A couple of people have sent me this BBC News story by Sean Coughlan about a research project led by Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster; they have a device that “is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken” of ancient clay tablets”:
It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.
And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.
That last sentence is typical journalistic heavy-breathing bullshit insofar as it implies the researchers, or anyone else, are going to “understand” proto-Elamite (which, by the way, probably has nothing to do with either Linear Elamite or the Elamite language). To quote Andrew Robinson’s wonderful Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts:
Decipherment of proto-Elamite has been hampered by various factors. As already remarked, there is effectively no help available from the underlying language since we know nothing about it (unlike that of proto-cuneiform); neither are there any bilinguals. Then there is the content of the tablets—self-evidently lists and calculations as in proto-cuneiform—which warns us that the correlation between the script and the spoken language may not be an exact one (how much could we learn of a modern spoken language working only from a series of supermarket till receipts?). Furthermore, there are no lexical lists, only lists of people and objects, so far as we can tell. [...] The various attempts at compiling a proto-Elamite sign list have therefore relied mainly on internal analysis of the characters.
The most that’s going to happen is that they’ll find some plausible meanings for a few more characters. But that doesn’t make for an exciting headline.
However, I did find this section of the BBC story quite interesting:
But why has this writing proved so difficult to interpret?
Dr Dahl suspects he might have part of the answer. He’s discovered that the original texts seem to contain many mistakes – and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.
He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.
This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years. “It’s an early example of a technology being lost,” he says.
“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”
Intriguing to think about, whether it’s actually true in this case or not. (Thanks, Eric and Stan!)