Alice Kober’s belated obituary

Yesterday’s New York Times features a much-belated obituary of Alice Kober, a professor of classics at Brooklyn College who in the late 1940s played a central preliminary role in the decipherment of the Linear B (Mycenaean Greek) script.     Although she died of cancer two years before Michael Ventris made the key breakthrough identifying the Linear B script as encoding a variety of archaic Greek, Kober’s work was a building block on which Ventris relied.  Her key insight was to identify certain sets of signs that occurred commonly at the ends of words, and which (correctly, as it turned out) could represent morphology (verb inflections and case endings).

Margalit Fox, who is the author of the obituary as well as the author of a forthcoming book on the Linear B decipherment, presents the case that Kober’s work has been forgotten, in the way that so many other women’s scholarly work has been overshadowed by the work of men.  And this is certainly part of the story.   I should say, though, that John Chadwick’s The Decipherment of Linear B, the central history of the decipherment authored by one of its prominent figures, is generous to Kober and represents her contribution quite fairly.    Kober took some important steps and, if she had lived a few more years, very likely would have played a much more prominent role (although she still may not have been recognized sufficiently had she done so).  What we have from her work is a set of important preliminary steps published in a set of key articles in the American Journal of Archaeology in the mid-1940s.  These ought to be read into the popular history of the decipherment, not because they were a decipherment in their own right, but because they were one of a long series of necessary steps over several decades.

The most important lesson in this case is that script decipherments are complex and full of false starts, and that they are processes rather than events.    Even Ventris’ work, though important, only started a process of decades of discussion, in the same way that the Maya script’s ‘decipherment’ is still ongoing.

Chadwick, John
1990    The decipherment of Linear B: Cambridge University Press.
Kober, Alice E
1945    Evidence of Inflection in the” Chariot” Tablets from Knossos. American Journal of Archaeology 49(2):143-151.

1946    Inflection in Linear Class B: 1-Declension. American Journal of Archaeology 50(2):268-276.

1948    The Minoan scripts: fact and theory. American Journal of Archaeology 52(1):82-103.
Sundwall, Johannes, and AE Kober
1948    An Attempt at Assigning Phonetic Values to Certain Signs of Minoan, Linear Class B. American Journal of Archaeology 52(3):311-320.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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