New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Andrew Robinson


The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Deciphering an unknown script is partly cryptography, partly linguistics. In some cases. such as Linear B, the essential insight was the recognition that the script represented a known language, namely Greek. For other scripts, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, the language they represented was unknown, and in such cases decipherment usually had to wait until an inscription was discovered that provided a crib. Robinson's book offers accounts of both types of discovery.

The book is in two parts. The first part is concerned with the successful decipherment of three scripts, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B, and Mayan. With the help of plentiful illustrations of the scripts, Robinson gives a clear account of how the decipherments were made, providing sufficient but not excessive detail.

The second part is concerned with scripts that have not yet been deciphered. These include Meroitic (the script of a civilisation that flourished in sub-Saharan Africa and was long thought to be merely an inferior appendage of ancient Egypt), Etruscan, Linear A, the proto-Elamite script of ancient Iran, Rongorongo from Easter Island, ancient Mexican script, the Indus valley script, and the script of the Phaistos disc from Crete. In some of these cases, such as Etruscan, there is slow but steady progress, but in others, such as the unique Phaistos disc, that is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

This book is a good introduction to a fascinating subject, or set of subjects. It is a pity that Thames & Hudson have seen fit to print the text in small thin grey lettering that makes reading the book a decipherment challenge in itself.

%T Lost Languages
%S The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts
%A Robinson, Andrew
%I Thames & Hudson
%C London
%D 2002, 2009
%G ISBN 978-0-500-51453-5
%P 352pp
%K language
%O illustrated

New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects