How undeciphered is an undeciphered script?

Indiana Jones and the Undeciphered Script? PHILIPPA STEELE, editor of Understanding Relations Between Scripts, takes us on a tour of writing in Bronze Age Greece and how we understand these scripts.

As someone who works on ancient writing, I often jokingly tell people that I am fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming Indiana Jones. It may not involve being shot at or finding priceless idols in forgotten temples, but there is nevertheless a thrill to be had from trying to read something that was written down thousands of years ago.

Understanding Relations Between Scripts Rongorongo
The Rongorongo script of Easter Island. Wikimedia commons/public domain.

Many inscriptions have survived from the ancient world – some of which we can read, while others remain undeciphered. The air of mystery surrounding an undeciphered script, and the tantalising impression that we just need to find the key to ‘unlock’ such ancient writings, can create quite an exhilarating feeling. What we mean by ‘undeciphered’, however, can vary quite a lot from case to case.


For some undeciphered writing systems, we have very little idea of what its signs stand for, a good modern example being the mysterious Rongorongo system from Easter Island. With fewer than 30 inscriptions and script signs that look completely unrelated to any other known writing system, there is very little to help us in any attempt to decipher it.

However, there are other writing systems that we label as ‘undeciphered’ where we in fact know a lot more. In some cases we can even come very close to ‘reading’ a text in the sense of being able to speak the sequences aloud (because we know the values of some signs), but without understanding what they mean (because we do not understand the language). Early Greece and especially the island of Crete give some useful opportunities to think about the different degrees to which a writing system can be deciphered or undeciphered – one interesting aspect of the new book Understanding Relations Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems.

Writing in Bronze Age Greece

Understanding Relations Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems is a collection of essays by ten experts who work on the surviving writings from Bronze Age Greece, Crete and Cyprus, dating between around 2,000 and 1,200 BC. The writing systems that have survived from this period are all syllabic (i.e. every sign stands for a whole syllable, not just a letter) and are at different stages of ‘decipherment’.

understanding relations between scripts cretain hieroglyphic
Seal made of green jasper with a Cretan Hieroglyphic inscription. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Cretan Hieroglyphic survives in c.300 inscriptions and remains very poorly understood even though we know a little about its relationship with the other scripts. One problem is that the inscriptions are often decorative and it is difficult to tell how to read them – they present some similar issues to the decorative Mayan writing. Although some signs look similar to ones in Linear A and B, meaning we can guess at their values, their ‘pictorial’ nature is quite different from the more abstract shapes of signs in the other systems.

understanding relations between scripts linear A
Large storage jar with Linear A inscription. Wikimedia Commons/Happenstance


Linear A survives in c.1,500 inscriptions, many clay tablets and sealings although other items like jewellery, pottery and stone vessels were also inscribed. It is usually labelled as ‘undeciphered’ but this is a good example of a script where we could read sequences aloud reasonably accurately because many of its signs are shared (along with their values) are shared by the later, deciphered Linear B system. However, we do not understand the language of the inscriptions, other than being able to can ascertain the meaning of a word from its context (most notably the word for “total”, ku-ro, appearing at the end of lists).



understanding relations between scripts linear B
Linear B tablet written in Greek, listing women workers. Photograph courtesy of Rupert Thompson.

Linear B survives in c.6,000 inscriptions and is the only fully deciphered Bronze Age Aegean script. It was Michael Ventris who cracked the code and announced his decipherment in 1952 (read more here), demonstrating that the language written in Linear B was an early form of Greek. Almost all surviving examples are administrative clay documents, and because we understand their content we can glean from them a wealth of historical information about the economy of the Mycenaean world.


understanding relations between scripts bronze ingot
Bronze ingot with a Cypro-Minoan inscription. Image courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

Cypro-Minoan survives in 250 inscriptions, most found in Cyprus. Probably derived from Linear A, we are able to work out the values of some Cypro-Minoan signs but do not understand the underlying language. The inscriptions are very varied in type and date and most are very short (it is rare to find one of more than a few signs!), making it much more difficult to try to understand their content.




Understanding Relations Between Scripts

One of the aims of Understanding Relations Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems was to present some of the latest research on writing in Bronze Age Greece. But a more important goal was to change the way we work on these scripts, which have often been studied in isolation from each other. I set the book’s contributors a particular task, namely to speak about at least two of the Aegean scripts in their chapter, thus encouraging comparative analyses as well collaboration with other contributors.

More recently I have been pursuing some of the same themes in other ways, through a project I run, funded by the European Research Council, called Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems. This takes the idea of comparative research further, with a team working on a variety of writing systems of the ancient Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. This allows long-range as well as short-range comparisons, for example different types of literacy in the Bronze Age Aegean and Levant, or different approaches to vowel notation in Greek and Phoenician. If you are keen to hear more, you can follow us on our blog.

understanding relations between scripts

Understanding Relations Between Scripts: The Aegean Writing Systems, edited by Philippa Steele and published by Oxbow Books, examines the relationships between the writing systems of the ancient Aegean and Cyprus in the second and first millennia BC, principally Cretan ‘Hieroglyphic’, Linear A, Linear B, Cypro-Minoan and the Cypriot Syllabary, demonstrating the great advances made by inter-disciplinary studies.

9781785706448 | PAPERBACK | 176pp | £36.00

Now available!

Understanding Relations Between Scripts II
Early Alphabets
Edited by Philip J. Boyes and Philippa M. Steele

This volume presents a set of diverse studies on the early development of alphabetic writing systems in the Levant and the Mediterranean during the second and first millennia BC.

9781789250923 | HARDBACK | 240pp | £50.00

This book is open access, and also available as a freely downloadable ebook PDF.