The Riddle of the Labyrinth: Translation, Imagination and Archaeology

by Maria O’Connell

“The Linear B tablets have a stark beauty. Some have smooth, charcoal-gray surfaces resembling slate, others are reddish brown, still others are bright orange. (The color depends on the level of oxygen to which they were exposed when the palace burned down)…On the backs of the tablets…scribes left traces of themselves in the form of fingerprints and even doodles. To look at the tablets even now is to be in the presence of other people—feeling thinking, literate people” (Fox 2013 Location 562)


The Riddle of the Labyrinth is an exciting archaeological ‘true detective’ story. It covers the contributions of Arthur Evans, Michael Ventris, and Alice Kober to the deciphering of the ancient language, Linear B, after Evans excavated the tablets which contained the unrecognized script from the ruined palace at Knossos in 1900. The book delves into the fifty year long quest of archaeologists and philologists to discover meaning in these beautiful objects and the script on them. The quest itself and what Fox writes about it touches on the archaeological imagination and on a particular view of archaeological knowledge and meaning that looks beyond the objects themselves to assign them to a relationship that no longer exists, as though the relationships, rather than the objects has moved forward through time. Translation, in itself, can support the illusion that we are speaking to people or cultures that no longer exist.

As noted by William Rathje, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore note, “[a]rchaeologists do not discover the past as it was; they work on what becomes of what was, and they work with old things in order to achieve particular ends…Archaeologists deliver stories, big and small” (Rathje, Shanks, and Witmore 2013, loc. 287). Certainly Arthur Evans, and the other archaeologists and translators involved with Linear B were working to deliver a story. They were seeking the ancient Cretans written about in Homer, and when Evans “saw the sprawling building beneath the knoll, [he] soon concluded, [it] was none other than the palace of Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete, who crops up centuries later in Homer’s epic poems” (Fox 2013, loc 173).  For him, then, he was seeking the beginning of European civilization. Finding the tablets and translating them “the chance to read words set down by European men three thousand years distant was compensation enough” (Fox 2013 loc 219) for their work. The tablets were only important for their role in a story that had already been decided, based on fragments of writing that were already archaeological during the time of the Classical Greeks. The Cretans would have had no idea what Europe or a European man was. To see them that way was the archaeological imagination of Evans’ time.  Ironically, the interest in translating the tablets was fueled by a set of stories that we only have by virtue of millennia of translation. As Jorge Luis Borges notes, “The deeds of the Iliad and the Odyssey more than survive, even though Achilles and Ulysses have disappeared, as have what Homer had in mind by choosing them and what he really thought of them” (Borges 1992 pg 3).

Translation is, in and of itself, a matter of imagination. As C.S. Lewis noted in Surprised by Joy, the translator is faced with the problem of incommensurability. Lewis notes that “naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another” (Lewis 135).  Gavatri Spivak finds that every translation is an act of violence to language and culture, crudely bringing ones culture’s language and images into a form that is recognizable by the other. While we can have approximations or analogies through our own world and history, the original context and, in archaeological work particularly, the original objects (temples marketplaces, ships, vineyards, and horse farms…) are lost.  Nowadays, one is familiar with the term loss of language, as many marginalized idioms lose their native speakers and gradually fade away. As Spivak notes about an aboriginal group that uses the term “lost our language” in a much looser construction:

I learnt this lesson of the violence of transcoding as translation, from a group that has stayed in place for more than thirty thousand years. That lesson was contained in the philosopheme – the smallest unit of philosophy: ‘lost our language’, used by the Australian Aboriginals of the East Kimberley region. The expression ‘lost our language’ does not mean that the persons involved do not know their aboriginal mother tongue. It means, in the words of a social worker, that ‘they have lost touch with their cultural base’, they no longer compute with it, it is not their software. (2000 pp 15-16)

What we know of the ancient Greeks through Homer is known through centuries of transcription, translation and interpretation, from written fragments of oral stores, to the classical Hellenistic writings that have been translated into all modern languages and finally translated into part of a grand narrative about the development of Western civilization. We certainly have not lost the Greek tongue, modern or ancient. In fact, ancient Greek was one of the keys to solving the riddle of Linear B. When the tablets were correlated and Ventris found that there were certain differences, He “wound up with [what] looked an awful lot like the Greek names, spelled syllabically for three major towns of Cretan antiquity: Amnisos, Tulissos, and Knossos” (Fox 2013 Loc 2889).  However, when he first discovered that, he rejected them as “mirages” because he wished to believe that the syllabary belonged to a language before Greek. Instead, he found Greek words inserted into a syllabary that didn’t fit.  Linear B was a product of “invaders, unexposed to writing till they poured into Crete [and] seized the existing Minoan system for their own use” (Fox 2013 Loc2990) and then had to twist the native syllabary [Linear A] to work with a language that did not fit. The Greek language was alive and well and colonizing an indigenous writing system. What has been lost is the indigenous culture and language that existed before the Greeks came, because they were not interested in translating, but in making the language serve their needs. As so often happens, the Greeks both colonized and mythologized a culture, leaving only a simulacrum to capture the archaeological imagination of Arthur Evans. That simulacrum actually stood in the way of understanding the writing on the tablets, since it took many years for the scholars working on them to abandon the “Etruscan solution” that led Arthur Evans and others to try to assign sound-values to the script rather than trying to force the script to fit their world-view and realize that they were not dealing with the palace of Minos and the minotaur, but a palace belonging to a people already under Greek influence and part of the Greek path to writing.

The Cretan culture later mythologized in Homer (in an oral tradition after these early attempts at writing had passed on) had its own language, writing, and history. There are records recorded in a script known as Linear A. Those records have never been deciphered because we don’t appear to have a referent language with which to compare them. They serve to reveal what deciphering Linear B essentially conceals, that these past people are gone, leaving only their objects and our imagination. Because we cannot read Linear A, we know that we are not “in the presence of other people—feeling thinking, literate people” (Fox 2013 Location 562), but only in the presence of their artefacts.  And, contrary to what Fox maintains, we are in the same situation with the deciphered tablets. Just as we only have fragments, translations, and versions of the Homeric epics, but we do not have Homer himself (nor  do we even know that he existed), what we have in the tablets from Crete is a set of beautiful objects, some palace records, and a few doodles left by people long gone.

As Fox notes, “some observers have deemed the postdecipherment tablets dull and dispiriting” (Fox 2013 loc.3337) because they contain no grand narrative, no literature or Homeric poetry. Instead, they show the daily records of Knossos as a thriving city. Here are “account books, set in clay and baked in unintended fire, [to] tell us what they sowed and reaped, what they ate and drank, the names of the gods they worshipped (with members of the Greek pantheon standing shoulder to shoulder with strange, pre-Greek deities). The disappointment of course is that there is no proof on these tablets that the world that Homer writes about. The tablets are about “Mr. X and Mr. Y and their bronze age world” (Fox 2013 loc 3345) which Fox associates with a “the world of Odysseus, Nestor, and Agamemnon” (Fox 2013 loc 3345) even as she acknowledges that Odysseus, Nestor, and Agamemnon do not appear in these everyday objects recording everyday events.  The story of Minos and his labyrinth do not appear here. However, these objects themselves and their own relations to the world are fascinating. In their own historical period, the very existence of Linear B and the things recorded on the tablets reveal a Cretan world in flux, occupied by Greek speaking people and implicated in their world, richly redolent of mixed cultures and religions and the things that societies make and trade.  In our own time, however, these objects also reveal the archaeological imagination, narratives, and process. The tablets were found because Arthur Evans was in search of the palace at Knossos and the cultural basis of European culture. He was inspired by the grand narrative and also limited (in his understanding of Linear B) by it.  In addition his work brought forth the tablets through a number of “humble things and instruments, networked people, libraries, funding agencies, review panels, professional organizations, museum magazines [and museums], collections…”  (Olsen, et. al 2012 loc 770).  The tablets brought together scholars such as Evans, Michael Ventris, and Alice Koebler, among many others, who were driven by their desire to know what was recorded on these things and all the various ways in which they interacted with the tablets, the archaeological societies and journals, and with each other. Their notebooks, index cards, letters and published papers become a part of the life of these tablets as things.

To look at these tablets now is not to be in the presence of people and their thoughts. However, it is to be in the presence of ancient objects who have had a life beyond the people who made them. Kept as records, written and read for particular purposes, they survived through an otherwise destructive event, were unearthed as a part of a life-long fascination with Greek culture, and formed part of a five decade detective story. They are, even in the absence of some grand, Homeric narrative, fascinating enough.



Rathje, William L., Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore (eds) 2013: Archaeology in the Making: Conversations Through a Discipline. London: Routledge Press

Borges, Jorge Luis and Suzanne Jill Levine, 1992: Some Versions of Homer. PMLA. 107.5.1134-8

Fox, Margalit. 2013: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. New York: Harper Collins

Olsen, Bjorn, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, Christopher Witmore. 2012: Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley: University of California Press

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2000: Translation as Culture. parallax 6, 13-24.

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