Although humans have been writing for at least 5,000 years, many scripts have stopped being used and as use of them has died away, so has the knowledge enabling us to read them. This has resulted in many ancient writing systems - and some more recent ones – either being lost to us completely, or for hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years.
Knowledge of how to read and write Egyptian hieroglyphs had been lost for hundreds of years when scholars in Europe from the Renaissance on attempted to decipher them. It was thought they would reveal the mystical wisdom of ancient Egyptian priests.
The Rosetta Stone, a stela found in Egypt in 1799 by soldiers from Napoleon’s army, was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs. The stone is inscribed with a decree passed by a council of priests that affirms the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation. The inscription is written in hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration).
Being bilingual, the Rosetta Stone sparked huge excitement among scholars attempting to crack the code of hieroglyphs. A lot of work was done and some hugely inaccurate translations made, but the major steps were taken towards a decipherment by English physicist, Thomas Young (1773-1829).
Young discovered that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of names, including Ptolemy. However, he believed the script only used sound, or phonetic, signs in special cases, such as foreign names and was mostly symbolic.
French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) took the next step. He studied a number of new inscriptions that came to light and recorded names that he was able to identify as representing sounds. From there he was able to prove that hieroglyphs were not simply pictures, but recorded the sound of the Egyptian language. By cracking this code Champollion made it possible to reveal the history and culture of ancient Egypt.
The decipherment of cuneiform began in the eighteenth century as European scholars searched for proof of the places and events recorded in the Bible. Travellers, antiquaries and some of the earliest archaeologists visited the ancient Near East where they uncovered great cities such as Nineveh. They brought back a range of artefacts, including thousands of clay tablets covered in cuneiform.
Scholars began the incredibly difficult job of trying to decipher these strange signs representing languages no-one had heard for thousands of years. Gradually the cuneiform signs representing these different languages were deciphered thanks to the work of a number of dedicated people.
Confirmation that they had succeeded came in 1857. The Royal Asiatic Society sent copies of a newly found clay record of the military and hunting achievements of King Tiglath-pileser I (reigned 1114-1076 BC) to four scholars, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert and William H. Fox Talbot. They each worked independently and returned translations that broadly agreed with each other.
This was accepted as proof that cuneiform had been successfully deciphered, but there are still elements that we don’t completely understand and the study continues. What we have been able to read, however, has opened up the ancient world of Mesopotamia. It has not only revealed information about trade, building and government, but also great works of literature, history and everyday life in the region.
In the 1950s it was discovered that the script combined signs representing whole words with signs representing syllables. Certain glyphs were recognized as naming specific people and cities (known as Name Glyphs and Emblem Glyphs respectively). However, only around 85% of known Maya glyphs can now be read.
Stories yet to be told
Other ancient scripts yet to be fully deciphered include that of the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished in modern northwest India and Pakistan from around 2600 to 1900 BC. Among its achievements is a script that appears on seal stones, pottery, copper tablets, bronze implements and ivory and bone rods.
Around 400 different signs have been catalogued so far, but after more than 80 years of study, the script has not been successfully deciphered and neither has the language it represents.
The rongorongo script, believed to have developed on Easter Island in Polynesia, has also not been deciphered. A number of scholars have tried to decipher it but no-one has been completely successful.
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