Deciphering History

Andrew Robinson looks at some linguistic puzzles still facing historians.

English: The Phaistos Disk (side A) found in the Phaistos archaeological site on July 3, 1908, exhibited in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, Greece
The Phaistos Disc (side A) dated to c.1700 BC, exhibited in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, Greece. Image: Wiki Commons/Olaf Tausch.

Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible. Yet it is a skill most writers take for granted. Looking at a page in a foreign script that is totally incomprehensible to us – perhaps Arabic or Japanese – reminds us forcibly of the nature of our achievement. An extinct script, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Babylonian cuneiform or the glyphs of the ancient Maya of Central America, may strike us as little short of miraculous and  bizarrely different  from  our own alphabetic scripts.

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