Deciphering History: Andrew Robinson Looks at Some Linguistic Puzzles Still Facing Historians

By Robinson, Andrew | History Today, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Deciphering History: Andrew Robinson Looks at Some Linguistic Puzzles Still Facing Historians


Robinson, Andrew, History Today


WRITING IS, AMONG the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible. Yet it is a skill most writers take for granted. Looking at a page in a foreign script that is totally incomprehensible to us--perhaps Arabic or Japanese--reminds us forcibly of the nature of our achievement. An extinct script, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Babylonian cuneiform or the glyphs of the ancient Maya of Central America, may strike us as little short of miraculous and bizarrely different from our own alphabetic scripts. We want to know what kind of people the early writers were, and what kind of information, ideas and feelings they chose to make permanent. But to obtain such insights it is first necessary to decipher the ancient scripts: to understand not only the sign system but also the spoken language the signs encoded.

Deciphering has its roots in the Renaissance fascination with ancient Egypt, although the actual word was not coined until 1677, when an Englishman, Thomas Herbert, referring to the mysterious cuneiform inscriptions of the Persian king Darius at Persepolis, called them:

   well worthy of tire scrutiny of those ingenious persons that delight 
   themselves in the dark and difficult Art or Exercise of deciphering. 

Some groundwork in deciphering was laid in the eighteenth century, but it was not until the 1820s that there was a great breakthrough, with Jean-Francois Champollion's `cracking' of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, aided by the Rosetta stone. In the 1850s, the several cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia started to reveal their secrets; in the first half of the twentieth century, the Hittite (Luvian) hieroglyphs of Anatolia were deciphered; in the 1950s, the Linear B script of the Mycenaeans and Minoans was understood; and in the final decades of the last century, the Mayan glyphs began to make sense to scholars--to mention only the most famous decipherments.

However some ancient scripts still defy decipherment. Although elements of them are understood by scholars, we can only guess at the meanings of particular inscriptions. There are at least eight major examples--though many more if we count the scripts of which there are only tantalising fragments. These include the proto-Sinaitic script dated to c.1500 BC and found a century ago on sphinxes and rocks in the ancient Egyptian mines of Sinai, which was once thought to be a precursor of the first alphabet; and the unique, punched disc found in 1908 in Phaistos in Crete, the date of which, c.1700 BC, means that it has a claim to be the world's first printed document.

The most important undeciphered script is that of the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan and northwestern India, since it is the writing of a great civilisation, that of ancient India, c.2500-1800 BC, one of the four `first' civilisations along with those of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Other undeciphered scripts include Linear A from Crete and the Aegean, which is older than Linear B and probably was the script of King Minos; the Etruscan script of Italy, which is essentially the Greek alphabet but with an underlying language that seems to be unrelated to any other European language; the Zapotec script of Mexico, which predates Mayan and appears to be the oldest writing in the Americas; the Meroitic script of the African kingdom of Meroe (Kush) in today's Nubia, which has at least some resemblance to the hieroglyphs of its northern neighbour Egypt; and the rongorongo script of isolated Easter Island, the only writing from pre-colonial Oceania (assuming its origin really does predate the arrival of Europeans on Easter Island, which is disputed). If it could be proved that rongorongo was invented on the island independently of outsiders, this would be extremely powerful evidence that writing has had multiple origins rather than a single origin, apparently in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. …

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