Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ancient Writing: Indus Script

From the Smithsonian Can Computers Decipher a 5,000-Year-Old Language? A computer scientist is helping to uncover the secrets of the inscribed symbols of the Indus By David Zax Smithsonian.com, July 20, 2009 The Indus civilization, which flourished throughout much of the third millennium B.C., was the most extensive society of its time. At its height, it encompassed an area of more than half a million square miles centered on what is today the India-Pakistan border. Remnants of the Indus have been found as far north as the Himalayas and as far south as Mumbai. It was the earliest known urban culture of the subcontinent and it boasted two large cities, one at Harappa and one at Mohenjo-daro. Yet despite its size and longevity, and despite nearly a century of archaeological investigations, much about the Indus remains shrouded in mystery. What little we do know has come from archaeological digs that began in the 1920s and continue today. Over the decades, archaeologists have turned up a great many artifacts, including stamp sealings, amulets and small tablets. Many of these artifacts bear what appear to be specimens of writing—engraved figures resembling, among other things, winged horseshoes, spoked wheels, and upright fish. What exactly those symbols might mean, though, remains one of the most famous unsolved riddles in the scholarship of ancient civilizations. There have been other tough codes to crack in history. Stumped Egyptologists caught a lucky break with the discovery of the famed Rosetta stone in 1799, which contained text in both Egyptian and Greek. The study of Mayan hieroglyphics languished until a Russian linguist named Yury Knorozov made clever use of contemporary spoken Mayan in the 1950s. But there is no Rosetta stone of the Indus, and scholars don’t know which, if any, languages may have descended from that spoken by the Indus people. About 22 years ago, in Hyderabad, India, an eighth-grade student named Rajesh Rao turned the page of a history textbook and first learned about this fascinating civilization and its mysterious script. In the years that followed, Rao’s schooling and profession took him in a different direction—he wound up pursuing computer science, which he teaches today at the University of Washington in Seattle—but he monitored Indus scholarship carefully, keeping tabs on the dozens of failed attempts at making sense of the script. Even as he studied artificial intelligence and robotics, Rao amassed a small library of books and monographs on the Indus script, about 30 of them. On a nearby bookshelf, he also kept the cherished eighth-grade history textbook that introduced him to the Indus. Rest of article.

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