Illustration for article titled This ancient, undeciphered text is closer than ever to being solved

The world's oldest undeciphered writing is on the verge of what researchers are calling "a breakthrough," and they're looking to the public to help make it happen.


The symbols you see up top are known as proto-Elamite script, a writing system that dates back five millennia to the Early Bronze age, in what is now southwestern Iran. The writing system has baffled scientists for years. But now, thanks to some next-generating imaging equipment, researchers like Jacob Dahl — director of The Ancient World Research Cluster at Wolfson College, Oxford — are closer than ever to decoding its messages.

BBC's Sean Coughlan explains:

In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilisations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light. This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software.

Dr Dahl… shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of [proto-Elamite script].

The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets. It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.


And here's the brilliant bit: Dahl intends to make all these images publicly available online in the hopes of crowdsourcing the codebreaking process, which could prove an immensely useful approach. According to Dahl, several confounding factors have made this text particularly difficult to decipher word-for-word. By involving as many people as possible, however, Dahl thinks that he and his colleagues could go from understanding general themes in this ancient writing to understanding it full, as a little as two years.

"I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough," he says.

Read more about Dahl's work in this in-depth feature, over at the BBC.

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