5,000 year old writing system may finally be decoded

Source: bbc.co.uk/news

Scholars at Oxford University working on an ancient writing system called “proto-Elamite” may have finally unlocked the secret to deciphering it, thanks to a breakthrough in technology that allows academics to view the inscriptions more clearly than they were previously capable of doing.

From the article:

In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilisations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light.

This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software.

It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.

This machine, using a combination of computer processing in conjunction with 76 photographic lights, allows every facet of the tablets to be captured, and allows it to be viewed from any angle, with every groove and notch displayed in strikingly high detail.

The writing system has no bilingual texts or overlaps, and the spoken language that it accompanies fell out of use thousands of years ago, meaning that it is fiendishly difficult to decode. Besides that, a major hurdle for scholars seeking to learn the meaning of what appear to be arbitrary dots, dashes, circles and other symbols is the fact that the only extant texts contain many mistakes and inconsistencies, due to a lack of scholarly tradition among the people who originally engraved the symbols onto the tablets. In 10 years of work, Dr. Dahl has managed to decipher around 1,200 different symbols, but due to the difficulty of the decoding process he still lacks plenty of basic vocabulary.

The key to the decoding of the language that has mystified scholars for centuries is not only the technological breakthrough itself, but the ability to easily crowd-source the entire project via the internet – the images will be uploaded online to allow any and all linguistic cryptographers to contribute their knowledge and findings to the project.

Like the building of the famous Enigma machine during the Second World War, cryptology is very rarely one person doing all the work – it usually consists of a large team each contributing their worth towards cracking the code. The ability to make the images easily available to millions of people means that the code of the proto-Elamite writing system could finally be broken.