Tuesday, October 23, 2012

deciphering the indecipherable

Proto-Elamite tablet
What is it that is so tantalizing about researchers being "on the brink" of deciphering "the world's oldest undeciphered writing?"

Somehow it seems to be built into the DNA: Not knowing something is not enough; what is not known lights some bright fuse and nothing will do until the firecracker of knowing goes off.

Here is a 5,000-year-old language dubbed proto-Elamite over which researchers have been sweating for a decade or more. Even such basic words as "cow" or "cattle" have not been definitively winkled out, but now, at least, the writing itself can be seen more clearly than ever before. The tablets tease and taunt.

The writing has no spoken counterpart, apparently. There are no side-by-side texts in other languages or writing formats. There is a suspicion that scribes often made mistakes. And it's not as if whatever the tablets say is likely to blow anyone's socks off ... "cow," "cattle," "eat," "drink," "trade," "walk," "hunt," "sun," "man," "child," "food" ... the human capacities and longings don't change much.

But a mystery?!

What is not known?!

Like a kaleidoscope, the patterns and colors of what is not known seem endlessly tantalizing and strange and beautiful and just-out-of-reach.

How mysterious that there should be a mystery.

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