Lost Writing Systems of the Ancient World

By | May 21, 2019

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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. 

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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.