Last summer a group of scholars announced that they had cracked Linear Elamite, a Bronze Age script used in the trading cities of Elam in the highlands of southern Iran, through which Central Asian tin, a crucial ingredient in bronze, was transported north to the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria.1 First identified by archaeologists in 1903, it’s a beauty: stark geometric characters composed of diamonds and triangles, circles and straight lines. It has also long resisted decryption, not least because there is so little of it: only forty texts are known.
Early clues came from objects found at the Elamite capital of Susa with inscriptions in both Linear Elamite and Akkadian, a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia and written in patterns of wedge-shaped (“cuneiform”) marks made in clay with a blunt stylus. Akkadian was deciphered in the nineteenth century as a largely syllabic script—one whose characters represent syllables rather than individual sounds, as an alphabet does—and although the Linear Elamite inscriptions weren’t direct translations of the Akkadian ones, it was always a good bet that they would contain some of the same names, which should sound the same in both languages. One Akkadian inscription, for instance, refers to a local god, Sushinak (“Lord of Susa”), and a local king, Puzur-Sushinak; in this case the overlap meant that if Linear Elamite was a phonetic writing system it should be possible to find the same two names by looking for partially identical sequences of Linear Elamite signs. Once these sequences were indeed identified, specific sound-values could be assigned to the individual characters they contained.
By the 1920s nine of the seventy-six signs that appeared more than once in the small corpus had been tentatively read. By 2018, however, that number had risen to only twelve. Then came another breakthrough, when investigators focused on a group of inscriptions written on chunky silver beakers, luxury items that must have belonged to kings and courtiers. Here there were no Akkadian inscriptions for comparison, but the texts did contain the names of known Elamite rulers, some of which were relatively easy to recognize: a phonetic rendering of the name Shilhaha, for instance, must contain the same sign or signs written twice in a row, and the sign for “shi” was already known from the Susa texts. In a stroke of luck, the writing on the beakers also turned out to overlap with other Elamite-language texts written in a different system, a version of the cuneiform used to record Akkadian. Since scholars had already been able to decode a fair amount of Cuneiform Elamite, including names, titles, and formulaic phrases that they now identified on the beakers as well, the puzzle came together quickly, and these scholars believe that they can now read seventy-two Linear Elamite signs with confidence.
Their efforts have courted controversy. The Linear Elamite beakers are of uncertain provenance and are held in private collections, and one was impounded by the Norwegian police in August 2021 because “the evidence on balance…indicates modern looting, smuggling, and illicit trading.”2 No major objections to the decipherment itself have yet been published, but it is early days, and scholars are resourceful.
Being able to read a script is not the same as understanding a language. Even if the new hypothesis does find general acceptance, significant gaps will remain in our knowledge of Elamite grammar and vocabulary. It doesn’t help that Elamite is “isolated,” that is, unrelated to any other known tongue. All the same, there is now reasonable hope of translating what survives of the records these adventurous ancient traders left of their world.
Deciphering unknown languages often depends on the fact that the same language can be written in multiple scripts (as with Elamite, and later Turkish or Malay), and the same script can be used to write multiple languages (as with cuneiform, and later the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets). But as we see in modern writing systems from musical notes to emojis, script isn’t always tied to language at all.
In ancient Mesopotamia numbers came first, in the form of token and tally systems. Adding a picture of what you were counting—a sheep, say—helped to keep the books straight. This was good for communication too: people speaking different languages could read the same thing the same way. Whether the first written document to change hands was a bill, a receipt, or a ration book, it didn’t look so different from an online shopping cart today.
The next step forward was to develop these early sketches into “signs” that represented specific elements in specific languages. Over time this produced a gloriously complicated writing system for Sumerian, the earliest surviving written language and another isolate. Its cuneiform characters can represent entire words, like the English logograms & and %, or individual syllables, or grammatical “determinatives”: signs that tell you that the next word is a kind of god, or city, or waterfowl. People needed these determinatives because despite the existence of hundreds of signs, many could be read in several different ways and in all three categories.
What prompted the writing down of language? The traditional answer is the state: writing appears in Mesopotamia and many other places with the development of centralized political institutions. It suited their administrative and fiscal requirements, and it often worked to their benefit: the earliest surviving Chinese writing, oracles inscribed on pieces of bone including turtle shells, predicts the military maneuvers of the king’s enemies and neighbors.
Even writing that remains divorced from language can work on behalf of the state. From around 1400 to 1600 CE the Incans used the position, thickness, and direction of knots tied in long woolen strings hanging from a cord, called quipu, to record numbers. This was no simple accounting system: by turning events into dates and places into coordinates, like zip codes, quipu could communicate complex narratives. And the fact that the knots were not tied to any particular language made this three-dimensional script a useful tool of Incan imperial bureaucracy.
All the same, as Silvia Ferrara points out in The Greatest Invention, writing doesn’t require states to take off. The runic script, more properly called futhark, appears in Northern Europe in the second century CE in the absence of strong central government, and although its letters are based closely on the alphabet used to run the Roman Empire immediately to the south, it was used primarily, as far as we can tell, for nongovernmental purposes like magic, fortune-telling, and graffiti.
Writing can even emerge in reaction against states. Ferrara tells the story of Sequoyah, a silversmith, member of the Cherokee Nation from Tennessee, and tenacious champion of Cherokee literacy as a means “to combat the white conqueror’s abuses of power.” Sequoyah spent a decade developing a syllabary—a syllabic script—with eighty-five signs adapted from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets. He then devoted himself to promoting it, teaching the new script to his six-year-old daughter and holding events to demonstrate her prowess. As a result “the percentage of literate Cherokees outgrew that of the local whites.”
Writing did still encourage state-style opposition: Sequoyah’s script was officially adopted by the Cherokee National Council in 1825 for their laws and a bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. But Ferrara goes further: a central argument of her book is that the fundamental idea of writing itself comes not from bureaucracy but from individual creativity and a human urge to communicate with others.
One obvious problem with claiming that writing is a universal human instinct is that it has rarely been invented from scratch. Even in Ferrara’s optimistic account, this “flash of insight” has happened only four or five times in human history—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica, and perhaps on Easter Island.
There’s an unassailable argument for independent invention in Mesoamerica, where Mayan languages were recorded in elaborate glyphs for more than 1,500 years before the European invasion. Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, however, appear at more or less the same time, around 3000 BCE. Neither script derives from the other, but the idea of writing could have traveled between these regions by the same indirect routes that brought Mesopotamian lion imagery and mudbrick architecture to Egyptian cities in this era.
A similar process of conceptual transmission might explain the appearance of Chinese writing around 1500 BCE, by which time wheat, which had first been domesticated in Western Asia’s so-called Fertile Crescent, could also be found in China, and millet domesticated in the Yellow River region had reached Eastern Europe. Here, though, the dating is trickier: the script written on the “oracle bones” was already fully formed, with three thousand to five thousand distinct signs, which suggests an earlier and so far invisible phase that might predate transcontinental contact.
Dating is a problem on Easter Island as well. Its first settlers came from Polynesia, where writing did not to our knowledge exist, perhaps in the early second millennium CE. Nineteenth-century Europeans, however, found wooden tablets covered in a script now called Rongorongo, which they efficiently gathered up to steal or destroy. The few examples that survive—none on the island itself—are covered in horizontal bands of signs that are read from bottom to top and not only change direction every line but turn upside down as well. None can be securely dated, however, and there has to be a suspicion that earlier visitors had brought news of writing to the island.
Ferrara notes that states often maintain writing systems, as their bureaucracies depend on the transmission of information across long distances: “Wherever there’s a state with a population of more than ten thousand, you can bet there’s a writing system.” This is typical of the book’s style as a whole: light on its feet, alternately passionate and pragmatic. It’s all good fun, even if, as information flashes by, ideas and theories become facts, even contradictory ones: a few pages after we learn that Bronze Age Cyprus had “a geopolitical system under which no person ranked above any other…with power divided up equally,” we read that writing on the island is “a game reserved for the elite, not the people,” and that it might have had a king. Ferrara, a professor at the University of Bologna, explains that in writing the book,
I followed the same verbal impulse that I follow when giving a lecture to my students, patching together shreds of our discussions in class, of dinner conversations, chats with friends and colleagues and the people I love.
The book’s origins are in a research project Ferrara directs that aims to decipher famously intractable scripts. In two cases, and as with Cuneiform Elamite, a familiar script could help with the reconstruction. Linear A, which was used to write a Bronze Age Cretan language, is now securely established as the ancestor of Linear B, decoded in the 1950s as a syllabic system for writing Greek.3 It is also the mother-script of Cypro-Minoan, used to write an as-yet-mysterious Cypriot language.
Conversely, insight into the language or languages spoken on Crete could provide useful clues for the decipherment of the Cretan Hieroglyphic writing system, a different script in use on the island at the same time as Linear A. This is also the principle behind the new attempt on Linear Elamite, and it may work for Rongorongo, in which an unknown script is presumably used to write a Polynesian language.
Ferrara uses these case studies to help explain how to improve the chances of a successful decryption, the importance of collaboration, and the growing use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, especially in disambiguating different characters. There’s little here to comfort amateur enthusiasts working alone in their studies of the Voynich manuscript, a fifteenth-century document written in an encrypted script of thirty signs that is named after the bookseller who bought it in 1912 and spent the rest of his life failing to decipher it.4 Nor can we hold out hope of reading the Phaistos disk, made on Crete in the era of Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphic but stamped with a spiral of 241 enigmatic characters. In both cases we know neither the language nor the script, if they record real tongues at all: the text of the Voynich manuscript appears to follow the standard conventions of natural language, but the Phaistos disk might be an imitation of writing—or simply a board for a forgotten game.
Ferrara emphasizes that the biggest obstacle to deciphering ancient languages is the assumption that premodern societies were primitive. The signs that make up unfamiliar scripts are easy to dismiss as pictograms, symbols, or even art. But almost all writing systems turn out to be largely phonetic: Mayan glyphs, for instance, long thought to be simple memory aids, were finally decoded in the second half of the twentieth century as a mixture of logograms and syllabic characters. The rules here are clear even for undeciphered scripts: several hundred signs point to a logo-syllabary; fifty to a hundred to a syllabary; fewer than that and we enter the realm of the alphabet, in which each letter denotes a single unit of sound.
Ferrara has relatively little to say about the alphabet. It’s an odd fish, going beyond the human impulse to organize sounds into syllables. “That humanity ever landed on the alphabet…was a matter of sheer good fortune, a cultural epiphenomenon,” Ferrara writes. It is “a brainy, sophisticated thing” that she associates in particular with the ancient Greeks, who “cleared the way for their vowels (in a sea of Phoenician consonants), and thus created a democratic and economic product.”
This is fighting talk. There is no doubt that the origins of the alphabetic writing system adopted by Greek speakers centuries after they abandoned Linear B lie in a much earlier script invented to record the languages of the ancient Levant and brought west by merchants from Phoenicia in the eighth century BCE. Until a year or so ago most scholars would have placed the first examples of this Levantine consonantal alphabet, or “abjad,” in the early second millennium BCE, a thousand years before it reached the Greeks. Now, however, signs with strong resemblances to later alphabetic letters have been identified on four small clay cylinders found in a northern Syrian tomb that is at least five hundred years older.5 Unfortunately these brief inscriptions feature only twelve letters in total, and specialists don’t yet know which direction to read them in, let alone what they say.
The Greeks themselves were committed to the foreign origins of their script, and often called their letters “Phoenicians.” They added vowels by recycling existing Phoenician letters that had been used for sounds that didn’t exist in Greek. And the vowels themselves weren’t so much an improvement on the existing writing system as a necessary adaptation of it to their own language: many Greek words begin with vowels, and the distinctions between them play a larger part in communicating meaning in Greek than in Semitic languages.
Greeks weren’t the first to add vowels either: that honor goes to the Bronze Age port of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, where thirteenth-century BCE scribes reinvented the traditional Linear Alphabetic letters of the region as a set of thirty cuneiform characters that included three vowels. On current evidence, in fact, Greeks weren’t even the second. The earliest alphabetic inscription with vowels found west of the Levant is written in Phrygian in the city of Gordion, in what is now central Turkey, and dates to around 800 BCE. It is another generation before the same vowels appear in Greek inscriptions.
It was only in the twentieth century that scholars began to build a case for an “alphabet effect,” seeing the addition of vowels to the Levantine abjad as a change of immense significance that enabled voweled writing systems to capture—or impose—the smallest details of sound responsible for Greek philosophy, democracy, and individualism.
This is just one of the episodes in alphabetic politics that Johanna Drucker, a professor of bibliographical studies at UCLA, discusses in Inventing the Alphabet. The book is subtitled “The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present,” but Drucker insists that it is really about how “knowledge and belief shaped the understanding of alphabetic writing.” Before examples of Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were collected in bulk by colonial archaeologists, writing to Europeans simply was the alphabet. This meant that the invention of the alphabet—whether attributed to Greeks, Phoenicians, or God—was the invention of writing. In such debates most scholars were prudent enough to let God win: the first writing must have been in Hebrew, they concluded, though the Huguenot theologian Samuel Bochart made a spirited attempt in 1646 to derive Hebrew from Celtic and Teutonic. The alphabet itself was generally treated as a divine revelation, but what happened after that was up for grabs. Scholars competed to collect different versions, including a variety of “angel alphabets” that were made up for the purpose of mystery and magic but never used for ordinary writing.
As a scholar of visual communication, Drucker is understandably stronger on these medieval and early modern constructions of the alphabet than on its actual historical development or ancient ideas about it. Even when the book hits its stride, the chronological structure encourages repetition and fragmentation, and some sections resemble an annotated bibliography. This has its advantages, though: in its wealth of detail and generous illustration the book goes some way toward reproducing the experience of reading the catalogs and compendia it describes.
By the end of the eighteenth century, writing was largely understood as a human invention, and the study of ancient inscriptions was taken more seriously as historical evidence for its origins and history than the claims of ancient texts, whether biblical or secular. In her final chapter Drucker describes the more recent use of the alphabet in Western imperialism and in the trade, industry, and missionary work that went along with it, as well as its subsequent usurpation of writing across the world. The Unicode system that provides digital fonts for almost all known scripts assigns each character an alphanumeric code, and even Chinese characters are typed by entering text in alphabetic “pinyin” before the appropriate traditional signs can be selected from suggested lists.
How worried should we be by alphabet supremacy? Is it simply an improvement on earlier scripts, just as syllabaries improved on picture-coded accounting systems? This might seem obvious: with fewer letters, alphabets should be easier to learn. But there’s more to reading and writing than learning your letters, and schoolchildren today can be taught to communicate effectively in all sorts of writing systems. Even the cuneiform script, with its hundreds of characters and specialized equipment, was no bar to functional literacy in the early second millennium BCE: in some Babylonian cities, writing tablets were found in more than half the houses.
There’s a bigger question about whether writing, the handmaiden of imperial taxation, conscription, and surveillance, is a good thing at all. Silvia Ferrara is naturally on Team Script, though she admits that a survey conducted by the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology rated the invention of writing below that of the zipper. She suggests that in a world without writing we’d live “suspended in a continual present.” But that isn’t quite true: the power of collective memory is remarkable. The songs and stories of past glory that the Greeks called Homer were passed down for centuries without the help of writing. Indigenous coastal legends from Australia to the Outer Hebrides appear to describe landscapes that have not existed for thousands of years, and in some cases since the end of the last Ice Age.6 Oral history doesn’t survive the onset of literacy, when the time before writing becomes myth. But writing has been around for only six thousand years or so, and most people didn’t see much of it—it wasn’t omnipresent in daily life—before the invention of the printing press and the rise of the modern nation-state. There is no particular reason to think it will long outlive them.
François Desset, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Matthieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello, and Gianni Marchesi, “The Decipherment of Linear Elamite Writing,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie, Vol. 112, No. 1 (July 2022). ↩
Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, “Report with Assessment and Recommendations Concerning Objects Impounded at Martin Schøyen’s Residence August 24, 2021,” March 2022, p. 154. ↩
See Ester Salgarella, Aegean Linear Script(s): Rethinking the Relationship Between Linear A and Linear B (Cambridge University Press, 2020). ↩
See Glenn M. Schwartz, “Non-Cuneiform Writing at Third-Millennium Umm el-Marra, Syria: Evidence of an Early Alphabetic Tradition?,” Pasiphae, No. 15 (2021). ↩
See Patrick Nunn and Margaret Cook, “Island Tales: Culturally Filtered Narratives About Island Creation Through Land Submergence Incorporate Millennia-Old Memories of Postglacial Sea-Level Rise,” World Archaeology, Vol. 54, No. 1 (March 2022). ↩