Crowdsourcing an Ancient Script

Proto-Elamite was a writing system used 5,000 years ago by the proto-Elamite people, the oldest known civilization in Iran. Although it was written in clay tablets like cuneiform and probably inspired by the proto-Elamites’ Mesopotamian neighbors, the proto-Elamite script is quite different in appearance, consisting mainly of lines and circles. These differences, along with the lack of any bilingual tablets like the Rosetta stone, have kept proto-Elamite a mystery to scholars. As an added bonus, some of the tablets we do have appear to be riddled with errors caused by poorly educated scribes.

Now, Jacob Dahl of Oxford’s Wolfson College believes that with the help of new technology and crowdsourcing, the script may soon be a mystery no more. He told the BBC, “I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough” in understanding the script.

Dr. Dahl is using a machine called a Reflectance Transformation Imaging System to capture incredibly rich, incredibly detailed images of the Proto-Elamite tablets stored at the Louvre. These images are being made available to other scholars and the general public at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative’s website.

The new, clearer images and easy access should make it easier for scholars from all over the world to have a go at translating the tablets. In a press release from Oxford, Dr. Dahl commented that

“The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning. Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t.”

Interestingly, scholars now believe that the proto-Elamite script used a syllabary (where different symbols represent different sounds) instead of a collection of pictographs (where the symbols represent objects). This may be one reason it’s so hard to translate, especially since we don’t know what the language it represents sounded like.

According to Dr, Dahl, if the tablets are deciphered, it would revolutionize our understanding of how writing developed:

“Half of the signs used in this way seem to have been invented ex novo for the sounds they represent – if this turns out to be the case, it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phonetecism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle (a modern example would be for example “I see you”, written with the three signs ‘eye’, the ‘sea’, and a ‘ewe’).”

Rosetta Stone

Unlocking the Meaning of an Ancient Hieroglyphic Script

Translating ancient scripts is difficult, especially when the civilization they belonged to is long gone.

We lucked out with the ancient Egyptians when we found the Rosetta Stone, which had the same passage translated into three different scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and classical Greek. Since linguists could read classical Greek, they were able to use this knowledge to understand the hieroglyphic script on the stone.

However, there is no similar artefact available for ancient scripts such as the hieroglyphics used by the Indus Valley civilization. These people lived approximately 4,000 years ago, along what it now the Indian-Pakistani border. They were very technologically advanced for that time, living in cities equipped with the first known urban sanitation systems in the world.

They were also excellent traders who developed an extremely accurate, standardized system of weights and measures. But could they write? Many of their artefacts are decorated with symbols, but nobody knows what these symbols mean. In fact, some researchers doubt that they even represent a written language at all.

So, researchers at the University of Washington have teamed up with researchers from India to try to translate the script using computers. The computer program looks at existing examples of the script and tries to perceive patterns in the order of the symbols.

Using a statistical method called the Markov model; the program has been able to demonstrate that the placement of symbols follows a logical pattern, supporting the theory that they represent a language. As one of the researchers noted in the article referenced above, “The finding that the Indus script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia is provocative. This finding is hard to reconcile with the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols.”

What Killed The Sumerian Language?

It’s a puzzle that’s long vexed archaeologists, historians and linguists alike. What caused the decline the of the ancient Sumerian civilization and the language they spoke?

The ancient Sumerians were the first civilization to invent a system of writing. Cuneiform tablets that describe their laws, myths and stories still survive today. For centuries, the Sumerian language was spoken in the Mesopotamian region of Sumer, located in what is now Iraq. However, some time around 2000 BCE, people stopped speaking it in favor of the language of the nearby Akkadians. Eventually, they also stopped writing and studying it.

What caused the decline? A geologist named Matt Konfirst says that local climate change could be the culprit. But can a drought really kill off a language? Maybe…especially if it’s a drought that lasts centuries.

Konfirst’s findings, which were written up on LiveScience, were presented to colleagues on December 3rd at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. In his presentation, he described what he believes happened:

“This was not a single summer or winter, this was 200 to 300 years of drought…As we go into the 4,200-year-ago climate anomaly, we actually see that estimated rainfall decreases substantially in this region and the number of sites that are populated at this time period reduce substantially.”

As the Sumerian city-states declined, the once-proud civilization made easy prey for invading nomads. The population of Sumer moved to the north, and according to Live Science, 74 percent of the ancient Mesopotamian settlements were abandoned. The Sumerian people had long maintained close ties to the Akkadians, and eventually Akkadian replaced Sumerian completely as a spoken language.

But did climate change really kill off the Sumerian language? Certainly not by itself. According to Wikipedia, rising soil salinity in the region provided another strong incentive for the Sumerians to leave. A centuries-long drought was doubtless a contributing factor in the decline of the civilization and its language, but even if they’d had rain, the high salt levels in the soil would have made it difficult to grow enough food.

Dictionary Translates Language of the Everyday Ancient Egyptian

After almost four decades, scholars at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have finally finished their magnum opus: a dictionary of demotic Egyptian, the script used by commoners in ancient Egypt.

The elaborate hieroglyphs that adorn the tombs of the pharaohs were much too complicated to be suitable for everyday writing, so a more practical cursive script was developed alongside them. This eventually evolved into demotic Egyptian, used by everyday people to do things like record stories, write love letters, and draft contracts.

According to James Allen, an Egyptologist from Brown University, “there are more unpublished documents in Demotic than any other phase of ancient Egypt.” Now, it should be much easier for scholars to translate those documents. The final entries to the dictionary, which is free to use online, were published last month. It is expected to be released in book format in the future, for use in research libraries.

Gil Stein, the Oriental Institute’s director, told the New York Times that

“It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society. This will lead to mastering texts from the Egyptians themselves, not their rulers, at a time the country was becoming absorbed increasingly into the Greco-Roman world.”

Other scholars agree. Prof. Friedhelm Hoffmann of the Institute for Egyptology at the University of Munich told

“I myself have been using the Chicago Demotic Dictionary since the first letters were published, not only for looking up words and but also finding their meaning.”

The dictionary has simplified the translation of things like marriage annuities, which show how Egyptian husbands were obliged to provide for their wives, as well as financial records like tax receipts, which were kept on broken pieces of pottery. It may also have assisted in the translation of this “cult fiction” story, which describes the hedonistic and sometimes salacious religious rites practiced by acolytes of the Egyptian goddess Mut.

It also highlights how Demotic Egyptian has lived on through the years in some surprising places. For example, the word “adobe” is derived from Demotic, as is the word “ebony.” According to the New York Times, the name “Susan” is actually Demotic in origin, too. It means “water-lily.”

Image via Wikipedia: This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.