Who unveiled the scripts' tease?

The Story of Decipherment
October 29, 1999

Who deserves the most credit for deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphic script? Jean-Francois Champollion or Thomas Young? What about the Mesopotamian cuneiforms? Was it Georg Grotefend, Henry Rawlinson or Edward Hincks? How did they, and others who worked on forgotten writings, achieve such outstanding intellectual feats? What determines whether a decipherment is accepted as correct? And how can so many would-be decipherers be wrong?

These are some of the basic problems studied by Maurice Pope in this new edition of his long-admired and established (but still fascinating) book on decipherment. The stories of the men who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Persian and Sumerian cuneiforms, the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, the Cypriot syllabary, the hieroglyphic Luwian script and the (Mycenaean) Linear B script were described in the first edition (1975). Now, these chapters have been updated, and two new decipherments added: that of the Carian alphabet (Carian is a language spoken in Anatolia, now proven to be a member of the Indo-European family), and of the Mayan script of Central America.

Pope is the right man for these tasks. A professor of classics, now retired, he has published several books and papers about still-undeciphered ancient scripts (Cretan "hieroglyphic" and Minoan Linear A). Furthermore, he has a vivid interest in the history of the scripts: he wrote, inter alia , a paper giving a tentative genealogy of the ancient Mediterranean scripts; and he is joint author, with H. Morrison and S. Codd, of a marvellous handbook, The Non-Stop Reader: A Complete Guide to Reading for Both Parent and Child (1997).

One of the nice things in his book on decipherment is that his treatment of the subject is broad. He gives us not only technicalities, but also humanity, history, culture and method. To begin with, he asks why any scripts should require deciphering. The answer is that, "It is the normal fate of writing systems, once they are no longer actively employed, to be forgotten." In due course, the unknown writing acquires "a touch of magic".But at the end of the book, having studied the most prominent decipherments, Pope clearly states that "there have been surprises, but there has been no magic". That is because none of these decipherments "has been the achievement of inexplicable genius". The statement may seem rash, but the key word here is inexplicable. Geniuses there were, but "the lightning flash of insight that illuminates the whole landscape has not occurred", since in every case the ideas came "one after the other".

Never forget, too, that every successful decipherment was rooted in the ideas of its period. Pope likes to describe intellectual life at the time of each of his decipherers as well as their particularities. Thus, he is able to detect what they owe to their surroundings (and to their forerunners) and what was original to them alone. He makes clear, for example, the role played by a description of the Chinese script (published in 1822) in the progress of Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphs. And he sensibly argues that Sir Arthur Evans delayed an edition of the Linear B tablets he had found in Knossos (Crete) for many decades because he felt that "the writing system of the tablets was not an isolated technical problem which could be usefully worked on piecemeal by others, but an integral part of Minoan civilisation, only intelligible in the light of the whole body of the archaeological evidence".

Pope enjoys elucidating the evolution of his decipherers' thinking. Of Champollion's earliest book he asks: "Is there anything of striking brilliance or originality to mark Champollion off as the future decipherer of the hieroglyphs? The answer must be no." And his judgements on some people's flawed approaches are refreshing. Of the Persian cuneiforms and Thomas Hyde, regius professor of Hebrew and Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford in the 17th century, he says: "Hyde is an outstanding example of how wrong a professor can be"; and of the Cypriot syllabary he remarks: "To the misdemeanours of profiteering, treasure-hunting, and illegal excavation, (Hamilton) Lang now added that of concealment."

To prove the rightness of a decipherment is a more complicated affair. When a Mayan text written on a cup may be transliterated ca-ca-u(a), this immediately suggests a possible link with our "cocoa" (which is known to be a loan from a Mayan language). And when this same cup, sent to a laboratory, is found to contain chocolate residues, one feels there is something serious in the contention that the Mayan script has been deciphered.

But Pope shows how many other conditions must be fulfilled for a decipherment be considered proven. Here one may disagree with his opinion about Linear B. Although he explicitly recognises the validity of its decipherment by Michael Ventris ("there came a dramatic confirmation of the decipherment"), the script, he writes, is "the only example recounted in this book of a decipherment which is not yet absolutely certain", and he considers it as "a theoryI in the sense of a solidly constructed argument which is not yet capable of a logically convincing proof". Such scepticism was not justified by the evidence at the time of the first edition, and it is still less justified now, after so many newly discovered inscriptions, each of them successfully interpreted as good archaic Greek. It seems to me that Pope has been too much influenced on this point by some criticisms made in the years immediately following Ventris's announcement in 1952-53; and that he underestimates the significance of the bilingual nature of several Linear B words that, when transliterated, give the Greek form of a clearly recognisable ideogram that accompanies the word, for example o-no (Greek onos , "donkey"), followed by the ideogram of the Equidae.

Yves Duhoux teaches the history of Oriental scripts and ancient Greek language, Universite Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script

Author - Maurice Pope
ISBN - 0 500 28105 X
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £12.95
Pages - 232

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