Oldest Undeciphered Language May Soon Lose The “Un”

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

You can stop patiently waiting, with an ever-dwindling bank account, hoping that your favorite box of cereal may one day include a proto-Elamite decoder ring. If Dr. Jacob Dahl’s plan is successful, scholars will be able to understand these ancient tablets, embedded with the oldest remaining languages yet undeciphered. I’m willing to bet not one of those words is “sequel.”

Dahl is a co-leader of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, an amazing online digital library that encompasses 500,000 images of tablets created in the last 3350 years of pre-Christian history. The proto-Elamite tablets themselves date back to a brief, two-hundred-year period around 3100 B.C.E., in a large area where Iran would be now. For nearly 5,000 years, perhaps, no one has completely understood what these tablets’ characters have said. Some of the language was shared with Mesopotamia, but most are still unknown. It’s one of the oldest culture-based mysteries there is. But luckily, it shouldn’t be so complex a mystery for much longer.

Dahl has done what would have seemed like science fiction to those who created or found the tablets. He worked with the Louvre Museum in Paris, where the tablets are kept, to get high-resolution photographs using the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) system, which was designed by members of the Archaeological Computing Research Group and Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. (There’s a business card for you.) The RTI system is made up of an overhead dome with 76 lights strung up in a grid pattern with a camera set in the middle. Any object placed beneath can be photographed an almost unlimited number of ways, lit from nearly any angle necessary.

Beyond using one of the most high-tech photography stations, Dahl is also using modern techniques by posting all of the pictures onto his CDLI website, a crowdsourcing effort meant to draw in support and assistance from language-focused archaeologists and codebreakers the world over. He’s spent the last 10 years trying to break it on his own, but technology has broken it wide open. Here, Dahl describes why it’s an achievement:

The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning. Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t.

He continues, talking of the possible complexities that hadn’t been previously considered, in that, instead of solely relying on representative symbols for language, there could be instances of a syllabary involved, and some syllables, or moras, had characters of their own. The reason the language languished is because of its prominent use in administrative records instead of schools. Of course, without an established educational system in place, stability and correct usage were lost, and it became useless. A metric system says what?

Dahl beat writers everywhere to the punch by saying, “This is probably the world’s first case of a collapse of knowledge because of the under-funding of education!”

This could end up being pretty incredible stuff, even if archaeological stories aren’t your cup of ancient tea. This could feed deeper into what psychologists already know about brain evolution. Though I wonder if we went back and asked them, if they’d even want us to know what they were writing about. Imagine a civilization 5,000 years from now digging up a schoolboy’s note to a friend about how dumb a girl’s face looked, written in Pig Latin. Or even if someone found UrbanDictionary.com. Our proudest moments may be behind us, readers.

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