Archaeologists ranging in age from 2 to 12 returned to the nursery site this summer. Normal digs turn up Matchbox cars from the 1970s, Lego constructions from across the decades, and dolls with ageless or 1980s costumes. This year one of them uncovered a drawing of girls — all but one of whom has a name printed above her.
As you can surmise from the careful positioning between the lines of a wide-ruled sheet of paper, the girls are less than a centimeter with their arms spayed. Sandy is the shortest at under a centimeter. Julie and the one who is not named are the tallest at about .75 of a centimeter. Each has a unique outfit. Most of them have pig- or pony-tails. Quite a few of them have pupils in their eyes. They are a universally happy gaggle of girls.
Who made that drawing and when? Who are the girls it depicts?
While I can hazard a guess to the answer to those questions, I will learn soon after I post this blog because a regular reader is the likely artist and will remember the reason for the drawing or at least who the girls are.
When this drawing was unearthed in the nursery, I was reading The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox’s book on the challenge of deciphering the mysterious clay tablets excavated on Crete in 1900. The British archaeologist, Arthur Evans, named the unknown language Linear B. The palace at Knossos in which he found the tablets — and he found about 1,000 of them — was build by a literate, sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that predated Classical Athens by a millennium. But Evans did not know which civilization produced the tablets or what language they were written in. The pictograms resemble no other language ever seen. No one ever found a Rosetta-stone-equivalent to make the deciphering of Linear B easier.
Fox turns her potentially arcane topic into a gripping detective story and Column B above is a big clue! How do a few people pick their way though a problem for which there is absolutely no context? She explains, step-by-step, how a couple of dedicated souls working mostly independently spent half a century coaxing (as she calls it) the meaning from the pictograms.
Now, dear reader, I don’t see my problem of learning more about the girl drawing as being remotely similar. But the general demeanor of the nursery drawing with its fine detail, orderly alignment and its sign/signal quality — to borrow from semiotics and Derrida — seemed a minor variant on the mind-bendingly complex process of deciphering a code. For example, suppose one were to ask: based on what the drawing shows, what is the name of the unnamed girl? Then you’d move a fraction of a centimeter closer to the riddle Fox describes.
Now instead of doing any painstaking work, I’ll wait for the artist to fill me in — a luxury Ms. Kober (classicist at Brooklyn College) and Mr. Ventris (English architect) mentioned in that Linear B snippet never knew.