Experts Cracking Oldest Undeciphered Language

5,000-year-old tablets may soon yield secrets

By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff

Posted Oct 22, 2012 3:02 AM CDT | Updated Oct 22, 2012 12:00 PM CDT

(Newser) – Experts trying to crack the world's oldest undeciphered language say they are close to making a breakthrough that could unlock a large cache of knowledge from the ancient world. The academics are using a high-tech imaging device to scan clay tablets and capture writing in the proto-Elamite language, which was used in what is now southwestern Iran between 3200BC and 2900BC, reports the BBC, which describes the project as "Indiana Jones with software." The images will be made available online to give other academics a chance to decipher the ancient language.

The head of the Oxford University team behind the project says part of the reason the language has been so hard to decipher appears to have been a lack of a scholarly tradition among ancient scribes, which means the texts are full of mistakes—and the writing system became useless and died out after a few hundred years. "It's an early example of a technology being lost," he says. But enough of the ancient language has been decoded for researchers to get a glimpse of the ancient Bronze Age society, in which the majority of workers were treated like "cattle with names" and lived on barley and weak beer.

The Elamites borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians, but made up their own set of symbols.
The Elamites borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians, but made up their own set of symbols.   (Wikimedia Commons)
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