Etruscan, Meroitic … still illegible

This is a video about ancient Etruscan civilisation.

From New Scientist:

Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can’t be read

* 27 May 2009 by Andrew Robinson

WRITING is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Perhaps the greatest, since it made history possible. Without writing, there could be no accumulation of knowledge, no historical record, no science – and of course no books, newspapers or internet.

The first true writing we know of is Sumerian cuneiform – consisting mainly of wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets – which was used more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Soon afterwards writing appeared in Egypt, and much later in Europe, China and Central America. Civilisations have invented hundreds of different writing systems. Some, such as the one you are reading now, have remained in use, but most have fallen into disuse.

These dead scripts tantalise us. We can see that they are writing, but what do they say? …

1 Etruscan
Greek and not Greek

(known script, unknown language)

For those interested in language and writing, the Etruscans are a fascinating and frustrating bunch. Decipherment of the Etruscan language is like trying to learn English from reading nothing but gravestones. The Etruscan script was written in a form of the ancient Greek alphabet, but their language was unlike any other. So although Etruscan sentences can easily be “read”, nobody has much idea what they mean, apart from the names of people and places, and a smattering of vocabulary and standard phrases. …

2 Meroitic hieroglyphs

voices of the black pharaohs

(known script, unknown language)

In the first millennium BC, the kingdom of Kush flourished around the two great bends of the river Nile between Abu Simbel and Khartoum, in what is now Sudan. The Kushite (or Meroitic, after the capital Meroe) civilisation was one of the most important early states of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 712 BC, Kushite kings conquered Egypt and were accepted as its 25th dynasty. The “black pharaohs” ruled for nearly 70 years until war with the Assyrians forced the Kushites back to their homeland in 656 BC.

The Meroitic hieroglyphs (see image) date from after this defeat: the Kushite pharaohs used Egyptian hieroglyphs, but from the 3rd century BC these increasingly appeared alongside a new, indigenous script. As in Egypt (for example, on the Rosetta Stone), there are two forms of this script: hieroglyphic, which was used on monuments and had essentially pictographic signs, and everyday cursive, or joined-up, writing.

There are 23 symbols in each form of Meroitic. In that respect it resembles a modern alphabet – unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics, which use hundreds of symbols. Around 1911, Francis Llewellyn Griffith, an Egyptologist at the University of Oxford, deciphered the phonetic values of both Meroitic scripts from inscriptions that record a text in Meroitic and Egyptian scripts.

Meroitic words can therefore be “read”, like Etruscan words. Frustratingly, however, they cannot be understood, because the Meroitic language is unknown. Proper names can be deciphered, and a few dozen other words, such as tenke (west) and ato (water), can be guessed from their contexts, but that is all.

Griffith always believed that Meroitic would eventually be deciphered. But despite decades of comparisons between Meroitic words and the ancient and modern African languages of the region, no convincing resemblance has yet been detected.

3 The New World

Olmec, Zapotec and Isthmian

(Olmec: unknown script, unknown language
Zapotec: unknown script, possibly known language
Isthmian: unknown script, possibly known language) …

4 Linear A
a Minoan mystery

(partially known script, unknown language)

In 1900, British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered not one but two unknown scripts, both scratched on clay tablets, while digging at the “Palace of Minos” at Knossos in Crete – the centre of the Bronze-Age Minoan civilisation.

One of these, Linear B, was famously deciphered in 1952, making it Europe’s earliest readable writing (see “The great decipherments“). The other, Linear A, remains undeciphered.

Linear B dates from around 1450 BC. It is an archaic form of written Greek used by Greek-speakers who conquered parts of Crete around that time. Linear A is older, from the 18th century BC. It is the script of the Minoan civilisation, and the only solid link we have to the lost Minoan language.

Unfortunately for decipherers, we have much less Linear A than Linear B – around 1500 texts, mostly from Crete but also from other Aegean islands, mainland Greece, Turkey and Israel. The majority of the inscriptions are short or damaged. …

5 Rongo-rongo

the chant of Easter Island

(unknown script, probably known language)

Easter Island is a place of intrigue and mystery, and its indigenous script rongo-rongo is no exception.

Rongo-rongo (see image) means “chants” in Rapanui, the language of Easter Island. Although the language of rongo-rongo is probably similar to Rapanui, the script is complex and baffling. There are only 25 inscriptions, some quite long, and all written on driftwood.

Its age is puzzling. Local legend has it that the writing was brought to the island by boat when Easter Island was settled from Polynesia; the date is unknown, but could have been as early as AD 300. …

6 Indus script
sign of the unicorn

(unknown script, possibly known language)

The remains of the Indus valley civilisation cover an area of Pakistan and north-west India about a quarter the size of Europe. At its peak, between 2500 and 1900 BC, its major cities were comparable with those of contemporary Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The exquisitely carved script of this civilisation is known from about 5000 inscriptions, many of them on stones found scattered in the houses and streets of its ruined cities. A frequent motif on the seals is a one-horned quadruped like a unicorn (a creature, legend has it, from India) (see image). The texts are tantalisingly brief. …

7 Proto-Elamite

oldest undeciphered writing

(partially known script, unknown language)

Proto-Elamite is the world’s oldest undeciphered script – assuming that it really is a fully developed writing system, which is by no means certain. It was used for perhaps 150 years from around 3050 BC in Elam, the biblical name for an area that corresponds roughly to today’s oilfields of western Iran. It is almost as old as the oldest writing of all, the earliest cuneiform from Mesopotamia. Little is known about the people who wrote the script. …

8 Phaistos disc

oldest printing, or hoax?

(unknown script, unknown language)

The notoriously solitary Phaistos disc from Crete appears to be the world’s oldest “printed” document. The disc, about 15 centimetres in diameter, occupies pride of place at the Heraklion Museum in Crete. Some say it should not be regarded as an undeciphered script because it is in fact a hoax – the Piltdown Man of ancient writing.

Computers Unlock More Secrets Of The Mysterious Indus Valley Script: here.

Statistics could help decode ancient scripts: here.

8 thoughts on “Etruscan, Meroitic … still illegible

  1. The TITLE of the New Science article is totally misleading and inaccutate. Easiest example to prove that:

    The first item on the list, the so-called “Eight scripts that still can’t be read”, is ETRUSCAN. As seen from the article itself, their writing system is no enigma at all, the more than 10 000 inscriptions are highly LEGIBLE, the difficulty lies in our poor understanding of the LANGUAGE.


  2. No Etruscan link to modern Tuscans

    Study shows genetic discontinuity with Bronze Age people

    (ANSA) – Florence, July 3 – The current population of Tuscany is not descended from the Etruscans, the people that lived in the region during the Bronze Age, a new Italian study has shown.

    Researchers at the universities of Florence, Ferrara, Pisa, Venice and Parma discovered the genealogical discontinuity by testing samples of mitochondrial DNA from remains of Etruscans and people who lived in the Middle Ages (between the 10th and 15th centuries) as well as from people living in the region today.

    While there was a clear genetic link between Medieval Tuscans and the current population, the relationship between modern Tuscans and their Bronze Age ancestors could not be proven, the study showed.

    ”Some people have hypothesised that the most ancient DNA sequences, those from the Etruscan era, could contain errors or have been contaminated but tests conducted with new methods exclude this,” said David Caramelli of Florence University and Guido Barbujani of Ferrara University.

    ”The most simple explanation is that the structure of the Tuscan population underwent important demographic changes in the first millennium before Christ,” they said.

    ”Immigration and forced migration have diluted the Etruscan genetic inheritance so much as to make it difficult to recognise”.

    The scientific data does not necessarily mean that the Etruscans died out, the researchers said.

    Teams from Florence and Ferrara universities are working to identify whether traces of the Etruscans’ genetic inheritance may still exist in people living in isolated locations in the region.

    The new study is published online by the scientific journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

    The Etruscans lived mainly between the rivers Tiber and Arno in modern-day Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany, in the first millennium BC.

    By the sixth century BC they had become the dominant force in central Italy, but repeated attacks from Gauls and Syracusans later forced them into an alliance with the embryonic Roman state, which gradually absorbed Etruscan civilization.

    Most of what is known about the Etruscans derives from archaeology as the few accounts passed down by Roman historians tend to be hostile, portraying them as gluttonous and lecherous.

    This problem is compounded by the fact that Etruscan cities were built almost entirely of wood and so vanished quickly, leaving little for archaeologists to investigate.


  3. Miami explores Etruscan tombs

    Visitors can step inside a ‘virtual’ burial chamber

    29 March, 18:24

    (ANSA) – Miami, March 29 – Visitors to a new exhibition in Miami are stepping inside a ‘virtual’ Etruscan burial chamber to experience the thrill of a 19th-century archaeologist who first uncovered a tomb that had lain undisturbed for more than two millennia.

    The hi-tech video installation is part of a show at the city’s Freedom Tower that focuses on the activity of Italy’s earlier major civilisation in the Lazio region around Rome and showcases artefacts from important collections such as the Italian capital’s Villa Giulia Museum.

    “We wanted to present to the US public one of our region’s greatest cultural tourism draws which each year garners greater interest,” said Federica Alatri, president of exhibition sponsor ATLazio, the Rome and Lazio region tourism board. “Visitors to the show can get to know the extraordinary places in Lazio where the civilisation flourished”.

    By stepping inside the virtual tomb, members of the public are able to relive the moment in 1857 when Florentine archaeologist Alessandro Francois first uncovered a fourth-century BC burial chamber famous for its beautiful cycle of frescoes at Vulci, 50 km north-west of Rome.

    Based on an account in Francois’s diary, the large-scale installation begins in total darkness before a flicker of torchlight begins to pick out details from the frescoes, depicting scenes from Greek mythology and Etruscan battle scenes, until the chamber is finally illuminated in its entirety.

    The installation may be the closest thing many people ever get to seeing the real frescoes, which despite repeated attempts by the Italian government to buy them are privately owned and not currently on view to the public.

    Also on display here are stunning funerary urns, statues and tomb decorations, many from the Etruscan necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, both UNESCO World Heritage sites.

    Among the highlights are objects found in the Tomb of the Five Seats, an elaborate archaeological complex at Cerveteri dating to around 625 BC that got its name because five statues of men sitting on thrones were found in one of the chambers.

    Experts believe the Etruscans wanted their deceased to have everything they might need easily to hand in the afterlife, and so crammed the tombs with everyday objects.

    Relics from the Tomb of the Five Seats on show include decorated bowls and cups as well as an extraordinary green bronze hand mirror, engraved with a mythological scene on one side and polished to provide a reflection on the other.

    Another collection of artefacts on display comes from a hoard retrieved by Italian finance police in 1960 after they busted a gang of tomb raiders near Vulci.

    The Etruscans are believed to have formed the first advanced civilisation in Italy, based in an area called Etruria which corresponds mainly to present-day Tuscany and Northern Lazio.

    By the sixth century BC they had become the dominant force in central Italy, but repeated attacks from Gauls and Syracusans later forced them into an alliance with the embryonic Roman state, which gradually absorbed Etruscan civilization.

    However, the Etruscans had the upper hand in the early days and supplied Rome with the last three of its first seven kings including the famous Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud).

    Our knowledge of the civilisation is based largely on archaeological finds, as much of their language has yet to be deciphered and the few accounts passed down by Roman historians tend to be hostile, portraying them as gluttonous and lecherous.

    Etruscans perfected at least one important aesthetic and practical device – false teeth fashioned from ivory and bone and secured with gold – whose sophistication was unrivalled until the 18th century.

    The origins of this ancient people, who even in antiquity were viewed as foreigners by the other peoples of Italy, have long been a mystery. Recent research indicates that – as the Greek historian Herodotus first claimed – they came to Italy from what is now Turkey.

    The Etruscans in Latium runs at the Freedom Tower in Miami until April 4.


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