Writing evolved about 4000 B.C. due to the need to store accounting information. Farmer A had to know how many things Farmer B had given him so he wrote some symbols that looked like cows and some lines representing numbers and from there writing evolved into what we have today. Even thousands of years later, most of the texts found boil down to basic accounting.
As writing systems evolved, they became less pictographic and more symbolic. Rather than draw a picture of a cow a farmer might draw a rebus that represents the sounds in the verbal word for cow. Then even the rebus symbols became abstracted until a proper alphabet was developed.
Ferdinand de Saussure – “Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut out one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible to isolate sound from thought or thought from sound.”
Deciphered in 1823 by Jean-Francois Champollion. For centuries even the Greeks had been mistranslating Egyptian Hieroglyphics (Greek for “Sacred Writings”) assuming they were pictographs as did more modern translators. Champollion finally cracked the real meaning using the Rosetta stone, a 3/4 ton slab of rock found in 1799 by Napolean’s army. The stone which describes an agreement between priests and Ptolemy V Epiphanes, a thirteen-yeary-old newly-crowned Pharaoh in which they’ll offer their support for the new ruler for certain unspecified privileges. Good to know some things never change. The stone was written in Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic (the language of common Egyptians.) As it turns out, Hieroglyphics are both pictographic and phonetic (each symbol can represent an idea or perhaps a sound.)
The first examples of Linear B were discovered in Crete in 1900 by Arthur Evans. It was written around 1450 B.C. in clay tablets and comprised mostly of inventory lists. Evans kept the finds to himself for the most part in hopes that he could decipher them. It was not until after his death that they were published and translated by Michael Ventris. Evans believed the tablets to encode a lost Minoan language but as it turns out they represented ancient Greek.
Only four books (bark paper with jaguar skin covers) survived the Spanish conquistadors who burned Mayan artifacts as works of Satan. The longest is the Dresden Codex which folds out to 12 feet in length. Until the 1970s, Mayan Glyphs weren’t even considered writing. When they eventually were decoded they bespoke of a warlike people who were overly obsessed with hallucinogenic enemas and astronomy. Their calendar was complex sporting 18 named months of 20 days plus a single month of only 5 days. The workings of their calendar are well understood and allow the exact dating of several Mayan artifacts. The Mayan calendar begins on August 13th 3114 B.C. and ends on December 23rd 2012 leading some to believe this date represents the end of the world. The script would have been indecipherable except that in 1547 Fray Diego de Landa wrote down a partial rendering of their alphabet with pronunciations. That in combination with existing Mayan spoken languages has allowed interpretation of existing manuscripts.
The Meroitic civilization thrived along the Nile where Sudan is today. In 712 B.C. they conquered Egypt to become the 25th Dynasty. The Egyptians later repelled the invaders and subsequent Pharaohs carefully removed evidence of the outside rulers. By the first century A.D. the Meroitic civilization had evaporated leaving behind its undecipherable writings. Only 26 written words have been translated despite the discovery of some loosely translated documents written both in Egyptian and Meroitic.
The Etruscan Alphabet
Located in what is now Tuscany, the Etruscans are credited with bringing the Greek alphabet to the attention of Rome. The spoken Etruscan language is extinct and apparently bore no resemblance to any modern tongue. The Etruscans were highly literate and borrowed their alphabet from 8th century B.C. Greece. About 13,000 examples of Etruscan are known with 4,000 of those being graffiti or fragments of inscriptions. Of those, only about 250 words have been deciphered, mostly numbers and terms used later by Latin authors.
Most abundant among the artifacts are about 3,000 bronze mirrors bearing engraved pictures and brief Etruscan inscriptions. The Zagreb Mummy was wrapped in an older Etruscan linen religious text of about 1,200 words. The Tabula Cartonensis was found in 1992 and bears 200 Etruscan words. The artifact appears to be a contract for the sale or lease of land.
Linear A was used in Crete between 1750 and 1450 B.C. and was believed for some years to be the ancestor of Linear B. As it turns out, it was used before Linear B and in many of the same areas but is not related. Only about 1,500 examples exist totaling about 7,500 characters. Linear A has been found throughout Greece and as far away as Israel. Emmett Bennett Jr. worked out the numerical system of Linear A in 1950 but the bulk of the written language is still undeciphered.
The Proto-Elamite Script
Used between 3050 and 2900 B.C. in what is now Western Iran, Proto-Elamite is the oldest known undeciphered writing system. Despite the fact that 1,500 examples have been found containing over 100,000 characters, only the numeric system has been translated. The primary difficulty in decoding the writings stems from the relative lack of variety. The vast majority of items are simple accounting records. Like other languages, the numbering system has been worked out along with a few simple words and it seems that counting was done in base 10 when counting people or workers but base 6 was used for counting grain products.
Rongo-Rongo is the only written language of Polynesia and was used solely by the inhabitants of the isolated Easter Island. Rongo-Rongo is written in reverse-boustrophedon, meaning the writing proceeds from left to write on the object, and then the object is turned 180 degrees and writing proceeds again from left to right on the opposite end. Writing continues until the two lines of text converge in the middle of the piece. Only 25 wood carvings survive from the island carrying a total of 14,000-17,000 characters.
The island was discovered in 1722 and later claimed by the Spanish in 1770. At that time, the local chiefs were asked to sign a treaty with the Spanish and they did so using pictograms but did NOT use the Rongo-Rongo language. When Captain Cook arrived in 1774 he reported no signs of a written language whatsoever; for this reason and others some speculate that the language developed only after contact with the west. In 1864 when Peru raided the island for slaves the written language seemed to be dying. By the time missionaries arrived in 1869, their attempts to save the language by asking the islanders to read the markings aloud were unsuccessful. Subsequent attempts similarly failed but it is believed by some that the language may not be in fact a complete writing system but instead a system of mnemonics to aid local leaders in remembering oral histories and genealogies.
The Zapotec & Isthmian Scripts
Zapotec is the oldest known script of the new world, used from 600 B.C. to 800 A.D. About 1200 inscribed objects survive but only 570 are indisputably writing. No apparent relationship with Mayan scripts from the same area but it is clear that the Zapotec originated the calendar system used by the Mayans though the Mayans improved upon it significantly.
Isthmian script is scarcer with only about 600 total characters discovered so far. The artifacts themselves are unusual:
* In 1902 a jade statuette was discovered in a field in Olmec. It depicts a man dressed as a duck and includes about 70 written characters. Included is a date of 162 A.D.
* In 1986 a 4-ton basalt stone was found a La Mojarra. The stone was 8×5 ft and contained a stunning carving of a prince and 400-500 written characters. This item was dated 143 and 156 A.D. Several decipherments of this item have been published but all are highly suspect.
The Indus Script
At it’s height between 2500 and 1900 B.C. the Indus Valley Civilization covered much of Pakistan and N.W. India. It had maritime trading as far away as the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia and was larger than either it’s Egyptian or Mesopotamian rivals. Over 1500 sites have been found, 5 of them major cities. Yet when Alexander the Great traveled in the area in 326 B.C. all he found were abandoned villages.
3,700 inscribed items have been found with 60% being seal stones containing very brief inscriptions. The longest inscription found is 26 characters with most less than 4. Since so little is known about the people or culture of the area at the time, all that can be said with certainty is that the reading order is right to left and the language seems to be made up of 400-450 distinct signs.
The Phaistos Disc
The enigmatic Phaistos Disc is unique. No other written example of this language exists and therefore it’s thought by many to be a fake. Discovered in Crete in 1908 in the Palace Ruins at Phaistos, this 6.5 inch diameter disc dates from 1850 to 1600 B.C. It contains 242 characters demarcated into 61 groups. The text is written along the outside edge and spirals inward and rather than being marked in the clay with a stylus the signs are actually stamped into the clay making it the first ‘printed’ document. The disc includes several scribal ‘corrections’ which many believe lends credence to its authenticity. Its uniqueness seems to lend credence to the theory that it is not of Cretan origin but has also acted to bring out all manner of crackpots who believe it to be an extraterrestrial artifact of some sort.
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