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.”


Translation Reveals Depth of Egyptian Medical Knowledge

Hippocrates may be revered as the “father of medicine,” but the ancient Egyptians deserve much of the credit.

After assisting in the translation of a 16th-17th Dynasty Egyptian papyrus, Dr. Gonzalo M. Sanchez was “blown away” by how modern much of the content seemed. As he told the Pierre Capital Journal, when it came to trauma, the almost 4,000-year-old papyrus ” was telling me exactly the same thing to look for that I was going down to the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Room and seeing.”

The document in question, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, is an ancient medical textbook that dates back to around 1500 BCE. Unlike most of the other surviving Egyptian medical texts, it focuses mainly on practical healthcare matters as opposed to magic. Though there is no author, some of the original material may have been written centuries earlier by Imhotep, who was a great Egyptian doctor and the architect behind the first pyramid.

Dr. Sanchez provided medical commentary for the latest translation of this document, called the “The Edwin Smith Papyrus: Updated Translation of the Trauma Treatise and Modern Medical Commentaries.” The new translation also benefits from a more up-to-date understanding of ancient Egypt and of the Egyptian hieratic script, courtesy of Egyptologist Edmund S. Meltzer.

In the Pierre Capital Journal, Dr. Sanchez explained how working on the medical translation increased his appreciation for the medical expertise of the ancient Egyptians:

“What we attribute to Hippocrates, of establishing a method to study patients, is here. And it’s here way before him. The major merit is not that they could do brain surgery and build computers,” he said. “They couldn’t do that. The major benefit of Egyptian medicine is that they established a system to study the patient and to document things for further advancement and teaching. That is the contribution.”

That shouldn’t be surprising, really. Even in ancient Greece, Egyptian doctors commanded the utmost respect. In the Odyssey, Homer states that “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind. ” Hippocrates himself trained in the Egyptian temple of Amenhotep.