Undeciphered Scripts - Forgotten Ancient Languages

Undeciphered Scripts - Forgotten Ancient Languages

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Undeciphered Scripts

Hobo Signs. Karen Apricot

Undeciphered Scripts

Undeciphered scripts are remnants of ancient languages that historians and archaeologists and linguists and paleolinguists and lexicographers have yet to crack.

The following pages illustrate glyphs-carved, pressed, painted, or knotted-that meant something both to the writer and reader; but the meaning of them has been lost. We need to start with the basics, though.

What is Writing, After All?

Writing is generally defined as a set of signs that are used to represent language units in a systematic way. Whether carved into stone blocks, impressed into pottery, or knotted into strings, repetitive signs that hold a meaning beyond the lines or knots or impressions represent (as far as I'm concerned) a written language.

Types of Writing

Scholars divide language into classes by the kind of meaning each sign or glyph holds. Each individual glyph could refer to an idea or complete word, such as when an image of cow means "cow" or "cows". Alternatively, a syllabary sign refers to a syllable-a sound in the language, such as when the sign of a cow refers to the sound of the word for cow. Finally, a set of glyphs can combine both methods.

  • Logographic: each sign refers to a single word or part of a word
  • Logophonetic: some signs refer to words, some refer to sounds
  • Syllabic: signs mostly refer to the sounds they make
  • Consonantal alphabetic: signs refer to sounds, but no vowels
  • Syllabic alphabetic: signs refer to combined consonant and vowel
  • C&V alphabetic: signs are combined to make sounds

There's no point in me going into detail; the Ancient Scripts site does a terrific job of discussing all these types of languages.

  • Andrew Robinson. 2009. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read. New Scientist 2710: 27 May 2009.
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Olmec Language - The Cascajal Block

Image of the Cascajal block, Veracruz, Mexico. Stephen Houston (c) 2006

The Olmec language, while undeciphered as yet, is believed by some scholars to be ancestral to the Maya language.

The Olmec civilization (1200-400 BC) was the first fairly sophisticated civilization in North America, located in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The earliest known form of writing associated with the Olmec comes from the Cascajal Block, an enormous block of serpentine discovered in a gravel quarry in Veracruz and reported in Science magazine in 2006.

Olmec Language

This image from the Science story shows a handful of the 62 different glyphs illustrated on the block, thought to date to circa 900 BC. Only one has been tentatively identified as a precursor to the Maya language, ajaw, although it is clear that many at least appear to represent recognizable objects, an ear of maize, a shellfish, a bird, etc.

These four glyphs are numbers 52, 53, 54, and 55. For more detail on these and the other glyphs on the Cascajal block.

Sources for Olmec Language

  • Guide to the Olmec Civilization
  • Rodriguez Martinez, et al. 2006. Oldest writing in the New World. Science 313:1610-1614.
  • Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read. New Scientist 2710: 27 May 2009.
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Undeciphered Minoan Script Linear A

Sir Arthur Evans' Transcription of Linear A from Minoan Cup Interior. Arthur Evans and Dmitry Rozhkov Linear AAtlantisAriadne and the MinotaurKing Minos

The "legendary" aspect of the ancient Cretans, after all, only makes their language so intriguing a puzzle to be deciphered. Used between 1800-1450 BC, the language has about 7,000 characters, and although some have suggested it may be ancient Greek, it doesn't seem to fit any Greek lexicon.

This image is Sir Arthur Evans' transcription of the letters on the base of a cup-Linear A wasn't as a rule written in spirals.

  • Linear A
  • Minoan Civilization
  • Linear A, John Younger
  • Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read. New Scientist 2710: 27 May 2009.
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Khipu - South America's Undeciphered Script

Quipu pendants showing three common types of multi-colored cords. Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, Germany. Photo (c) Gary Urton. VA#42554

Khipu are what the Inca Empire used to communicate-but we don't really know what, although many scholars have tried to crack the code. The Inca-and their forebears in South America, the Caral-Supe-used wool and cotton threads, dyed different colors and knotted in myriad ways, to express-something. The knots may have kept accounts-who grew how much maize this year or how many llama were lost in the last storm; and/or personal histories-the Inca were very much into ancestor worship and who you were descended from mattered very much indeed.

The oldest khipu discovered to date were found at the Caral site in Peru, dated to 4600 BC; khipu were also kept by the Inca between the 13th and 16th centuries AD; and although there is not much (if any) evidence for khipu use in the cultures in between it is a sure bet that knotted string continued as a language transmittal system during that period. Hundreds, maybe thousands of khipu were destroyed during the Spanish conquest, who viewed the khipu as heresy. Only a few hundred khipu are left and they may never be decoded.

More on the Khipu

  • Khipu at Caral
  • Khipu, glossary entry
  • Knotty Problems
  • Narrative Threads, a book summarizing different possible interpretations of Khipu.
  • Cracking the Khipu Code
  • Caral Supe/Norte Chico Civilization
  • Inca Empire
  • Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read. New Scientist 2710: 27 May 2009.
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Undeciphered Indus Script

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer /

The Indus Script-the remnants of the writing system of the Indus civilization-has been identified on seals and buildings and pottery, about 6,000 of them so far, used between about 2500 and 1900 BC. The glyphs are most often used on seals-rectangular ceramic objects that may (or may not) have been used to make marks in soft clay.

This image is from a recent report in Nature, discussing the latest side of the ongoing debate over whether the glyphs represent language or not. They made for a pretty photo essay, though.

Further Information on Indus Script

  • Seals of the Indus Civilization Photo Essay
  • Indus Civilization
  • Is the Indus Script a Language? Photo essay
  • Rao, Rajesh P. N., et al. 2009 Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script. Science Express 23 April 2009
  • Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read. New Scientist 2710: 27 May 2009.