Illustrations by Teresa Bellón
For lovers of language learning, discovery is what keeps us improving our skills. For scholars, it’s that same curiosity that keeps them focused on deciphering old scripts from ancient civilizations. But some codes are harder to crack than others. Here are six scripts that even the experts haven’t figured out yet!
The story of Linear A is connected to the story of Linear B, and these two scripts are connected to two ancient cultures: the Minoans and the Mycenaeans.
The Minoans were the first people to develop civilization in Greece, on the island of Crete, but they disappeared quite suddenly in 1450 BC. Why and how remains a mystery, though some posit that a volcanic eruption and ensuing tsunamis destroyed the Minoans’ infrastructure and fleet, leading to a breakdown of commerce that triggered their downfall. One thing that remains of their lost civilization is their writing system which was preserved on clay tablets. When famed British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered the tablets in the late 19th century he called the Minoan script “Linear A” since it appeared to be written in rectilinear fashion.
Precisely around the time of the Minoans’ disappearance in the mid 15th century BC, the Mycenaean civilization emerged across the Aegean from Crete, on the Greek mainland. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans also kept written records on clay tablets. Evidence suggests they directly copied the Minoan method, even using most of the same symbols. Because of the close resemblance, the script on the Mycenaean tablets was dubbed “Linear B.”
A prodigy thinks outside the rectilinear box
Linear B was successfully deciphered 50 years ago by Michael Ventris, a British architect and amateur language enthusiast. Ventris was a linguistic prodigy: he taught himself Polish by the age of six, learned Swedish after only two weeks in Sweden, and could also read and write in Greek and Latin. Ventris became interested in Linear B after attending a lecture on the subject by Evans. Up until then, most scholars believed Linear B was a distinct language, but Ventris thought otherwise: he believed Linear B was Greek written in a different script. Based on this assumption that it was an early written form of Greek, he was able to decipher Linear B once he struck upon the fact that the most repeated words were the names of Cretan settlements like Knossos.
After Ventris’ discovery, other scholars attempted to apply Linear B knowledge to Linear A, but there was one major problem: Linear A was not another Greek script, but a different language altogether. Hence, this primitive fishing civilization on the island of Crete continues to baffle scholars.
So what makes Linear A so difficult to crack? Firstly, there are many symbols in Linear A whose sound and purpose are unknown. Eighty percent of those signs found in Linear A are not found in Linear B. These unusual and rare patterns confound translation attempts. Secondly, Linear A seems to use logograms (symbols that represent a whole word or phrase) in addition to syllabic symbols. These logograms possibly have several different meanings depending on context, similar to Mandarin script. To confuse things even further, words in Linear A that have been deciphered do not satisfactorily match any known language in either sound or morphology.
The third, and perhaps biggest, obstacle is the paucity of Linear A examples. Only 1,500 fragments are known, and most are either quite short, with just a few characters, or are heavily damaged. There is simply not enough data to apply the type of (brilliant) mathematical techniques that Ventris used to crack Linear B. When Professor Emmet Bennet (American classicist and philologist) amassed the examples of Linear B, there were more than ten times the amount of fragments available to study than for Linear A.
Is there hope for ever deciphering Linear A? That depends more on the shovel than on the mind. Time to go back to Crete and start digging for more fragments of Linear A so we can solve the mystery!
100 years before Linear A made its appearance (according to archaeological artifacts), the Minoans had already developed Cretan hieroglyphs — the very first writing system in Europe. While Linear A featured rectilinear shapes, the Cretan hieroglyphs used figurative representations such as cats, hands, ships and weapons with more abstract symbols complementing them. Linear A was also mostly inscribed on clay tablets while the majority of Cretan hieroglyph texts have been found on small objects like seal-stones.
These two different scripts probably complemented each other. Linear A clay tablets were commonly used as accounting records with lists of numbers and objects, items pertaining to an administrative or bureaucratic context. Seal-stones with hieroglyphs were used to impress their texts on other surfaces, likely labeling the owners’ names on goods.
The difficulty in decipherment arises from the short fragments — which, like the Minoans’ Linear A tablets, are few in number. Even if the hieroglyphs are compared with Linear A and Linear B signs, nothing of substance can be surmised from them besides a few possible accounting terms and place names. The language is likely not the Greek of Linear B and there is also no certainty as to whether the hieroglyphs represent the same language as its chronological sister, Linear A. If there is a solution to the mystery of Cretan hieroglyphs, it remains buried in some undiscovered temple or tomb.
Current orthodoxy states that writing was invented in southern Mesopotamia ca. 3500 – 3000 BCE. This theory has been occasionally challenged by the existence of what scholars name proto-writing present in the Vinca symbols. The Vinca (meaning “mother”) culture flourished in Eastern Europe between 5500 and 4500 BC. The writing was initially interpreted as symbolic, but further discoveries with similar symbols in the region have led scholars to reassess these artifacts as potentially linguistic.
They stem from the Danube Valley civilization, which thrived in the Balkans and is one of the oldest civilizations known in Europe. The Vinca’s know-how included spinning and weaving, leather processing and the manufacturing of clothes, manipulation of wood, clay and stone, copper tools, and advanced architecture and furniture while most of Europe was still living in the Stone Age. To top it all, they invented the wheel, arguably the most important technological invention in the history of humankind, on par with the steam engine and the computer. The culture was quite probably matrilineal and decidedly egalitarian in its social order.
The mother of the Minoans?
So far, researchers have found about 700 Vinca symbols, a number similar to the old Egyptian hieroglyphs currently catalogued. But their alleged written language still baffles. Scholars have hotly debated whether it is a succession of merely geometric shapes or a fully developed writing system. Some compare the Vinca symbols to Linear A, and Harald Haarman, a German scholar, believes the similarity between them is historically linked to the arrival of northern European invaders who forced the Danubians to change their social and political order from a matrilineal to a patriarchal culture, leading some to escape to Crete, where they reestablished themselves to further develop their old traditions.
Scientific paradigms are notoriously hard to overthrow, but if the Vinca symbols are truly a writing system, then it would make it the oldest written language ever found.
Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) is well known for its moai statues. It is also home to a dead script that remains undeciphered, Rongorongo. The script was mentioned for the first time by a westerner in 1866 — the missionary Eugène Eyraud. A few years later, artifacts containing the script found their way off of Easter Island and the attempt to decipher them began.
The script was originally found carved in stones and a few wooden objects. Eugène Eyraud had encountered the wooden tablets in the islanders’ houses, but the inhabitants paid no mind to the artifacts and were unable to interpret them. Oral tradition also mentions banana leaves carved with Rongorongo, but the perishable medium has never been found by archaeologists.
Rongorongo is written in boustrophedon, which means the script alternates from left to right and right to left in horizontal lines. Rongorongo consists of about 120 symbols and it quite possibly represents Old Rapanui, but there are no certainties whatsoever that Rongorongo isn’t a memory aid for an oral narrative or even purely decorative.
Easter Island is now officially a part of Chile and most of the islanders now speak Spanish with a small percentage speaking Rapa Nui. Both languages currently use the Latin script.
THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT
In the early 20th century, Wilfrid Voynich, an antique dealer from New York, visited Villa Mondragone in Italy in search of books. He found many historical texts from a Jesuit school there. One of the trunks included manuscripts from the 17th century belonging to Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit scholar and polymath. One of these manuscripts looked unusual and Voynich acquired it, eager to decipher it. Alas, he died before ever unlocking the manuscript’s secrets. Today, the book can be found in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
The manuscript has over 200 pages and 170,000 characters with several detailed images. It is assumed that the majority of the text deals with botanical and herbal subject matters. It contains drawings of plants with roots, leaves and flowers, includes Zodiac charts and illustrations of optical phenomena.
This motley assortment of themes and representations is possibly related to medieval beliefs about disease and healing. In the middle ages, medical treatment required knowledge of one’s zodiac sign. The end of the book includes recipes, apparently indicating cooking steps for the herbs collected.
Alchemical secrets or a hoax?
But the script is undecipherable. Was the writer (and healer?) trying to hide his discoveries from competitors? Or perhaps from the Holy Inquisition? After all, the contents seem alchemical, and alchemy was forbidden by Christian authorities.
Originally, Voynich thought he had discovered the original author. While he was busy doing reprographs of the original, a previously invisible item appeared. Words that had been scratched from the parchment surfaced under ultraviolet light and spelled the name Jacobus de Tepenecz, a 17th century expert in medical plants. Jacobus’ preparations were famous in Europe and in 1608 he was summoned to Prague by Emperor Rudolph II, who suffered from depression and melancholia and believed Jacobus’ herbal extracts mixed with alcohol would help him.
But the style of the drawings suggests a different origin. The images of plants in the manuscript resemble allegorical images rather than lifelike illustrations. The medieval tradition represented things in terms of the powers they had, not their optical reality. In the early 17th century, however, plants were represented more realistically. So even though Jacobus’ name was found on the page, he was probably not the writer, probably just the owner.
Emperor Rudolph collected many valuable objects related to alchemy and magic — and this led to vast remaining debts after his death. One of his creditors might have been Jacobus himself, who quite possibly took the book as payment.
There is a second theory: that the entire book is a fraud. The manuscript is immaculately composed in fine parchment and the pigments used to color the drawings were certainly expensive and of fine quality, since the hues are still vivid after all these centuries. The book shows no visible errors in its 200 pages and no corrections whatsoever. Since only Voynich had access to this manuscript, many believe he was responsible for creating it as part of an elaborate hoax.
None of these theories has so far been proven correct. Recent research has managed to date the manuscript and indicate the region it stems from. It must have been written around 1420 in northern Italy. One of the drawings in the manuscript represents a city protected by a castle with v-shaped notches in the merlons. These notches could only be found ca. 1420 in architecture from northern Italy. It would take a few more decades for the style to spread throughout Europe.
So now that we know the date and the region, there is a good possibility that we will be able to decipher it by looking for additional cultural artifacts and vestiges in northern Italy. Unless, of course, the manuscript was in fact written in a secret language that the author took to his grave.
THE OLMEC SCRIPT
We associate old powerful civilizations in Mesoamerica with the Mayans and the Aztecs, but there is a third mysterious culture we tend to forget: the Olmecs. Their civilization thrived between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE, but their legacy, including any easily perishable artifacts or burial sites, has mostly decomposed in the humid, tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico. Only architecture and sculpture remain (as well as some rare wooden artifacts), with the notorious giant head sculptures being one of the most significant archaeological findings from the era. These giant heads are believed to represent Olmec rulers.
This agricultural society was the first in Mesoamerica to create small cities, and they were capable of incredible engineering feats like building aqueducts. Their gods (numbering at least eight), rituals and art influenced the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that followed. The Olmecs are still considered to be one of the few originally pristine cultures, developing without any significant previous influence.
The oldest writing system in America
Such an advanced civilization must have had a writing system, and recent findings point to such a creation. In the late 1990s, the Cascajal Block was found in southeastern Mexico, in the heart of the old Olmec civilization. The block includes 62 glyphs, some abstract and others resembling a pineapple, ear of corn or fish. The symbols do not resemble other Mesoamerican scripts, and the writing runs horizontally unlike other ancient Mesoamerican scripts that run vertically. (This has also been challenged by some scholars.) The symbols probably represent regal titles, the names of gods and calendar dates.
The script is not related to any other script ever found, and it is still too soon to make surefire statements about its meaning. More examples are needed and research is still developing.
LOST IN TIME
How old is writing? How many fully fledged writing scripts existed before the Sumerians invented the cuneiform system? In the year 2000, the New Scientist reported on recently found 60,000-year-old eggshells with carved symbols that were possibly proto-writing. What if writing is far older than we have imagined? What would that say of human consciousness and our sense of self in the world? Will these etched symbols ever be deciphered?
Perhaps writing is far older than we think, a cultural creation almost as ancient as Homo Sapiens, surfacing on and off in different cultures throughout world history and taking numerous guises according to need and context. It might be a wildly speculative endeavour to state these theories thoughtlessly, but it is certainly fascinating to believe that recent civilizations were not as sophisticated as we believe them to be and that primitive humans were in fact highly developed people!