Decoding Antiquity: Eight Scripts That Still Can’t be Read

Writing is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Perhaps the greatest, since it made history possible. Without writing, there could be no accumulation of knowledge, no historical record, no science — and of course no books, newspapers or internet. The first true writing we know of is Sumerian cuneiform — consisting mainly of wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets — which was used more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Soon afterwards writing appeared in Egypt, and much later in Europe, China and Central America. Civilisations have invented hundreds of different writing systems. Some, such as the one you are reading now, have remained in use, but most have fallen into disuse. These dead scripts tantalise us. We can see that they are writing, but what do they say? That is the great challenge of decipherment: to reach deep into the past and hear the voices of the dead. When the Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1823, they extended the span of recorded history by around 2000 years and allowed us to read the words of Ramses the Great. The decipherment of the Mayan glyphs revealed that the New World had a sophisticated, literate civilisation at the time of the Roman empire

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