Lost memories of mankind

The last undeciphered scripts

Undeciphered scripts, Proto-Elamite, Linear A, Cretan hieroglyphs
Three examples of undeciphered scripts, left, 5,000 year old Proto-Elamite. Then two scripts from Crete, hieroglyphs, circa 3,900 years old and Linear A, circa 3,500 years old.

The spoken word disappears as soon as it is uttered while thoughts and memories live as long as the brain that contains them. Over 5,000 years ago the invention of writing allowed for the preservation of humanity's memory and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Lack of writing certainly did not stop many civilisations from creating great accomplishments, and impressive feats of memorisation are possible as great epic stories were composed and passed on by story tellers. But with a changing world, civilisations vanishing and the distance of centuries or millennia, myths, sciences and history can only survive if preserved in writing.

This chapter describes the importance of the survival and decipherment of ancient scripts, by offering a survey of ancient civilisations still in darkness, since their scripts are yet to be deciphered.

Fortunate survival of the memory of the ancient Egyptians

To first get an idea of the conditions needed for an unknown ancient script to be eventually deciphered, this chapter first offers a reminder as to how the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs survived and eventually was translated.

Finding lost texts is only the start of the adventure to rediscover the past. Deciphering ancient writing systems is a remarkable achievement, who might not get the same attention than discovering intact royal tombs, yet is more significant.

To appreciate the difficulty, one has to imagine finding a restaurant menu. It has images of food so we know what it is about, but it is written with letters never seen before. We try to guess the word 'chicken', but the menu is not only written in an unidentified script, but in an obscure language, a language that hasn't been spoken for millennia.

Faced with a foreign language one is utterly lost, as were the code-breakers during WW2 trying to understand Navajo speakers. Since the enemy had no idea what the language was, and no Navajo-Japanese dictionary existed, the coded messages were never deciphered. An incredibly complex machine system, Enigma, was eventually broken, while a language only understood by few people never was.

For the Egyptian hieroglyphs, crucially, not only did the ancient Egyptians carve their writing in stone all over the walls of their temples, but centuries of exchange with Greeks and Romans meant bilingual documents would have existed.
Its language was still broadly understood, since the Coptic Church ceremonial language was based on it, so the ancient Egyptian civilisation was certainly not 'foreign'.

Yet it still spent 1,400 years in oblivion, and only the fortunate discovery of the Rosetta Stone (plus other documents) lifted the memory of the ancients out of the darkness they so feared.

The reader is given is a survey of a selection of ancient scripts still awaiting their Rosetta Stone, Proto-Elamite, Linear A, Etruscan, Zapotec, Isthmian, and potentially the only script known in the Pacific Ocean, Rongorongo, from Easter Island.

This is a preview of the chapter doing a survey of the history of decipherment and the last undeciphered scripts from the book Lost Treasures.