In Pragati: Book Review of Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox reveals the life and struggles of the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, an unknown language in an unknown script, similar to Indus-Saraswati writing. 

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. There are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, on tablets and on pottery; of the 400 signs, only 200 have been used more than five times. Decoding this writing would not only reveal details of life during that period, but also put an end to various debates over the identity of the residents of the Indus region. There has been no dearth of decipherments: many have read proto-Dravidian into the script and others Sanskrit. In The Lost River, Michel Danino writes that the only safe statement that can be made is that the seals played an important part in trade and permitted the identification of either traders or their goods.

Linear B Image

A sample of Linear B script

Decipherment of Indus writing is hard because it falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. The easiest one is where a known language is written in a known script, like English written using Roman alphabets. A difficult case is where a known language is written in an unknown script like when Rongorongo is used to write Rapa Nui. Equally difficult is the case where a known script is used to write an unknown language like when Greek alphabets are used to write Etruscan. The most difficult one is when the language and script are unknown and there is no help for the decipherer. The Indus writing falls into this category.

Linear B, the writing found on the island of Crete, belonged to this category as well but was decoded half a century after it was discovered. The writing was used by Minoans who flourished during the Bronze age following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Found by an English digger named Arthur Evans, it was named Linear Script Class B. The decipherment story of Linear B might have turned into a dry academic discussion on the difference between proto-writing and writing or on if it was a memory aid for rituals or just meaningless visual art, but Margalit Fox makes it a fascinating tale as the decipherment is tied to the life of three unusual people: a glorified English tomb robber, a largely forgotten American classicist and a gifted English architect; it is the human element that adds depth to the mystery.

The three decipherers

The challenges that faced the decipherers looked insurmountable. When Evans found the tablets in 1900, there were no computers that could detect patterns or do statistical analysis. It looked as if we would never find out if the tablets would reveal a Western epic like the Iliad or just bland accounting records. Though there were no external clues from a Rosetta Stone, some information could be gleaned from the tablets. Evans, for example, figured out the direction of writing and the word breaks because they were separated by tick marks. He also figured out the numerical system used by the Cretan scribes. Some tablets, which had arrow signs on them, were found near a chest filled with arrows; the context gave an idea of what those tablets represented. Some of the tablets were found in the palace complex in boxes with pictograms representing the contents

Nothing beyond this was known when Alice Kober started work on the script in the United States of America. She was an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, who taught introductory Latin and Classics during the day and worked on deciphering the secrets of the Cretans by night. In preparation for the work, Kober learned many fields such as archaeology, linguistics, statistics. Since she was not sure about the language of the Linear B writing, she spent fifteen years studying languages from Chinese to Akkadian to Sanskrit. Without seeing the tablets and by looking the two hundred inscriptions that were available, she worked on them methodically and came close to solving the mystery. Not much credit was given to her in other books about Linear B decipherment and the book tries to correct that by detailing her contributions.

She solved many mysteries, which Arthur Evans or other scholars could not solve; this included figuring out which signs depicted male and female animals as well the sign for boy and girl.  A major breakthrough for Kober was the discovery that Linear B was inflected, which meant that they depended on word endings like adding -ed to denote past tense and -s to indicate plural. With this discovery, she was able to eliminate many languages, which don’t use inflection and focus on languages, which did. She was also able to figure out what was known as a bridging character, which enabled her to figure out the relative relationship between the characters in the script.

The last person mentioned in the book is the one who finally deciphered it. Michael Ventris, is a person who would have been dismissed by modern scholars as a quack for he was not a linguist or a classicist or a scholar in any other field of humanities; he worked as an architect. Like Kober, he too was obsessed with Linear B, even publishing a paper when he was 19. Unlike Kober, Ventris had access to larger number of Linear B symbols. As he sorted the characters based on their frequency and position, he found certain characters appeared at the beginning of the words.

He made one major intuitive leap, which Alice Kober failed to do, and with that he was able to solve the mystery. There were codes, which differed only in the last character and they were found only in Knossos which meant that those characters represented the name of the place. Now it was time to figure out what the words actually meant. Since Kober had figured out that it was an inflected language, he discarded Etruscan and considered other options like Greek. According to the wisdom at that time, Greek speakers arrived much later and so this would have been unacceptable. Ventris, then performed a second leap. During the Iron Age, a writing system called the Cypriot script existed. While the language remained a mystery, the sounds of the symbols were known as the script was used to write Greek following the Hellenization of Cyprus. As those sound values were substituted, the words began to make sense. By the time he was 30, he had solved Linear B.

Lessons for the Indus Decipherers

ten indus glyphs

Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 

The people who worked on the decipherment faced great challenges, but they had some qualities that helped them makes progress. They were intelligent, had great memory and were single mindedly focussed on the issue. Margalit Fox explains in detail the tremendous skills that are required to find success in an impossible task like decoding an unknown script of an unknown language. You need rigour of the mind, ferocity of determination, a deliberate way of working, along with a flair for languages. When you are stuck with such a problem, where no external help is available and the problem looks unsolvable, you have to look closely for sometimes the clues lie in the puzzle itself revealing itself to the careful observer.

There is a certain orthodoxy in the Indus politics, which prevents scholars from considering that an Indo-European language was spoken in the region. Solely based on linguistics, it has been argued that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West India following the decline of the Indus civilisation and hence the language should not even be considered as a possibility. Thus most decipherments argue that the language spoken in Indus Valley was non Indo-Aryan. Similarly, for decoding Linear B, there was intense speculation on the language of the tablets, but Greek was ruled out because Greek speakers were known to have arrived later. Evans thought that the Minoan culture was different from the later Greek culture and there was no relation between the two. Alice Kober refused to play that game, refused to give sound values to the characters, and firmly said that the script had to be analysed based on the internal evidence devoid of the decipherer’s  prejudice. She was highly against starting with a preconceived idea and then trying to prove it.

Now even in Indus studies the data is pointing to interesting possibilities. A 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier than previously assumed.  According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian.

In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan co-existed in the region. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. With such information, there is a need to break away from the orthodoxy. (See “An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India”)

Maybe there is a scholar or an amateur who is as meticulous as Kober or as gifted as Ventris to whom the secrets of the Indus would be revealed, but the  decipherment of Indus script is hard because of the brevity of the seals; the average is five symbols. To figure out anything from seals averaging just five signs is an impossible task. Another possibility that could help is the existence of  a bilingual inscription in one of the regions with which the Indus people traded. For example, there existed an Indus colony in ancient Mesopotamia. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba. Scholars also found a  reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan (assumed to be a person from the Indus region) translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia.

Thus 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages. This also suggests that there could exist a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever.

Finally when it was decoded, the Linear B tablets did not reveal an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey; they found a record of crops, goods, animals and gifts offered to gods. They revealed the working of the society, about the status of various holdings, and about the personnel who worked there. They revealed their food habits, religious habits and how they spent their time. It revealed the pyramidal structure of the Minoan society with elites at the top, craftsmen and herdsmen below them and slaves at the bottom. The tablets were predominantly economic and was concerned with keeping track of  the goods produced and exchanged.