The history of writing is a long and interesting one. Without living users and comparison examples, an archaeologist that unearths a new script is probably going to spend the rest of their life scratching their head and trying to translate it. Without the equivalent of a Rosetta stone, it's almost impossible to reconstruct a dead writing system. These 13 examples have defied the best efforts of cryptographers, scientists and translators to pick them apart.
The story of the Quipu system is a bit of a disappointment. While still not fully explained, they were used by the Inca and their predecessors in the Andes, and were used as a method of communication not by writing on a flat surface, but instead by knotting small pieces of thread. As cool as this would be, it appears that Quipu isn’t really a language, as it doesn’t seem to contain enough information. Instead, it’s probably a method of accounting and recording numbers, as the knots appear to correspond to decimal notation. Researchers think the color of the thread may imply something too, but aren’t sure what. I kind of wish it was a full written language communicated by knots. That’d be incredibly cool.
12. Rohonc Codex
There’s a chance the Rohonx Codex is fake, which is a major bummer if true. It’s a Hungarian book which is at least from the early 1800s and there’s some scant evidence of it being older than that. Scholars generally think it’s a hoax from a prominent historian and hoaxer from the 1830s and 1840s who enjoyed fooling his comrades, but there is the vaguest hint that it might be older than that. This tome is written in a complex script that doesn’t appear to be linked to any known language, living or dead. One scholar created a translation based on turning the book upside down and saying what he thought the letters look like, but that doesn’t hold much water. I hope that this is a true ancient unidentified script, but there’s a pretty good chance it isn’t.
Isthmian script comes from Mesoamerica, around 500BCE to 500CE, and we have no idea what it says. It’s obviously a fully developed writing system, and the analysis of it appears to be that it’s logosyllabic. This system is from a people post-Olmec, and is based around two sets of characters: the first are logograms, where each symbol represents and entire word; the other are used to represent syllables. It’s a linguistic mashup language. So far only 10 or so artifacts have been found with this script on them, but it’s obviously a fully formed system. Since there are so few examples, those who claim to have translated it are able to get away with a lot more as there isn’t much to compare them too.
10. Singapore Stone
The Singapore Stone is a huge chunk of sandstone found in Singapore, engraved with an unknown script native to Southeast Asia. It’s probably from somewhere between the 10th and 13th centuries, and might be Old Javanese or Sanskrit. Unfortunately, the stone is now mostly destroyed. Fragments of it survive, but in 1843 the original slab was blown up to widen a river passageway. Even with 175 years of research into the stone, we still don’t know what language it is, even though the linguistic breakdown of that region is otherwise pretty well known.
9. Phaistos Disc
The Phaistos Disc is a prime example of Cretian Heiroglyphs from around 2000BC. Linked to Linear A and B (more on that later), this 15cm disk is engraved on both sides, and is one of only seven known examples of the script. The Disc ignited popular interest like few others have, and has been the subject of intense scrutiny as amateurs and professionals alike have attempted to decipher it, without a clear case of success. There are some 45 letter/symbols on the disc, and the writing winds in a spiral on each face. People have called it a history, a board game, a story, or even a piece of geometry. Yet despite this intense attention, we still don’t know what it says.
8. Southwest Paleohispanic Script
The Southwest Paleohispanic script has as much debate about its name as its translation. Apparently some people don’t like calling it Southwestern as it doesn’t describe anything about it, and apparently this is a thing that academics argue about. The writing system is found on around a hundred large stones throughout the Southwest of Spain, from around 700BCE. Very little is agreed about this ancient language, except that it mostly seems to have been used for funeral stones, and that they liked writing it in spirals. The type itself appears to be partly a syllabary, with each symbol representing a syllable, like in Japanese, but then with a normal alphabet for finishing off the vowels after the final consonant in the word. Weird, huh? At least with this script there have been some advances, and many of the letters have agreed upon sounds, but there are still plenty which don’t.
There’s only one example of a script believed to be linked to the Olmec Empire, that that’s the Cascajal Block, dated to the first millennium BCE, and found in a pile of debris at a building site. The block has 62 glyphs on it, some of which appear to be local plants of one form or another. Unfortunately, with such a small corpus, it’s incredibly difficult to decipher. Even with such a prominent and large empire over hundreds of years, this is the only sample of writing that has been unearthed. The symbols are completely unlike any other writing system from that part of the world, and has no apparent organisation between the lines of text. Without additional information, there’s a pretty good chance it could be even a fake.
6. Indus Script
For 600 years from the 26th century BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization thrived, with a detailed and complex writing system, which remains untranslatable due to the lack of anything comparing it to another known script. Essentially we need another Rosetta Stone. We’ve known of this script since the 1870s, and scholars think it has a Dravidian origin, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that. What we know about it comes from 3700 seals that have been discovered, creating a corpus of 417 signs/letters, most of which are used in seals of around five symbols. It’s thought to run right-to-left, and be mostly pictoral, but with some abstract symbols too.
5. Issyk Kurgan
In the Southeastern area of glorious Kazakhstan way back in 1969, a single burial mound was discovered, and buried within was a person dressed like a freaking badass and a silver cup bearing an inscription that has resisted translation ever since. The only known example of this writing, it’s thought to be variant of a Scythian dialect, but no one’s quite sure. The person buried inside looks like a character out of a Zelda game, with a huge red peaked hat, and more than 4,000 gold ornaments over their red outfit, including what looks like chainmail. This badass prince or princess is now a national treasure, but they’re still arguing about the writing on their pimp cup.
The Jiahu symbols represent possibly the oldest writing system we’ve ever encountered. Dating back to 6600BCE, there are only sixteen known characters, all found in stone age sites China. The symbols have some visual similarities to the later origins of Chinese scripts, commonly believed to have developed out of oracle bone carvings. If the Jiahu symbols are a form of writing, then the divide between them and the oracle bones is an astonishing one, a full 5,000 years. That’s right, between the two earliest examples of Chinese writing, there’s five millenium of difference. We’re closer to Shang oracle bones in chronology than they were to the Jiahu. It’s the oldest writing system that we’ve ever found, but with so little evidence, there’s a pretty good chance it’s not technically writing, but rather proto-writing or just basic pictures. The first accepted system is probably cuneiform, ca 3400 BCE.
3. Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is one of the most intriguing and befuddling books in existence — and it’s either the world’s greatest fake or else a hint about something we really don’t understand. It’s thought to come from around the 15th century, and is vaguely encyclopedic. We have no idea who the author was, what it says, or even how the script is used — a fact not helped by missing pages. Statistical analysis shows some similarities in form to English and Latin, but even after decades of cryptographers attempting to figure out how this information was encoded and how the alphabet works, we’re not really any further. The Voynich is something of a holy grail for people obsessed with language and puzzles, and it’s one of those things where I desperately hope we do crack it, because I would dearly love to understand what it really says.
2. Linear A
In the earlier parts of the 20th century, the academic and classical world was shocked when scientists managed to decipher one of the ancient languages of Crete: Linear B. By 1951, not only had the symbols been explained, but a pronunciation guide was created, and it was shown to be an ancient form of Greek, despite the academic consensus to the opposite. This advancement spurred a new generation of interest in picking apart dead writing systems, and the two most obvious candidates were the predecessors to Linear B: namely Linear A and Cretian Heiroglyphs. Yet, here we are a century later, and we still have no idea how to pick apart these ancient scripts, which were used around 2000 BCE. Unlike some of the other examples on this list there are no shortages of examples, as dozens of inscriptions have been found, and there’s even some crossover of symbols between Linear A and Linear B, yet scientists still haven’t managed to figure out what any of it says.
The people or Rapa Nui left behind one of the deepest and most endearing mysteries to modern historians. The Moai of Easter Island have entered the public consciousness as amazing ancient artifacts that represent the perils of over-zealousness and environmental ignorance. They chopped down all their forests and killed all their animals to make more religious statues. What most people don’t know is that there appears to be a written script associated with the society, too. Called Rongorongo, these series of inscriptions remain completely untranslatable despite being at the very least a type of proto-writing. The letters are found an 24 or so hunks of wood, usually in incredibly oddly shaped tablets and the occasional staff. Unfortunately, only a few pieces survive, and they’re in poor condition scattered around the world. According to the oral histories of the people in the area, only very few of the elite were ever taught to read, of whom none survive. You know what’s the craziest thing about this? If it actually is a written language, it represents a completely independent invention of one of the key characteristics of humanity. None of the other Pacific Island cultures had anything like this. It might not be a true writing system, but rather a proto-writing, or else a mnemonic device for recording genealogy or navigation — like you see with Maori carving in New Zealand. It’s still incredibly intriguing, but will probably never be deciphered.