can be done, we must know which signs had phonetic values, and how often and in what juxtapositions these signs are used, and how many phonetic signs there are in a given script.
It will be obvious from what has been said above that we do not yet possess this information for a single one of the Minoan scripts, and, furthermore, that A and B are the only scripts for which there is a possibility of getting it in the near future. The type of syllabary used cannot be determined until we know how many signs were used phonetically in a given system. When we have the facts, certain conclusions will be almost inevitable. Until we have them, no conclusions are possible. (American Journal of Archaeology 52:1, p.103)
This approach was particularly vital in a context in which the majority of people working on Linear B were, at best, prone to mostly unfounded speculation about the texts’ possible language, and at worst publishing supposed ‘decipherments’ which lacked any rigorous underlying methodology. The achievement for which Kober is most remembered today is her demonstration that the language of the Linear B texts showed inflection — changes in the endings of words depending on their grammatical function — and in establishing a ‘grid’ of signs which could be shown to be related to each other in terms of their sound-values, both of which would be key elements in the eventual decipherment of the script by the British architect Michael Ventris in 1952, which showed that the language was an early form of Greek. You can read more about her work and how it contributed to the decipherment in this chapter I wrote recently. Sadly, Kober did not live to see the decipherment – she died, aged just 43, in 1950, from an unknown illness that may well have been some form of cancer.
Kober has sometimes been regarded as the ‘Rosalind Franklin’ of the study of Linear B: the woman whose work formed the basis for a crucial breakthrough but was later ignored in favour of the achievements of the men who used her work. To some extent, I don’t think this is entirely fair: her contributions have always been made clear in works written about the decipherment by specialists (such as Ventris and his collaborator John Chadwick’s publication Documents in Mycenaean Greek, and Chadwick’s later account of the decipherment, The Decipherment of Linear B). However, it is certainly true that Kober is not well-known outside of specialist circles, and that she deserves to be better known. It’s also clear that she faced many difficulties in her career which will seem entirely familiar to women in academia today: the struggle to combine the teaching for which she was paid and the research for which she was, largely, not, and the resulting financial pressures placed on her; being passed over for prestigious appointments (in 1948 she was the runner-up in a competition for a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania; while it is impossible to know whether her gender played a part, Kober herself suspected that it did, and even one of her referees expressed ‘astonishment’ that ‘the University of Pennsylvania ever had appointed or would appoint a woman to a major position’ [letter from Franklin Edgerton to Kober, 6/12/1947, quoted in Fox 2013, p.161]). In addition, a substantial part of her already limited research time in the last few years of her life was spent, not working on her own research, but assisting the British archaeologist John Myres, who had been tasked with the publication of the Linear B tablets from Knossos after the death of their excavator, Arthur Evans: Kober put in a huge amount of work towards this publication in transcribing and drawing the texts, checking the results, and (frequently) correcting errors made by Myres. The majority of the work was probably hers – and yet it is Myres’ name which appears as the editor of the volume, which only finally appeared two years after Kober’s death.
It’s also often said that Kober would have been the one to decipher Linear B, had it not been for her early death. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no way of knowing; it’s probably true that in the late 1940s the smart money would have been on her being the one to finally crack the code, but I’ve always felt that focusing on what she might have done if anything detracts from what she – in spite of all the difficulties she faced – actually did achieve. It’s those achievements — and the doctrine of rigorous research founded on careful and painstaking analysis of the evidence — that I’d like to celebrate today.
Note: the only published biography of Kober is Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labryinth (2013). Although I have a lot of problems with various aspects of the book’s presentation of the decipherment and the people involved (which I won’t go into here, since that’s not the point of this post), the parts about Kober are certainly worth reading, particularly for the many quotations from her correspondence.
Updated to add: I should have remembered to mention that Kober’s correspondence is available online, in the University of Texas at Austin digital archive!