Margalit Fox’s Book and NY Times article on Alice E. Kober and the Deciperment of Linear B: Uses of the PASP archives


Margalit Fox’s new book The Riddle of the Labyrinth (Ecco Press) will be released on May 14.

The Times Sunday Review for May 12, 2013 has a biographical essay about Kober by Fox:

Margalit used the PASP archives and the School of Information resources at UT Austin in order to tell the story of the decipherment of Linear B. She places the the work of Alice Elizabeth Kober in the context of the research done on the Aegean linear scripts from 1900 through the decipherment of Linear B in 1952.  As Margalit quotes:

“Kober was ‘the person on whom an astute bettor with full insider information would have placed a wager’ to decipher the script.” —Thomas Palaima

Margalit also gives us a way of grasping Kober’s sense that work on the scripts was what we might call ‘a sacred duty’. For her working with other serious scholars like Johannes Sundwall and Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., and John Franklin Daniel was a life calling (alongside her full-time obligations as a professor with major teaching obligations). But it was also  deeply satisfying, worth all the painstaking effort, and fun.

In short, Margalit gives us  Kober as a full human being.

I have read every page of the manuscript in draft and proof stages. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a fine book, well-documented, fascinating and humanly engaging.  It makes clear how Kober’s work was related to the work of Sir Arthur Evans, Michael Ventris, Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., Johannes Sundwall, Sir John Myres and others.

I just met today with Sue Trombley, director of consulting at Iron Mountain, a digital records management company. In 2003-2005, Sue preserved and organized the Kober archives, writing the first finding aid for the materials. Sue did the Kober-like work of going through each and every one of the cigarette-carton and other files (over 180,000 items) making sure each one was not in a destructive environment (removing all sorts of intrusive matter) and housing all assemblages of items in archivally sound environments.

Here is the commentary piece Sue and I wrote in 2003 about Alice Kober and her archives. It gives some sense of the human side of Alice that going through her records gave to Sue (and vicariously to me):

Margalit thanks Zachary Fischer, who put the Kober and Ventris letters up on-line in summer of 2012. He and Sue are happy to see Alice’s story told primarily from the materials they worked hard to preserve and make available.

Zachary reports that as of May 2013, UTDR (University of Texas Digital Resources) usage statistics are that the collections have good use by visitors. In the last nine months or so, SMID has had ca. 1155 views and the main Kober page has had ca. 1245 views!

Christy Costlow Moilanen has done the complete finding aid to the PASP Kober, Ventris and Bennett materials (mainly in 2007-2008).

Many PASP assistants have helped in keeping the Kober materials well-organized and fully accessible to visiting scholars.  Margalit Fox, in her acknowledgements (pp. 347-349), explicitly thanks Dygo Tosa. Dygo has worked with these materials for three years now. Dygo has finished his M.A. degree and is now finishing his certification in the University of Texas at Austin’s UTeach Program. Dygo is a mainstay of PASP, a bright young mind and an inspiring teacher. He has written and given papers on Minoan language and linear scripts.

Margalit also thanks, as do I, Alison Fell, whose engrossing novel, The Element -inth in Greek  (Sandstone Press 2012) tells in a fully human way some of the Kober story.

Alison investigated the life of Kober and provided PASP with documents pertaining to Kober’s life, for example, her birth and death certificates, photographs, and the ship’s manifest marking the arrival of Alice’s mother and father in the new world. Alice’s mother was already in her first trimester of pregnancy with Alice. Alison also provided us with census reports showing where the Kobers lived after they arrived in the new world.

The Kober archives were in the possession of the late Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., since soon after Alice’s death (May 16, 1950) until the late 1980’s when he entrusted them to my personal care.  I have made them available to PASP and have supplemented them with the kinds of materials I have mentioned above. Here are links to materials.

Thanks to everyone involved. In a few days Alice will step into the spotlight at last, something she was ever reluctant to do when she was alive and when work took priority over any concern for any kind of fame connected with her work.

The late Robert Graves said, “I write poems for poets…. For people in general I write prose, and I am content that they should be unaware that I do anything else.  To write poems for other than poets is wasteful.”

Mutadis mutandis, this describes Alice E. Kober’s mindset, spirit and work. She wrote beautiful, exacting, sound and serious scholarship for serious scholars.

Tom Palaima May 10, 2013


Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Report on Visit – Alison Fell

(Original post from 2005. -Ed.)

Alison Fell, A.H.R.C Research Fellow, Middlesex University, London, U.K.

Alison Fell is a Scottish novelist and poet currently based in London, U.K. She has publsihed 7 novels, 4 poetry collections and 3 anthologies of experimental fiction. She has been a Writing Fellow in Sydney, Australia, and at the University of East Anglia, University College London, Middlesex University and from September 2006 will be Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has read her work all over the U.K., and on British Council and publishers tours of Canada, the U.S., Australia, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy. Her literary archive was acquired by the National Library of Scotland in 2005.

Her novels cover a wide range of themes, from ‘The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro’, set at the Heian Court of 11th century Japan, to ‘The Mistress of Lilliput’, a Swiftian satire featuring Mrs. Gulliver’s travels, and the prize-wining ‘Mer de Glace’, a modern tragedy on mountaineering themes set in the French Alps. Her most recent novel is ‘Tricks of the Light’, and her most recent poetry collection is ‘Lightyear’, which tracks the calendar changes of time and the elements in an exploration of the fundamental links between humans and nature.

‘Deciphering the Decipherers’

For the last three years I have held a Research Fellowship at Middlesex University, funded by the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council. During this time I have been researching and writing a novel around themes of decipherment. A major aspect of this work – and the one which brought me to PASP in the spring of 2005 – has been my attempt to decipher the brief and brilliant life of Alice E. Kober.

Before coming down to Austin I spent time in public archives in New York City, where I managed to uncover hitherto unknown details of Kober’s life and family circumstances, some of which were touching to say the least. The 1930 Census, for instance, shows the Kober family living in a block of 6 storey tenements in the South Bronx, which housed 48 families in each block. Across the landing lived a family of Italian immigrants with 5 daughters and 2 sons – in no more than 2 rooms, one imagines! No wonder, then, that Alice developed superhuman powers of concentration. Another riveting document was the Passenger Manifest of the ‘Statendam’, on which the Kobers sailed from Europe in May 1906. This revealed that Katarina, Alice’s mother, must have been pregnant when she set out – so Alice was conceived in Hungary and born in Manhattan., a true child of the New World.

Research for a novelist is rather different from scholarly research, and while I have great admiration for Alice Kober’s contribution to Linear B scholarship, my search has necessarily focussed more on character, motivation, background, and any life-details that can be gleaned from records, correspondence, or personal reminiscences. At PASP Tom Palaima kindly gave me full access to all the Kober materials. I was able to see the famous ‘cigarette carton’ files in which Alice catalogued the L.B. signs and sign-groups, and even to watch Sue Trombley at work with a sable paintbrush, flicking the dried skeletons of silverfish from the fragile yellowed paper. I pored over her Hunter College reports – straight As in Maths, Greek, Latin and German, Ds in Gym: not a Jock, then – and pounced on visual descriptions in a personal memoir written by one of Kober’s ex-Brooklyn College students, Eva Brann. I also read Kober’s unpublished monograph on the element ‘Inth’ in Greek, a manuscript whose margins are packed with the noted comments of those scholars whose opinions Alice most prized – Johannes Sundwall, for instance, and John Franklin Daniel, editor of The American Journal of Archaeology, and mentor and friend to Alice. One of my aims in visiting PASP was to access Kober’s correspondence with Daniel. (My novelist’s nose, I expect, always seeking evidence of relationship). When the file – which had been mislaid for some years – turned up, among the items therein was an early student notebook from the University of Pennsylvania, which we couldn’t at first attribute, as both Kober and Daniel had connections with the University – Daniel was awarded his PhD on the Cypro-Minoan scripts in 1941, and Kober attended Professor Speiser’s courses in Old Persian and Akkadian that same summer.Finally Tom Palaima’s graphology skills pinned the handwriting down as Daniel’s.

Previous to my visit, I had acquired copies of Kober’s correspondence from the archives of the Guggenheim Foundation, and also from the U. of Pennsylvania Museum, where in 1948 J.F. Daniel was planning to set up a Minoan Script Research Centre, which Alice Kober was to direct. (Something which sadly never came to be, owing to Daniel’s sudden death in Turkey in the December of that year, at the age of 38.) Those letters have filled some sequential gaps in the PASP collection, just as the Daniel correspondence and other items from PASP have filled gaps in mine. All the materials – addresses, certificates, etc – unearthed in the New York archives are now documented at PASP, complete with microfilm roll-numbers. I hope this material will help other scholars and biographers, and contribute to the overall picture of Alice Kober and the forces that formed her, not just as a scholar, but as a woman.

Since PASP is so clearly an archive of international importance, I was dismayed to discover that these days University funding passes on by without a second glance, alighting graciously on Petrochemical Sciences or Information Technology. In the heart of Bush country, does Mycenology stand a chance? Perhaps, as Tom Palaima remarked – not entirely in jest – the only answer is a return to the Monastery system. Certainly what stays in my mind from that final Saturday at PASP is an image of the three of us beavering away, monkish, among the cramped shelves. The fledgeling Alice Kober Fan Club, gossiping about our girl as though she were still alive and kicking. It’s a club that deserves more members.

Alison Fell July 2006