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The elusive true nature of an ancient script inspires passionate debate


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"Unicorn" seals, like this one from Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan, are among the most distinctive Indus artifacts. Though it has only eight symbols, the inscription is long by Indus standards. (Copyright J.M. Kenoyer, Courtesy Dept. of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of Pakistan)

This article could be used to build a model of the English language. It would be imperfect--the text is short and the content specialized--but it would probably show that this collection of simple symbols encodes a spoken language, even if an alien observer was unable to decipher it. Written language has rules, which can be revealed through mathematical analysis, that make it understandable and grant it almost infinite communicative power. The mathematical modeling of natural language, known as computational linguistics, is the latest battleground in one of the most contentious scholarly, and often not-so-scholarly, debates left to us by the ancient world: the nature of the Indus script, short series of symbols that appear on a variety of small artifacts from the sophisticated and wide-ranging Indus civilization in South Asia around 4,000 years ago. We don't know what the symbols mean--in fact, we don't know whether the "script" encodes language at all or is a kind of symbol system, like heraldry or signs in an airport.

Undeciphered ancient texts are archaeology at its most mysterious and romantic, but the Indus is more than a maddening intellectual puzzle. Knowing the nature of the script and understanding its signs will change our view of the earliest civilizations, but it is also a matter of modern identity--many South Asians, from rickshaw drivers to politicians, have pet theories--and a source of equal measures of academic frustration, nationalistic fervor, and raw emotion. The last decade has seen cooperation among scholars, as well as new theories and discoveries. But it has also seen accusations of racism and scientific bias, name-calling, and even threats.

Samir S. Patel is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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