Weird Science: 5,000 Year Old Tablets


Election 2012 has tied up much of my time recently and I have neglected one of my passions: the world of science. For those of you who are not aware, what I categorize as Weird Science in this blog, the title of one of my favorite filmsmaybe because the actress was considered once one of the most beautiful women in the world – Kelly LeBrock represents the science subject as often amazing. As I digress, I have a bit of catching up to do …

Cuneiform Tablet – Wikipedia image
The earliest form of writing is the cuneiform. It dates from Sumer about the 30thcentury BC with some writing in cuneiform dating into the late 4thmillennium called the Uruk IV period. This Sumerian script was adapted and used for writing in several languages: Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwain, Hattic, Hurrian, and Uratian. It was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire and by the 2nd century AD, it disappeared altogether.
The documents were written on clay tablets and cylinders with a stylus made from reed. The impressions made were wedge-shaped and so its name derived from Latin cuneus meaning, “wedge”. The image at left depicts the standard deciphered cuneiform writing from a Sumerian inscription c. 26th century BC.
Dr. Jacob Dahl – BBC image
Dr. Jacob Dahl, Wolfson College, University of Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster is using modern technology and computer software to decipher the oldest found cuneiform tablet dating back 5,000 years.
The project has been working on a lost Bronze Age society where enslaved workers lived on rations that barely kept them alive. BBC reports that the device is “part sci-fi, party DIY” – used to decode a writing system called proto-Elamite in a region what is now Iran.
Dr. Dahl has been successful at deciphering 1,200 separate signs in ten years of study. Still many words remain unknown. D. Dahl stated that the inability to decipher some of these texts was because of typographical errors on the part of the scribes, and evidence pointing to the scribes degrading of their education which D. Dahl believes helped toward the writing form to disappear. He stated in a BBC interview:

The lack of scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may have eventually become useless.

The other fact is that it is unlike any other ancient writing style and its complexity may have boosted its extinction. It is a writing system that transgressed several languages (those listed above) and so it is difficult to know how words were sounded, much like the difference between spoken Egyptian and written (hieroglyphic) script.
This particular tablet is attributed to proto-Elamite who borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians. That means they made up entirely different set of symbols.
While archaeology leaves footprints of ancient civilizations, written records establish and describe the thoughts and everyday lives of the people who lived in the societies of those civilizations.
The various tablets Dr. Dahl is deciphering have pictures of animals and mythical creatures and describe the society and the difference between the wealthy and poor. He expects the tablets to be deciphered within two years. 
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