Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Technology helping to crack oldest undeciphered writing system

Date:
October 26, 2012
Source:
University of Oxford
Summary:
New technology has allowed researchers to come closer than ever to cracking the world's oldest undeciphered writing system. Researchers in the UK have developed a Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) System for Ancient Documentary Artefacts to capture images of some of the world's most important historical documents. Recently this system was used on objects held in the vaults of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Under the dome: a tablet is photographed.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford

New technology has allowed researchers to come closer than ever to cracking the world's oldest undeciphered writing system.

Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton have developed a Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) System for Ancient Documentary Artefacts (funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) to capture images of some of the world's most important historical documents. Recently this system was used on objects held in the vaults of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

These images have now been made available online for free public access on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

Among the documents are manuscripts written in the so-called proto-Elamite writing system used in ancient Iran from 3,200 to 3,000 BC and which is the oldest undeciphered writing system currently known. By viewing extremely high quality images of these documents, and by sharing them with a community of scholars worldwide, the Oxford University team hope to crack the code once and for all.

Dr Jacob Dahl, a co-leader of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and a member of Oxford University's Faculty of Oriental Studies, said: 'I have spent the last ten years trying to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system and, with this new technology, I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough.

'The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning. Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t.'

The reflectance transformation imaging technology system designed by staff in the Archaeological Computing Research Group and Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton comprises a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome. The manuscript is placed in the centre of the dome, whereafter 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit. In post-processing the 76 images are joined so that the researcher can move the light across the surface of the digital image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.

'We have never been able to view documents in this quality before,' Dr Dahl explained.

Dr Dahl believes this writing system might be even more interesting than previously thought. He said: 'Looking at contemporary and later writing systems, we would expect to see proto-Elamite use only symbols to represent things, but we think they also used a syllabary -- for example 'cat' would not be represented by a symbol depicting the animal but by symbols for the otherwise unrelated words 'ca' and 'at'.

'Half of the signs used in this way seem to have been invented ex novo for the sounds they represent -- if this turns out to be the case, it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phonetecism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle (a modern example would be for example "I see you," written with the three signs 'eye', the 'sea', and a 'ewe').'

Some features of the writing system are already known. The scribes had loaned -- or potentially shared -- some signs from/with Mesopotamia, such as the numerical signs and their systems and signs for objects like sheep, goats, cereals and some others. Nevertheless, 80-90% of the signs remain undeciphered.

The writing system died out after only a couple centuries. Dr Dahl said: 'It was used in administration and for agricultural records but it was not used in schools -- the lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless as an administrative system. Eventually, the system was abandoned after some two hundred years.'

Dr Dahl joked: 'This is probably the world's first case of a collapse of knowledge because of the under-funding of education!'

The Louvre gave the researchers access to the c. 1100 proto-Elamite tablets in its collections, half of which can now be viewed on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

Dr Dahl said: 'The Louvre collection of early writing from Mesopotamia and Iran is incredibly important -- it contains the first substantial law code, the first record of a battle between kings, the first propaganda, and the first literature. Being able to put these documents online would be a great achievement.'

Dr Dahl said making important documents from early human history publicly accessible is becoming increasingly important, both as a consequence of the ever-expanding influence of cyberscholarship in academic research, but also in many cases more pressingly as a matter of cultural heritage preservation in areas of the world threatened by armed conflict and collapse of security.

'Iraq's cultural heritage has been pillaged in the last 20 years, and the situation in neighbouring Syria is looking dire as well,' he said.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Oxford. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Oxford. "Technology helping to crack oldest undeciphered writing system." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 October 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121026111235.htm>.
University of Oxford. (2012, October 26). Technology helping to crack oldest undeciphered writing system. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121026111235.htm
University of Oxford. "Technology helping to crack oldest undeciphered writing system." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121026111235.htm (accessed October 20, 2014).

Share This



More Computers & Math News

Monday, October 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Japanese Scientists Unveil Floating 3D Projection

Japanese Scientists Unveil Floating 3D Projection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 20, 2014) Scientists in Tokyo have demonstrated what they say is the world's first 3D projection that floats in mid air. A laser that fires a pulse up to a thousand times a second superheats molecules in the air, creating a spark which can be guided to certain points in the air to shape what the human eye perceives as an image. Matthew Stock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Google To Protect Against Piracy ... At A Cost

Google To Protect Against Piracy ... At A Cost

Newsy (Oct. 20, 2014) Google is changing its search-engine results to protect content producers from piracy — for a price. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
What We Know About Microsoft's Rumored Smartwatch

What We Know About Microsoft's Rumored Smartwatch

Newsy (Oct. 20, 2014) Microsoft will reportedly release a smartwatch that works across different mobile platforms, has a two-day battery life and tracks heart rate. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Is Spotify Family A Great Deal Or Catching Up?

Is Spotify Family A Great Deal Or Catching Up?

Newsy (Oct. 20, 2014) Spotify Family lets you add a family member to your account for half price. Although users are excited, it's a move competitors have already made. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins