By the time I reached the pictures in the New Scientist article I knew I had stumbled on just what I had been looking for. I had always liked the use of text as an image and when I started working with bronze clay I knew I wanted to incorporate some kind of script into the pieces I was working on. Bronze has a feeling of antiquity about it, and I could visualize using it for fragments of text, but couldn't seem to get started because the scripts I was looking at all said something (even if I didn't know what it was) and I felt the meaning had to be taken into account. But here were "Eight Scripts That Still Can't Be Read", and they were both enormously varied and visually intriguing. From the organic feel of Linear A to the impossible precision of Rongo-rongo, from the almost familiar pictures of Olmec, Proto-Elamite, and the Phaistos Disc to the abstract lines and squiggles of Meroitic, all of them were both visually and intellectually engaging in a different way than known text could be, because of the mystery they represent. I am aware that they still say something, but they are more cultural artifact than simple text, so even if one turns out to be a warehouse inventory I won't be disappointed. Their meaning goes beyond their translation.
Proto-Elamite originated around 3050 BC in what is now western Iran. It is the oldest undeciphered script. Although some signs are understood because they are images of objects they represent or because they are borrowed from another script, most of the symbols and the language itself are unknown.
Indus script comes from what is now part of Pakistan and northwest India, and originated around 2500 BC. Although 417 distinct signs have been identified, individual texts are very short, averaging only five symbols. Although many attempts have been made at decipherment, none are generally accepted as successful.
The Phaistos Disc was discovered in 1908 by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier on the island of Crete at Phaistos. Each side of the fired clay disc has a series of symbols pressed into the clay arranged in a spiral pattern. The disc is unique in that each of the symbols was made using some kind of stamp that could be reused, which may be seen as a very early use of movable type to create a “printed text”. The context of the find indicated a date between 1850 and 1600 BC, which is generally accepted as accurate, but there have been some who question its authenticity and suggest that it may be a forgery or a hoax.
Linear A is the script for the unknown Minoan language, and dates from 1900-1800 BC. Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, discovered clay tablets inscribed with two different scripts at Knossos in Crete in 1900. The other script, Linear B, which dates from approximately 1450 BC, was deciphered in 1952, and is known to have been used for an early form of Greek. The two scripts share some symbols, but using the corresponding sounds for Linear A does not produce any known language.
The Etruscan alphabet, which originated in what is now northern Italy around 700 BC, was derived from a form of the ancient Greek alphabet and eventually developed through Latin into the English alphabet we use today. Despite the fact that Etruscan can be “read” since the alphabet and pronunciations are known, only a few hundred words can be understood. Most of the surviving examples are in the form of inscriptions, such as tombstones, and consist largely of names of people and places.
Meroitic script developed in the Sudan in the third century BC. It has two forms, one hieroglyphic and one cursive, developed from the Egyptian systems. British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith deciphered the phonetic values of both forms around 1911, but other than proper names only a few dozen words have been translated, based on context.
The Olmec civilization is the most ancient in Central America, and Olmec writing may be the earliest in the Americas, dating to 900 BC. Examples have only been found in recent years, and progress in deciphering them will be difficult unless more inscriptions are discovered.
Examples of writing from the pre-Mayan Zapotec culture in Central America date to between 600 and 400 BC. The Zapotec calendar has been decoded, but the language of the script is still unknown, even though Zapotec languages are still spoken.
Isthmian is one of several pre-Mayan Central American scripts. One of the few examples found seems to date from around 100-200 AD, but the script may go back as far as 450 BC. In 1933 John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman proposed a partial decipherment of one surviving text, but their work was later disputed, and the issue is still unresolved.
Examples of Rongo-rongo were discovered on Easter Island in the 19th century. Although oral tradition would date the early use of the script to as early as 300 AD, the oldest surviving examples seem to date from the 13th century or later. Since, with the exception of a few petroglyphs, all existing texts are inscribed on pieces of wood, attempts to date the texts have focused on dating the wood. Some examples have been found to be inscribed on wood from European oars, which would date them no earlier than the 18th century. By the 1870's however, it appeared that there was no one who could read the script, and except for part of one tablet which concerns a lunar calendar, attempts to decipher the script have been unsuccessful.