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”
Now 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!
Just 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!
I mentioned this upcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in my last post – I’m very pleased to say that ‘Codebreakers and Groundbreakers‘ is now open (and on until February 2018)! The exhibition brings together two apparently quite different stories – the discovery and decipherment of the Linear B tablets and the breaking of the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park during World War II – to emphasize the two main threads which connect them. Most obviously, both of them are about decipherment and making unreadable texts readable – whether that’s three-thousand-year-old clay tablets written in an undeciphered script and an unknown language, or messages that have been deliberately encrypted to (try to) stop them being read by a wartime enemy.
Last term I wrote about the ‘clay play day‘ we held in my department: as the last in a series of seminars about the undeciphered Cretan script Linear A, we all got a chance to try out making and inscribing our own Linear A clay tablets. Since there was quite a bit of clay left over afterwards, I decided to have my own clay play day at home to make some tablets with inscriptions in Linear B – the script I mostly work on, which is related to Linear A but used to write Greek. This was partly an excuse just to mess around with clay a bit more, but I also figured some replica tablets would come in handy for teaching purposes, outreach events, etc – it’s hard to show what sort of size the tablets actually are via photographs on a PowerPoint. So here are some pictures of 1) a tablet in progress, using a photocopy of the published photograph and drawing to get the size right; 2) holding the finished tablet, for scale purposes; and 3) all three tablets I ended up making.
I was starting to think it was high time I got round to doing some more linguistic baking, when a fellow linguist conveniently had a birthday…so here they are: Linear A cupcakes.
Like Linear B, Linear A is found written on clay at Bronze Age Cretan sites. As well as larger tablets, both Linear A and B are often written on ‘sealings’ or ‘nodules’: small lumps of clay that presumably recorded individual transactions, perhaps to be compiled on a tablet later. Handily, these are very suitable for representing in cupcake form. The examples here with two or three signs may be names of people or places who were contributing or receiving goods, while the single signs probably represent commodities (the sign in the middle of the third row, for instance, looks like some kind of tripod to me).
Following on from my Linear B tablet cake, the mission to raise the profile of obscure Bronze Age scripts through the medium of baked goods continues — this time with Cypro-Minoan, which was used on Cyprus from the 16th century B.C.E. until at least the 11th century. It has also been found at Ras Shamra, Syria (ancient Ugarit), from where this tablet comes: