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Conversations: A Singularly Human Pursuit Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003

Linguist Andrew Robinson reflects on the puzzle of undeciphered ancient scripts.

Andrew Robinson, a linguist and literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement in London, is author of Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts (2002) and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris (2002). He talked to associate editor Eric A. Powell about the challenges of deciphering ancient scripts and the kind of mind it takes to crack them.

Why are there still ancient languages that we are unable to decipher despite a century of effort, like the Bronze Age Minoan script Linear A, while we've been able to decipher many others, like the later Linear B?

The biggest problem is mundane: there is not enough material to analyze. There was a great mass of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, Mesopotamian cuneiform, and Mayan glyphs for scholars to get their teeth into--and though there was not so much of Linear B, it was still more plentiful than Linear A. In decipherment, the more inscriptions you have, the better your chances.
   Then there is the problem of script versus language. Michael Ventris could eventually decipher Linear B because he could recognize that it was an archaic form of Greek. But with, say, the Etruscan script, though you can transliterate the Etruscan letters--they are basically the same as the letters of the Greek alphabet--you can't make sense of many Etruscan words, except proper names, because the Etruscan language is an "isolate." It appears to be unrelated to any Indo-European language or to Basque, another European "isolate."
   There are also cases where the language is fairly certain, but the script is a mystery. The most obvious one is the rongorongo script of Easter Island. This exquisite script was written on wood with sharks' teeth or flakes of obsidian. The language is very likely Rapa Nui, the Polynesian language of the island today. But scholars haven't made much progress in finding the patterns of Rapa Nui in the patterns of rongorongo. Finally, there are undeciphered scripts in which both the signs and underlying language are unknown.

What scripts are on the brink of decipherment and have the best chance of being "cracked" in our lifetimes?

As long as archaeologists keep finding new material, some progress in decipherment is always possible. The best hope probably lies with the Indus script, since there are many unexcavated sites and we know a lot about the Indus Valley civilization from existing excavations. But because the language of the script is so old compared to classical Indian languages like Sanskrit and Tamil--in contrast to the Greek of Linear B compared to classical Greek--it will be difficult to prove a decipherment.

What script would have the biggest impact on the historical record if deciphered?

Undoubtedly, the Indus Valley script. Dated to about 2500 B.C., this is the only script of the four "first" civilizations--in Egypt, the Middle East, China, and India--that cannot be understood. If it were "cracked," it would not only tell us about this great culture, but it would also shed important new light on the identity of the proto-Indo-Europeans, whose language gave birth to most of the modern languages of Europe as well as Sanskrit.

You write about a number of unlikely researchers who have tried their hand at decipherment. Why are so many eccentric personalities attracted to the decipherment of lost languages?

One of the truths of archaeological decipherment is that it attracts both geniuses and cranks; and it is not always easy to tell the two apart. Ventris was a genius--but the fact remains that he never attended a university and certainly never studied Greek professionally. Some of the scholars who contributed to the Mayan decipherment were amateurs to begin with, in particular the late Linda Schele, who was an art teacher. Breakthroughs in decipherment seem to require broad knowledge and lateral thinking, as well as a logical, linguistically trained mind--and this combination is more often found in "eccentrics" than in conventional scholars.

You end Lost Languages with a quote from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore: "The worm thinks it strange and foolish that man does not eat his books." Why did you decide to end a book on undeciphered scripts with this line?

This epigram reminds us that writing--and all that flows from its invention, including decipherment--with its incredible diversity, is something singularly human.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America