Home > Areas of Specialisation > Decipherment

Decipherment

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 14 Feb 2017 | comments*Discuss
 
Archaeological Decipherment Translating

In archaeology the word decipherment is used in reference to the translating of ancient writing into modern texts. One of the unusual realities of archaeological decipherment is that both geniuses and nutters are attracted to it and sometimes it is not easy to tell the two apart.

Simply put, archaeological decipherment is code cracking. Many ancient writings are scripted in symbols that have long lost their dictionary of meanings. The expert in decipherment needs to be a knowledgeable, logical, lateral thinker with a trained linguistic mind. Such a combination of characteristics is often found in the eccentric scholar.

No One to Read the Script

The best-known deciphered scripts are unquestionably Egyptian hieroglyphs. These picture symbols for many years fascinated the world but few, if any, could understand their meaning. Throughout the Far East scholars and archaeologists had been discovering clay tablets with unusual wedge-shaped marks thought to be some form of writing. But again, there was no living person who could unlock the secrets contained in the marks.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The Rosetta Stone is an upright, three-sided lithic prism, inscribed with a different language on each of the three faces explaining a royal decree. Members of Napoleon’s army discovered it in 1799 but the British took control of it shortly thereafter. The three languages on it are Demotic, Greek, and Hieroglyph.

Hieroglyphs had been completely superseded shortly after the 4th century AD and for 1,400 years no one had known how to interpret them. However, with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, decipherment was now possible. Scholars who knew ancient Greek (the old language of business and administration) were able to use the words as a key to unlock the pictures of hieroglyphs. English and French linguists worked on deciphering the stone and were able to show that the pictures represented sounds. Before long ancient Egypt was coming alive through the reading of every hieroglyph.

Unlocking Cuneiform

Many archaeologists and even linguistic scholars did not believe that the markings on the hordes of clay tablets being discovered all over Mesopotamia were indeed writing. The decipherment of the cuneiform script was a much slower process than that of the Rosetta Stone but like the cracking of the Stone the breakthrough came when other inscriptions acted as the key.

Georg Grotefend, a German school teacher, first worked on the interpretation of ancient Persian inscriptions found at Persepolis. He found that two of the most famous Persian kings, that of Darius and Xerxes, had their names and titles within the inscriptions. Yet, it took over fifty years before the code of cuneiform was broken only to find that the solution did not unlock all cuneiform. The reason? There were differing language variants written in the cuneiform script.

Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer discovered more inscriptions carved into rock in Iran. Rawlinson’s cuneiform script contained many more characters than earlier discoveries and some similar ones were used in differing ways. This added a new complication to decipherment.

Thus far, archaeologists have discovered cuneiform script from the Hittite empire, Mesopotamia, Persia and an Ugaritic script from Syria. Scholars are now able to understand nearly every discovered piece of cuneiform and read the myths, legends, business dealings, royal decrees, battles won and lost, and even the mundane inventories of a shoe shop, all providing greater insight into past civilisations.

We Have the Key to Three out of Four

The role of the field archaeologist is the discovery of artefacts and that will always include finding writings in an unknown language. As long as new linguistic material is being excavated then archaeological decipherment is sure to continue. Egyptian, Eastern, and Chinese scripts have all been deciphered. Only one of the classic ‘first four civilisations’ remains a mystery. Whoever opens the door on the Indus Valley script will unlock a wealth of information about the ancient Indian sub-continent.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
could you help me a identify this type of language i have researched for hours but have not come the conclution of what it is i bet you guys wont either so if you can help me email me back and ill send a picture thank you.
whatever you want to - 14-Feb-17 @ 6:56 AM
@B. you can find the images for the various heiroglyphics via search engine and then work it out according to the letters used. We cannot place images here so can't help sorry.
ArchaeologyExpert - 11-Feb-15 @ 11:27 AM
What is the Egyptian Hierogliphic for "Beer"?
B - 8-Feb-15 @ 3:22 AM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
Title:
(never shown)
Firstname:
(never shown)
Surname:
(never shown)
Email:
(never shown)
Nickname:
(shown)
Comment:
Validate:
Enter word:
Topics
Latest Comments
  • Ellie
    Re: The Bone Expert
    Hiya I came across an animal skeleton on my morning walk and I wondered if you would be able to help me find out what kind of animal it is?
    2 December 2020
  • Glen
    Re: Pottery Experts
    I have a very old small clay jug that was dug up by a friends grandfather just before the Second World War about 1meter below the surface I would…
    16 November 2020
  • Coupal24
    Re: Etched Vase: How to Discover its Origins?
    I found 3 pieces of different pottery in the brook out back. This was ancient indian land . Curious to know the…
    8 November 2020
  • Coupal24
    Re: Etched Vase: How to Discover its Origins?
    OK i found 3 different pieces of pottery in brook so far wondering age and if they are old enough that indians…
    8 November 2020
  • Chad
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    Hello, I found what looks like a hatchet type tool slightly in the ground near an old Walnut Grove. Is there a way I can send picture or show it?
    26 October 2020
  • OliRobbo
    Re: Pottery Experts
    Hello there, My grandad found an old piece of pottery sticking out of a molehill near the site of a Middle Age church which is no longer standing…
    14 October 2020
  • Gill
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    Hello, I come across a stone on a beech on the NE coat of Scotland, Caithness (beside a castle - I forget the name but can look it up if you…
    18 September 2020
  • lil boy
    Re: Pottery Experts
    i found old pottery it is several different colors. it was 4ft in the ground
    23 August 2020
  • Marg
    Re: Pottery Experts
    I have been left this dish which I think is very old but probably worthless and would like very much to know more about it It is 13 x 10 inches…
    22 August 2020
  • Abulbarakat
    Re: Tools of the Archaeologist
    I an an archeologist from Kano state Nigeria, and I have located several archaeological sites that are yet to be studied as the…
    19 August 2020