As I might have mentioned a few times, I have a deep love of writing systems. I also am a little obsessed with trying to understand everything that’s ever been written (that’s totally reasonable, right?), and the combination of these two things means I have a very specific fascination with undeciphered scripts.
I think there’s probably something in most of us that makes us want to solve puzzles, to tease out the answers to mysteries. I think humans tend to find unanswered questions unsatisfying. When I read about rongorongo or Linear A, I wonder what it is that we’re missing. I think of undeciphered scripts as huge locked doors, and we don’t even have an idea of what we might find if we never locate the key.
We know from experience just how earth-shifting the decipherment of a script could be. Before Champollion and his predecessors figured out that Egyptian heiroglyphs were actually written language, many European scholars were convinced that they were just the mystical signs of a deeply religious (and largely illiterate) ancient culture. The same was true of the Mayan glyphs. Once Linear B was deciphered, archaeologists could finally understand that the “Minoan” culture on ancient Crete was really formed by very early Greeks.
So there’s a lot that these languages can “tell” us, even beyond the words the writing encodes. And then, of course, there are the words themselves. Whenever someone writes something down, they’re doing it because they want it to be remembered, for one reason or another. This must have been especially true in the ancient world, where writing was an exclusive and laborious process. Whatever the ancient scribes put down on clay, stone, or papyrus, must have been important enough to warrant the time and the materials. It might sound a little strange, but I’ve always felt like we owed it to those writers to try very hard to understand what it was they were trying to say.
For all of these reasons, a news story that came out just last week set my heart all a-flutter. Cambridge archaeologists have just unearthed a tablet in Turkey, written in cuneiform, in an unknown language. I had a little bit of empathy thrill for those archaeologists when I read that. These kinds of discoveries are pretty rare. And, frankly, the odds of figuring out the language from such a small text are very slim. But still…one more mystery to solve!
Let’s all go learn to read cuneiform now! There’s a code we need to crack.