Deciphering History

Andrew Robinson looks at some linguistic puzzles still facing historians.

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. We want to know what kind of people the early writers were, and what kind of information, ideas and feelings they chose to make permanent. But to obtain such insights it is first necessary to decipher the ancient scripts: to understand not only the sign system but also the spoken language the signs encoded.

Deciphering has its roots in the Renaissance fascination with ancient Egypt, although the actual word was not coined until 1677, when an Englishman, Thomas Herbert, referring to the mysterious cuneiform inscriptions of the Persian king Darius at Persepolis, called them:

well worthy of the scrutiny of those ingenious persons that delight themselves in the dark and difficult Art or Exercise of deciphering.

Some groundwork in deciphering  was laid in the eighteenth century, but it was not until the 1820s that there was a great breakthrough, with Jean-François Champollion’s ‘cracking’ of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, aided by the Rosetta stone. In the 1850s, the several cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia started to reveal their secrets; in the first half of the twentieth century, the Hittite (Luvian) hieroglyphs of Anatolia were deciphered; in the 1950s, the Linear B script of the Mycenaeans and Minoans was understood; and in the final decades of the last century, the Mayan glyphs began to make sense to scholars – to mention only the most famous decipherments.

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