Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Cassandra Donnelly

The two months I have spent as a Visiting Fellow with the CREWS project were full of all things Aegean, from the Cypro-Minoan seminar series, to the Mycenaean Epigraphy Room, and the Aegean Archaeology Group’s Work-in-Progress conference. I am incredibly grateful to Pippa, the CREWS team, and the Linguistics E-Caucus for sustained discussions about Cypro-Minoan (or “super” Minoan, as it became known), Ugaritic, and other local Mediterranean script traditions.

While preparing a presentation on potmarks for the Cypro-Minoan seminar I was reminded of a little known episode in Cypro-Minoan historiography, the early correspondence of Alice E. Kober and John Franklin Daniel which centered on Cypro-Minoan (you can read their correspondence for yourself here).

Pictured right: Alice E. Kober; Pictured left: John Franklin Daniel.

Alice E. Kober (1906-1950) and John Franklin Daniel (1910-1948), or “Pete” as he was known to his friends, both died in early middle age. Kober died at the age of 43 from stomach cancer. It is unclear whether she had been made aware of her diagnosis at the time of her death as it was a common practice in the day to shield women from their diagnoses. She does not acknowledge the diagnosis in any of her remaining writing and she continued working until two days before her death. Daniel had died two years earlier at the age of 38 from a possible aneurism while scouting for a dig (the site now known to be Gordion) in Turkey. The eminent archaeologist Sara (Anderson) Immerwahr, a colleague who had accompanied Daniel on this last scouting expedition, believed he had been poisoned as a result espionage activities her undertook during the war as a member of the O.S.S., one of handful of Mediterranean archaeologists in their ranks (for a detailed account of Daniel’s espionage activities and those of other American archaeologists, see Susan Hueck Allen’s Classical Spies). Had both lived longer they would likely have earned their rightful places as paragons in Aegean history.

Thanks to a biography by the NYT journalist Margalit Fox, Riddle of the Labyrinth, published in 2014, Kober’s profile has been raised. Daniel, however, remains fairly obscure despite being hailed as the wunderkind of mid-forties archaeology. The aim of this blog post is, accordingly, to remember them and to give special attention to John Franklin Daniel. In particular, I want draw attention to his work as a feminist ally long before the language of ally-ship was a twinkle in anyone’s eye and how the loss of an ally can impact a woman’s career.

View from the site of ancient Kourion out over the sea, published in Daniel’s paper in the Penn Museum Bulletin, 1948.

Alice E. Kober and Pete Daniel met at an Archaeological Institute of America lecture in 1941. Daniel had given a presentation on his dissertation topic, the Cypro-Minoan script. This was not meant to be Daniel’s dissertation project. He had nearly completed a dissertation on the chronology of Bronze Age Kourion, the chronology of the Late Bronze Age being his true passion, but the economic constraints of the War had made its publication prohibitively expensive. After being told that his dissertation could not be published under the new wartime budget, he ‘threw together’ a paper on Cypro-Minoan, the first comprehensive treatment of the script. In the long run, scholars have regarded his dissertation as the seminal work in Aegean scripts studies, but, in the short term, the work was more or less forgotten along with his death in 1948. Beginning with Thomas G. Palaima in 1989, the import of his dissertation has been rehabilitated and universally praised within the field (Palaima in Problems in Decipherment). His approach, which combines attention to the material features of inscriptions, such as their origin, their fabric, and their findspot, alongside script studies, anticipated the best of today’s methods for studying Bronze Age Aegean inscriptions.

Cypro-Minoan inscriptions from Kourion, published in Daniel’s paper in the Penn Museum Bulletin, 1948.

Kober did not need decades of hindsight to recognize the soundness of Daniel’s methodology, though was critical of some of the sign identifications he had made. By 1941 Kober was already America’s foremost expert on the Linear B script, whether or not she had been recognized as such (and she most certainly had not been). Then, she was working at 5-4 teaching load at Brooklyn College, translating course materials into Braille, running the Latin and Drama clubs, and in her spare time (what little there must have been) cataloguing every word and every sign used in the Linear B script. Were she not a woman it is likely that her teaching load would have been less. She spent the summers learning new languages in the hope that wide linguistic study would enable her to identify the script’s underlying language.

Despite her unimaginably busy schedule, Kober had made a good bit of headway in her study of Linear B such that by the time she read Daniel’s work she had a lot to say, especially on the sections where he compared Cypro-Minoan signs to ones form Linear A and B. Kober, a relative unknown in the field and a woman at that, took a risk in sending Daniel a critique of his work. Though they hit it off at the AIA talk, she had no idea what to expect in response from him. Her anxiety over his response is evident in two drafts of her letter that her archives preserves (Kober to Daniel, November 15, 1941.1 and .2). Both letters are about ten pages long point-by-point responses to his work. The one she ends up sending is the slightly more deferential of the two, “I am not trying criticize. The article of yours is a model which other workers in the field might try to emulate but could never surpass. It is only because it was so excellent that I even thought about writing to you (November 15, 1941.1).”

Final draft of the first letter from Alice E. Kober to John Franklin Daniel.

She needn’t have worried about Daniel’s response. He replies to Kober with gratitude and enthusiasm, “you are… the first person who has done anything other than say that it looks wonderful,” he tells her, “which of course means that it doesn’t interest them” (Daniel to Kober, November 18, 1941). His reply matches hers, his own point-by-point response. These letters would be the start of a friendship that would last until Daniel’s death in 1948, only to be interrupted by Daniel’s involvement in the war from 1944-1946 as an OSS officer and spy. The war marks a turning point in the Kober-Daniel correspondence. Before the war, their correspondence is marked by longer, mostly academic emails. After the war, the tone and sense of urgency shifts to a near weekly peppering of short letters concerned mainly with administrative matters.

Daniel, now chief editor for the Journal and American Archaeology and curator of the Mediterranean Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum at the age of 36, proposes that Kober apply for a new position opening in the Classics department at UPENN. Letters show Daniel shepherding Kober through the application process on the one hand and advocating for her behind the scenes, “prepared to throw whatever weight [he has]” on the other (Daniel to Kober, October 25, 1947). When she ultimately didn’t receive the job after being a finalist, Daniel continued to advocate for her. He proposed that the Mediterranean Section at the Penn Museum establish a Center for Minoan Linguistic Research with Kober at the helm. In the meantime, he would write to her often asking for all sorts of professional advice from where to dig and which conferences to host.

alice_koberWhen Daniel died suddenly in 1948 on a scouting expedition for the site that would be known as Gordion, the idea for the Center of Minoan Linguistic Research died with him. His death changed the course of Alice Kober’s life, if not Aegean scripts history. She would spend the last four years of her life after Daniel’s death collating and correcting John L. Myres’ notes for Scripta Minoa III, a particularly arduous task given his poor eye sight and lack of intimacy with the scripts. Had the plans for the Center of Minoan Linguistic Research gone ahead, Kober would still likely have spent her last years mired in the administrative work required to set up an institute. But she also might have had more of an opportunity to pursue her own decipherment. In her notebooks, held at the University of Texas at Austin’s Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP), there is a partially completed grid of Linear B signs whose sound values are 80% correct.

Daniel’s letter exchange with Kober in which he treated her as an intellectual equal, if not superior, and his professional advocacy on her behalf were exceptional for the time period. Based on the little else we know about Daniel’s life, Kober was not the only strong woman he brought into his orbit. His wife, Ellen Alix DuPoy Taylor, was a journalist in 1920s Chicago. She then moved to Paris, where she was an outer member of Gertrude Stein’s salon. When Gertrude Stein died, Alix (as she was known) invited her partner Alice B. Toklas to stay with herself and Pete on their farm outside of Philadelphia to convalesce, of course not knowing that she herself would need a similar convalescences in the coming two years (Taylor to Toklas, July 29, 1946). I was not able to find much else out about Alix or Pete’s personal lives, but the little we know suggests that they were strong advocates, personally and professionally, for the women in their lives in a time period where such advocacy wasn’t popular or easy. That’s why Daniel’s death and its ramifications for Aegean scripts history were as impactful as they were.


~ Cassandra Donnelly (Visiting Fellow at the CREWS project)


2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Scholars, and the Center for Minoan Linguistic Research that never came to exist

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