10 Undeciphered Writing Systems of the Ancient World

ancient proto-Elamite writing system (Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen; writing systems like Proto-Elamite remain largely undeciphered)

Language – and the written word – forms the basis of our everyday lives. We rely on it for an incredible amount of information, from checking the temperature and figuring out what’s on television to high level communication, career progression, interpersonal relations and everything in between. It’s a little mind-boggling to consider the sheer volume of information our writing systems contain. Now think of life without access to that information.

Archaeologists, linguists and historians are still debating the manner in which our written languages developed. Thousands of years ago, mankind was just beginning to develop ways of jotting down our thoughts and ideas in a way that others could understand. But the meanings behind many of those ancient writing systems have long been lost to time. There remains a plethora of languages and writing systems as yet undeciphered from ancient cultures and civilizations. We’ve lost their thoughts, their rituals and their words…. but we haven’t given up yet. Here are 10 of compelling examples.

Vinča symbols

Vinča symbols - a proto-writing system (Images: Nikola Smolenski (left, right); Vinča symbols, an early proto-writing system)

The Vinča symbols aren’t considered a completely developed language; they’re what is referred to as proto-writing, which means they convey a message without being an evolved writing system with direct linguistic content.

Most of the samples have been found on pottery shards, and were first discovered in 1875. While we still have no idea what any of the Vinča symbols mean, archaeologists have continued to uncover more samples across the lands of the old Vinca culture, which spanned a vast area of Central and Southeastern Europe, through what’s now Greece, Romanian, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldova and into eastern Hungary.

The same proto-writing symbols show up again and again. They include abstract images like crosses, along with apparent representations of animals and more literal figures. The Vinča symbols are considered to be the oldest example of a proto-writing system ever excavated, and the earliest have been dated to 5300 BC. One prevalent theories suggests they were used primarily in religious ceremonies. Many ancient artifacts containing the script were found in refuse piles, leading some archaeologists to believe that items were inscribed for ritual uses then discarded after they had fulfilled their purpose.

Proto-Elamite

proto-Elamite scrip and numerics (Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen; Proto-Elamite economic tablet)

To date, archaeologists and historians have discovered more than 1,600 published texts written in the Ancient Near East writing system of Proto-Elamite – but we still have no idea how to read them. Used in the area we now know as Iran, the language was developed some time around 3000 BC. And, in the grand scheme of things, the ancient writing system was only used for a short amount of time before going out of fashion.

Most of the tablets inscribed with the strange writing are held by the Lourve Museum and the National Iranian Museum. But through the development of modern technology, Oxford University has made the tablets available to anyone with plenty of time on their hands and internet access. Images of most of the tablets have been uploaded to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative in a bid to crowd-source expertise from members of the public.

Dr. Jacob Dahl heads up the project, which also incorporates state-of-the-art imaging technology to unlock the tablets’ secrets. Part of the reason why it’s taking scholars so long to decode the ancient writing system is the fact that Proto-Elamite is unlike any other language they’ve dealt with before, but they also think it’s full of mistakes and corrections.

Quipu

quipu (Image: Claus Ableiter; quipu, a mysterious numeric system)

Quipu are also called ‘talking knots’, and the writing system isn’t a language in the typical sense. Used by the inhabitants of the Andes between the 3rd millennium BC and the 17th century, records of various quipu were left by Spanish conquistadors as they documented the newly discovered civilizations they swept across.

The quipu is a series of strings – usually spun from cotton – attached to a cord. The strings were tied with different types of knots, depending on what they sought to indicate. Even though archaeologists know that it’s a type of accounting system overseen by people called quipucamayocs, they’re not sure what the different knots mean, and they’re still debating whether or not other types of quipu contain information not related to numbers. Analysis has led to the decoding of the numeric system used in the quipu, but others still insist that there’s more to the writing system than just maths. Comparison between quipus and pieces of ceremonial dress have revealed a series of patterns, but just what those patterns represent hasn’t been determined.

Jiahu Symbols

Jiahu symbols possibly an early example of proto-writing (Image: via Wikipedia; Jiahu symbols)

In 2003, archaeologists revealed a stunning discovery – the oldest symbols ever written, carved into ancient tortoise shells. They came from an area of China called Jiahu, at a site that was dated to somewhere between 6600 and 6200 BC.

While no one is certain exactly what the symbols mean, some historians suggested they may have been employed in a similar manner to the way we might use a skull-and-crossbones to represent poison today. But according to Professor David Keightley of the University of California, Berkeley, the symbols shouldn’t be considered a ‘writing’ system until more examples are found.

Some Jiahu symbols bear a striking resemblance to more modern Chinese characters, but researchers have shied away from the temptation to link the two languages – there’s more than 5,000 years between them, after all, and nothing to say that their meanings didn’t change considerably in that time. Eleven separate characters have been identified, which may have preceded a fully developed writing system despite not being a language themselves.

Southwest Script

Southwest Script on an ancient Iberian tombstone (Image: Georges Jansoone; Southwest Script on an ancient tombstone)

Southwest Script is also called Southwestern Script, Taressian, or (more controversially) Southwest Paleohispanic Script. It’s found almost exclusively on large stone monuments called steles in the extreme southernmost reaches of Portugal and areas of Spain, and has been dated to around the 7th to the 5th century BC.

The ancient writing system is thought to be a semi-syllabary, meaning individual characters sometimes stand for a single letter, as in the English alphabet, and sometimes an entire syllable. While it bears some resemblance to other area scripts from the same time, this ancient language has a series of signs and symbols that are unique, and thus remain undeciphered

What the writing system says remains a mystery, it’s thought that the examples found to date have something to do with the area’s early funeral culture and burial rites. Of the 75 samples of the mysterious writing system found, 16 are on display at the Southwest Script Museum in Almodovar, Portugal.

The Phaistos Disc & the Arkalochori Axe

phaistos-disc (Image: C messier; the mysterious Phaistos Disc)

The Phaistos Disc is a mysterious artifact recovered from Crete in 1908, covered in symbols that no one has yet been able to translate. The clay disc is thought to date back to around 1700 BC, and even though it’s relatively small at six inches across, it contains 45 different signs repeated over 242 images. Educated guesses have identified what some of them are, but no one has been able to figure out where to begin when it comes to actually reading the piece.

the ancient Arkalochori Axe (Image: C messier; the Arkalochori Axe)

While the writing system is completely undeciphered so far, there could be another example of it – the Arkalochori Axe. Both are held by the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, and a mapping of the axe’s symbols seems to indicate that 13 of them are also found on the Phaistos Disc. While some scholars think the symbols might belong to an undeciphered writing system called Linear A, which was used by the Minoan civilization and gave rise to Linear B – there’s still considerable disagreement on precisely which language grouping the symbols belong to.

The Cascajal Block

mysterious writing system on the Cascajal Block (Image: Michael Everson; the Cascajal block’s undeciphered writing system)

Discovered in the early 1990s by construction workers near Veracruz, Mexico, the Cascajal block wasn’t studied in detail until 2006. It was only then that it was identified as the oldest writing sample ever found in the Americas, and its meaning remains a mystery.

Researchers have determined that the symbols carved into the tablet are an actual language, rather than just a series of random images. Of the 28 different glyphs, most are repeated in a pattern similar to that of an alphabet. Signs of syntax patterns and repetition suggest that the glyphs represent the writing system of the Olmecs, the oldest complex, structured society in Mexico. The Cascajal block was dated to around 900 BC, putting it right in the middle of the time frame of the Olmec civilization.

Even though the writing system hasn’t been deciphered, the tablet has helped shine a light onto this fascinating ancient American civilization. The surface of the stone was worn away, suggesting that tablets were used again and again, their symbols sanded down. Its small size makes it unlikely that the Cascajal block was attached to a monument or displayed in public. It was more likely a private piece. Just what it says, though, will likely remain a mystery until more examples of the writing system are uncovered.

Isthmian Script

the Mesoamerican undeciphered writing system Isthmian script (Image: Maunus; Isthmian script on ancient Mesoamerican stela)

In use between about 500 BC and 500 AD (although those dates are up for as much debate as the other theories about this ancient writing system), Isthmian script has been found on a small number of texts on Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Archaeologists believed the ancient Mesoamerican writing system is similar to that used by the Maya, and generally agree that two sets of characters exist within the language. One set is used to depict entire words, while the other represents individual syllables.

The writing shows up in a number of different places, including on pottery shards, a mask, clay artifacts, as well as a number of stelae at the Cerro de las Mesas archaeological site.

In 1993, a proposal was put forward by two researchers who claimed to have at least partially deciphered the writing system, followed by other papers with similar claims in 1997 and 2003. Those translations have been hotly debated, though, and there are still no concrete, widely accepted answers.

Proto-Sinaitic & the Wadi el-Hol Inscriptions

Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions (Image: via Wikipedia; Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions)

Proto-Sinaitic dates to between 1900 and 1700 BC. While the writing system isn’t strictly undeciphered – it was partially decoded in 1916 by Alan Gardiner – there are offshoots of the script that haven’t been translated. One version orders their letters in the same way as the Phoenician or Hebrew alphabets, and the same script has letters that vary considerably in their execution.

In 1999, Yale University Egyptologist Dr. John Darnell discovered an entirely new version of proto-Sinaitic carved into the cliff face by the ancient road that ran between Abydos and Thebes. The inscriptions were near Luxor, and at the time they were carved, they would have been alongside a road frequently used by traders, messengers and travelers of all sorts – especially members of the military and mercenaries.

The Wad el-Hol inscriptions use about 30 different characters, and Darnell described them to the BBC as being of a Semitic language with a clear Egyptian influence. The carvings were dated to around 1600 BC, and turned the theory about the origins of written language on its head. Originally, it was thought that proto-Sinaitic was developed from Egyptian hieroglyphics by Semitic peoples living in the Sinai Peninsula and further north. But the Wad el-Hol inscriptions suggest the writing system actually came from inside Egypt, perhaps as a form of shorthand designed by the Egyptian military to communicate with Semitic speakers.

The Dispilio Tablet

the mysterious Dispilio Tablet (Image: Yorgos Facorellis;  the mysterious Dispilio tablet)

One of the greatest shifts in written language was the change from using pictures to represent ideas to using images to represent letters of an alphabet that are assembled to create words in a bid to convey meaning. No one is entirely sure how that change came about, and the discovery of the Dispilio tablet in 1994 only made the matter even more complicated.

The Dispilio tablet (sometimes referred to as the Dispilio scripture or Dispilio disk) seems to be etched with symbols that represent letters rather than ideas, and it’s been carbon-dated to around 5260 BC. Even though the mysterious tablet was damaged when it was removed from the mud and water that had helped preserve it, the symbols are still clear.

While most ideograms are recognizable as the images that they represent – the sun or a person, for example – these markings bear a more striking resemblance to the letters we use today. It’s possible that the Dispilio tablet is proof that the ancient Greeks had developed a writing system much earlier than previously thought, answering one of the most intriguing questions of linguistic history: how did ancient poets like Homer produce such timeless works when common thought suggests they had – literally – just learned to write?

Related: Ancient Artifacts? 10 Mysterious Relics Shrouded in Controversy

 
 
 

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