Crowd-Sourcing To Crack Oldest Un-deciphered Writing System
November 28, 2012

Crowd-Sourcing Used To Help Crack World’s Oldest Un-deciphered Writing System

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

The oldest un-deciphered writing system in the world has eluded academics for years, but a researcher from the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford has begun an undertaking that will attempt to harness the power of ℠crowd-sourcing´ to solve this ancient riddle.

Dr. Jacob Dahl announced the project this week, which will take high-quality images of 5,000-year-old Proto-Elamite clay tablets and publish them online. The hope is that academics and amateurs working together will finally crack the code and help to understand the script within two years.

What could make this project all the more difficult is that there is a complete lack of any phonetic clues, and some believe there may even be mistakes in the writings.

The Proto-Elamite tablets contain what is widely accepted to be the last un-deciphered writing system from the Ancient Near East. According to the Oriental Studies department, there are today a substantial number of sources that include more than 1,600 published texts.

What makes this text unique is that it was apparently used for a relatively short period around 3000 B.C. in what is today Iran. The Proto-Elamite writing system likely derived from the Uruk invention of writing in southern Mesopotamia during the middle of the 4th millennium BC and is believed to be the first indigenous writing system. It is also believed to be a precursor to the indigenous Elamite writing system. Further complicating matters is that the Linear-Elamite from the Bronze Age also remains largely un-deciphered. At present experts can only speculate on how the two writing systems relate to one another.

The majority of the extant tablets originate from Susa in the southwestern portion of Iran, while a large number of Proto-Elamite tablets have been found at Tepe Sofalin close to Teheran.

The next step is to create high resolution digital images of the tablets and make them available for as many eyes as possible to see. The researchers from Oxford, along with colleagues from Southampton University have developed a reflective transformation imagine (RTI) system for ancient documentary artifacts, which will allow for high resolution images of the tablets to be made available to the public.

The system comprises a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top. The manuscript can be placed in the center with 76 photos taken with each one of the 76 lights individually lit. In the post-processing stage the images are joined together so that researchers can move the light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.

Dahl´s team has since set up a website, and hundreds of people have contacted them since the BBC first reported the story in late October. He has received offers of help from language experts, code breakers, mathematicians and other interested members of the public.

“I am overwhelmed by the positive response to our work and hope that the renewed focus on this ancient writing system may help us towards a decipherment,” Dr. Dahl told the BBC.

So far, the suggestion that “came closest” to what Dahl believes could be written on the tablets may have referred to a harvest. This suggestion came from a man in California, and Dahl believes that with this sort of collaborative help and insight the entire writing system could be decoded within two years.