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Proto-Elamite Codebreakers Try Crowdsourcing To Help Decipher Mystery Language

Oct 22, 2012
University of Oxford

Researchers at Oxford University hope new technology and crowdsourcing on the Internet will help them decipher the world's oldest writing system that still remains a mystery.

The ancient writing from what is now southwest Iran, called proto-Elamite, was used during the Bronze Age between 3200 BC and 2900 BC but has defied academics who long ago found the Rosetta Stone to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics and other ancient languages. Although proto-Elamite was borrowed from neighboring Mesopotamia, its scribes devised their own symbols that have made it all but undecipherable for millennia.

But now, according to BBC News, scholars believe they have the tools to make significant headway.

"I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough," Jacob Dahl, a fellow in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford University, told the BBC. "It's an unknown, uncharted territory of human history."

Dahl and other researchers at Oxford have spent more than a decade studying the right-to-left writing on clay tablets. So far, they have deciphered 1,200 symbols but that merely scratches the surface. Basic words such as "cattle" remain unknown, the BBC adds.

So the scholars have turned to a device known as a Reflectance Transformation Imaging System (RTI). Developed by a team of international developers, RTI uses light to capture photos of every groove on a clay tablet to produce super-sharp images.

Dahl's team shipped an RTI machine to the Louvre museum in Paris, home to the world's largest trove of proto-Elamite tablets, and exposed the tablets to them. The high-resolution images will be put online to allow academics around the world to crowdsource a translation, ideally within two years.

The ancient writing has proven particularly maddening to scholars, Dahl says, because it appears to be full of mistakes that have made deciphering them all the more difficult. There also have been no bilingual texts to use for comparison nor any lists of symbols or primers to use as a reference. In addition, scholars don't know how the language was spoken and thus lack phonetic clues that might have helped their work.

Yet the writing system is hugely important to experts in ancient languages because it was the first to use syllables and represents the first recorded example of one people adopting writing from another people nearby.

Oldest Undeciphered Language To Be Crowdsourced

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