8 Ancient Writing Systems That Haven't Been Deciphered Yet

The Indus Valley civilization was one of the most advanced in the world for more than 500 years, with more than a thousand settlements sprawling across 250,000 square miles of what is now Pakistan and northwest India from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. It had several large, well-planned cities like Mohenjo-daro, common iconography—and a script no one has been able to understand. 

Over at Nature, Andrew Robinson looks at the reasons why the Indus Valley script has been so difficult to crack, and details some recent attempts to decipher it. Since we don't know anything about the underlying language and there's no multilingual Rosetta stone, scholars have analyzed its structure for clues and compared it to other scripts. Most Indologists think it's "logo-syllabic" script like Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs. But they disagree about whether it was a spoken language or a full writing system; some believe it represented only part of an Indus language, Robinson writes. 

One team has created the first publicly available, electronic corpus of Indus texts. Another, led by computer scientist Rajesh Rao, analyzed the randomness in the script's sequences. Their results indicated it's most similar to Sumerian cuneiform, which suggests it may represent a language. Read the full article for more details.   

The Indus Valley script is far from the only one to remain mysterious. Here are eight others you might try your hand at deciphering.

1. Linear A

In 1893, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans purchased some ancient stones with mysterious inscriptions on them at a flea market in Athens. On a later trip to the excavations at Knossos on the island of Crete, he recognized one of the symbols from his stones and began a study of the engraved tablets being uncovered at various sites on the island. He discovered two different systems, which he called Linear A and Linear B. While Linear B was deciphered in the early 1950s (it turned out to represent an early form of Greek), Linear A, above, has still not been deciphered.

2. Cretan Hieroglyphics


The excavations on Crete also revealed a third type of writing system, with symbols that looked more picture-like than those of the linear scripts. Some of these symbols are similar to elements in Linear A. It is assumed that the hieroglyphic script developed into Linear A, though the two systems were both in use during the same time period.

3. Wadi el-Hol script


In the 1990s, a pair of Yale archaeologists discovered a graffiti-covered cliff wall at the Wadi el-Hol (Gulch of Terror) in Egypt. Most of the inscriptions were in systems they could recognize, but one of them was unfamiliar. It looks like an early transition from a hieroglyphic to an alphabetic system, but it hasn't yet been deciphered.

4. Sitovo inscription


In 1928 a group of woodcutters found some markings carved into a Bulgarian cliffside. They thought the marks indicated hidden treasure, but none was found. Word got around and soon some archaeologists had a look. Later, the head of the expedition was executed for being a secret agent for the Soviets in Bulgaria. One piece of evidence used against him was a strange coded message he had sent to Kiev—actually a copy of the cliffside inscription he had sent to colleagues for scholarly input. It is not clear what language the inscription represents. Thracian, Celtic, Sarmato-Alanian, and Slavic are some of the possibilities scholars have argued for. Another suggestion is that it's simply a natural rock formation.

5. Olmec writing

The Olmecs were an ancient Mexican civilization best known for the statues they left behind: the so-called "colossal heads." In 1999, their writing system was revealed when road builders unearthed an inscribed stone tablet. The tablet shows 62 symbols; some look like corn or bugs, and some are more abstract. It has been dated to 900 B.C., which would make it the oldest example of writing in the Western Hemisphere.

6. Singapore stone


There once was a giant engraved slab made of sandstone at the mouth of the Singapore River. It had been there for 700 years or so when, in 1819, workers uncovered it while clearing away jungle trees. A few scholars got a look at it before it was blown to bits in order to make space for a fort to protect the British settlements. The parts that didn’t end up in the river were eventually used for road gravel, though some fragments were saved. The script hasn't been deciphered, but there have been various suggestions for what language it might represent: ancient Ceylonese, Tamil, Kawi, Old Javanese, and Sanskrit.

7. Rongorongo


When missionaries got to Easter Island in the 1860s, they found wooden tablets carved with symbols. They asked the Rapanui natives what the inscriptions meant, and were told that nobody knew anymore, since the Peruvians had killed off all the wise men. The Rapanui used the tablets as firewood or fishing reels, and by the end of the century they were nearly all gone. Rongorongo is written in alternating directions; you read a line from left to right, then turn the tablet 180 degrees and read the next line.

8. Proto-Elamite

Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

This ancient writing system was used more than 5000 years ago in what is now Iran. Written from right to left, the script is unlike any other ancient scripts; while the proto-Elamites appear to have borrowed the idea for a written language from their Mesopotamian contemporaries, they apparently invented their own symbols—and didn't bother to keep track of them in an organized way, proto-Elamite expert and Oxford University scholar Jacob Dahl told the BBC in 2012. Around that time, he and his Oxford colleagues asked for help from the public in deciphering proto-Elamite. They released high-quality images of clay tablets covered in Proto-Elamite, hoping that crowdsourcing could decode them. Now a collaboration involving several institutions, the project is ongoing

Attention Nintendo Fans: You're Pronouncing 'NES' All Wrong

Mark Ramsay, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0. Cropped.
Mark Ramsay, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0. Cropped.

More than 30 years after its debut, the NES re-entered the public consciousness when Nintendo released the NES Classic. Its return has prompted a new generation of gamers to ask some important questions, like "When will the NES be back in stock?," "They're selling for how much on eBay?," and "How do you pronounce NES anyway?" Lifehacker has the answer to that last query, and it may be different than what you expect.

This screenshot from the Japanese version of WarioWare Gold for 3DS, shared on Twitter by gamer Kyle McLain, holds a major clue to the console name's true pronunciation. Above the English abbreviation NES, Nintendo has included the Japanese characters “ne” and “su.” Together, they make what NES would sound like if it was pronounced "ness" in Japan.

That would make NES an acronym, not an initialism, but there's still some evidence in support of the latter camp. This video was shared by Twitter user Doctor_Cornelius in reply to the original Tweet, and it features a vintage American Nintendo commercial. At the 1:58 mark, the announcer can clearly be heard saying "The Power Glove for your N-E-S."

So which way is correct? Nintendo is a Japanese company, so gamers may have reason to trust the instincts of the Japanese marketers over the American ones. Either way, if you want to stick with whatever pronunciation you've been saying this whole time, the company is technically on your side.

[h/t Lifehacker]

Buy Books and Never Read Them? There's a Japanese Word for That

iStock
iStock

In English, stockpiling books without ever reading them might be called being a literary pack rat. People in Japan have a much nicer term for the habit: tsundoku.

According to the BBC, the term tsundoku derives from the words tsumu ("to pile up") and doku ("to read"), and it has been around for more than a century. One of its earliest known print appearances dates back to 1879, when a Japanese satirical text playfully referred to a professor with a large collection of unread books as tsundoku sensei.

While accusing someone of caring more about owning books than reading them may sound insulting, in Japan, the word tsundoku doesn't carry any negative connotations. Tsundoku isn't the same as hoarding books obsessively. People who engage in tsundoku at least intend to read the books they buy, in contrast to people with bibliomania, who collect books just for the sake of having them.

There are many reasons someone might feel compelled to purchase a physical book. Though e-books are convenient, many people still prefer hard copies. Physical books can be easier on the eyes and less distracting than e-readers, and people who read from ink-and-paper texts have an easier time remembering a story's timeline than people who read digital books. Of course, the only way to enjoy those benefits is by pulling a book off your shelf and actually reading it—something people practicing tsundoku never get around to.

[h/t BBC]

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