The world’s oldest undeciphered writing system, which has so far defied attempts to uncover its 5,000-year-old secrets, could be about to be decoded by Oxford University academics.
This international research project is already casting light on a lost bronze age middle eastern society where enslaved workers lived on rations close to the starvation level.
"I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough," says Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.
Dr Dahl’s secret weapon is being able to see this writing more clearly than ever before.
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.
And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.
Dr Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.
The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.
It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.
These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.
He says it’s misleading to think that codebreaking is about some lonely genius suddenly understanding the meaning of a word. What works more often is patient teamwork and the sharing of theories. Putting the images online should accelerate this process.
But this is painstaking work. So far Dr Dahl has deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but he says that after more than 10 years study much remains unknown, even such basic words as "cow" or "cattle".
He admits to being "bitten" by this challenge. "It’s an unknown, uncharted territory of human history," he says.
But why has this writing proved so difficult to interpret?
Dr Dahl suspects he might have part of the answer. He’s discovered that the original texts seem to contain many mistakes - and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.
He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.
This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years. "It’s an early example of a technology being lost," he says.
"The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless."
Making it even harder to decode is the fact that it’s unlike any other ancient writing style. There are no bi-lingual texts and few helpful overlaps to provide a key to these otherwise arbitrary looking dashes and circles and symbols.
This is a writing system - and not a spoken language - so there’s no way of knowing how words sounded, which might have provided some phonetic clues.
Dr Dahl says that one of the really important historical significances of this proto-Elamite writing is that it was the first ever recorded case of one society adopting writing from another neighbouring group.
The Proto-Elamite period is the time of ca. 3200 BC to 2700 BC when Susa, the later capital of the Elamites, began to receive influence from the cultures of the Iranian plateau. In archaeological terms this corresponds to the late Banesh period. This civilization is recognized as the oldest in Iran and was largely contemporary with its neighbour, Sumerian civilization, the oldest in the world, which began around 3400 BC.
The Proto-Elamite script is an Early Bronze Age writing system briefly in use for the ancient Elamite language before the introduction of Elamite Cuneiform.
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