Palaeography: two centuries after the advent of hieroglyphs, writing has yet to be deciphered

PublishedSeptember 25, 2022 at 5:00 pm.

PaleographyTwo centuries after the advent of hieroglyphs, writing has yet to be deciphered.

If the secret of the Egyptian signs was revealed in 1822, then the rongo-rongo, the linear A. or the Phaistos disc remain a mystery.

Rongo-rongo, the script of Easter Island, has not yet revealed its secrets.


In September 1822, the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion succeeded in deciphering the hieroglyphs, offering the world a path to Ancient Egypt. But many other works have not yet revealed their secrets.

Mysterious letters

Even though many scholars have clung to it, some ancient scripts, such as Linear A, are not decipherable. Mostly used in Crete, between 1850 and 1450. represents a word). Most of the inscriptions found are accounting documents, but they have also been used to write votive texts.

The same opacity surrounds rongo-rongo, the Easter Island scenario. It consists of a series of hieroglyphs (creatures, objects, geometric patterns…) almost exclusively engraved on wooden tablets until the 1860s. on Lost Languages ​​and Scripts, in Quebec Science.

The writing of the Indus civilization, which occupied the northwest of the Indian subcontinent from the middle of the 4th to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, also remains undeciphered. It appears on about two thousand seals, as well as on some copper plates and some objects made of terracotta, bone and ivory. Other inscriptions also remain impenetrable, found on rare, even unique objects, such as the four 2nd millennium inscriptions found at Byblos in Lebanon, or the Phaistos Disc and its 45 signs arranged in a spiral…

Forgotten languages

“There are times when deciphering a letter is not a problem – the letter is known – but the language remains a mystery,” historian Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, director of research at CNRS, tells AFP. As for the Etruscans. From the Iron Age until the 1st century BC, the Etruscans ruled over a vast territory formed by Tuscany and Lazio. Their alphabet, intermediate between the Greek alphabet and the Latin alphabet, is readable, but it is a language we do not fully understand.

The same is true of Meroitic, a kingdom written along the Nile, in the north of present-day Sudan, between the 3rd century B.C. and 4th century AD but not fully translated. “It’s like being given Hungarian to read: you could decipher it, but not catch its meaning,” explained Claude Rilly, an Egyptologist and linguist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, in an article in the journal Quebec Science.

– Lost access paths to reopen –

Deciphering writing and language “gives us access to the internal documents of a civilization, a human group,” explains Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet. “These texts allow us to recognize people, give us historical and chronological frameworks, indications of systems of thought, of religion…”. “Archaeology does not give such indications as texts,” adds the historian.

We know the Etruscans from some Latin or Greek texts, the Rapa Nui from Easter Island from several descriptions of the early conquerors, but these documents only reflect an outsider’s perspective focused on what interested them. In order to be able to decipher these testimonies of the past, one would have to, for example, be able to establish a connection with spoken languages, discover new texts sufficiently developed to allow hypotheses, or bilingual writing, like the famous Rosetta stone with the same decree engraved in three languages. and allowing Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphs.


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