Lost Writing Systems of the Ancient World

CULTURE | May 25, 2019

Reliefs on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan (Unesco World Heritage List, 1980), Honduras, Maya civilization. Source: (gettyimages.com)

There are a number of ways in which historians, archaeologists, and other scholars learn about ancient civilizations and their cultures. Artifacts and monuments are important, but perhaps the most crucial is writing that has been deciphered for modern analysis. Writing tells us who was who, when events occurred, what they believed in, and other insights into the culture.

One example as to how important writing was is the famous case of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. These had become undecipherable by the medieval period and were only translatable after the finding of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. The Rosetta Stone contained three identical texts with one in hieroglyphics. This allowed a complete translation of the writing system by Jean-Francois Champollion in the 1820s and provided the world with insights into Egyptian history and culture.

Today, there are still many ancient writing systems that have eluded translations. This article will look at some of the notable ancient writing systems that still have scholars scratching their heads. 

Steatite seal, from the Indus Valley. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Indus Script

The Indus Valley Civilization flourished from 3,300 BC to 1,300 BC in Northwest India and Pakistan. The civilization conducted the first long-distance trade at around 3,000 BC with Mesopotamia. There is no archaeological evidence of the civilization having armies or conducting warfare. It was one of the great civilizations of the Bronze Age, but it vanished from the historical record. It was rediscovered in 1921 when archaeologists discovered the ruins at the city of Harappa in the Punjab and then the next year at Mohenjo-Daro near the Indus River. Indus Valley Civilization is sometimes called Harappan Civilization as a result. Since then archaeological sites have been discovered all across the Indian subcontinent. Only 10% of sites have been excavated due to international tensions between India and Pakistan.

The Indus Civilization used inscriptions that took the form of animal and human motifs. Since its discovery, over 100 attempts to translate the inscriptions have been made, but with no success. Much of the problem is that there is no Rosetta Stone for Indus Script. Even more difficult is that Indus inscriptions are short, with no passage lasting no more than 26 characters which leads some scholars to believe it was merely an accounting system. However, most experts agree that the script is indeed a writing system. It is hoped that as more archeological sites are uncovered, or if a Rosetta-type of stone may be found in Mesopotamia, deciphering the writing system may become possible.  

Tablets with Linear A inscriptions from Zakros, Crete, Greece. Minoan civilisation. Sitia, Archaeological Museum. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Minoan Writing Systems

The Minoan Civilization on the island of Crete existed from 2,700 BC to 1,100 BC and like the Indus Valley Civilization, was lost to history until rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century. In the course of its history, the Minoans used three different writing systems: Hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B. The hieroglyphs are the earliest form and are found on artifacts dating to 2,100 BC and were in use until roughly 1,700 BC. In 1,800 BC, Linear A was introduced which lasted until 1450 BC when it was replaced by Linear B. Linear A and Linear B have hundreds of signs that either mean ideas or syllables.

Of the three systems, only Linear B has been translated which has been revealed to be a form of proto-Greek. Since Linear B contains shared symbols with Linear A, scholars thought that they would be able to use that knowledge as the basis for deciphering Linear A. They were wrong since what they produced were sounds that meant nothing, perhaps because it was a dead language. 

Mayan writing in the Dresden Codex. Source: (Wikipedia)

Mesoamerican Writing Systems

Before contact with Europeans, several civilizations flourished in the region of central Mexico to Central America, called Mesoamerica, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Maya. These had developed writing systems based on glyphs which represented ideas or sounds – or at least that is what is suspected since of the writing systems, only the Mayan glyphs have been deciphered through a laborious process involving hundreds of scholars over the course of a century. 

The 62 glyphs of the Olmec Cascajal Block. Source: (Wikipedia)

Olmec Writing

The Olmecs flourished from 1,500 to 400 BC in Mesoamerica along the Mexican gulf coast who may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop writing. What scholars know is from a single stone called the Cascajal block. The stone was found by road construction teams in the early 1990s. A study of it in 2006 revealed it to be Olmec in origin. The stone contains 28 glyphs. Scholars are doubtful if this will ever be translated, but its small size 14 1/8 x 8 ¼ x 5 1/8 inches and under 27 pounds leads experts to conclude it was a personal document. Many scholars, however, believe that the block is a hoax because of its individual uniqueness, questions about the dating method used, and differences between the way the text was written compared to later Mesoamerican writing systems. Archaeologists hope to find other examples of the script that may eventually aid translation efforts and verify that the script on the Cascajal block is real.

A page from the Vienna manuscript of Zapotec origin, 1901. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Zapotec Writing

The Zapotecs developed a rich civilization in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico that was based around their city of Monte Alban and had contact with the other cultures around them including the Olmec and the Maya. Their civilization lasted from approximate 700 BC to 1521 AD. Among the ruins and artifacts, there is also a rich glyphic script of symbols that once translated would provide great insight into the culture. 

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).