From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published October 23, 2012 09:20 AM

New technology helps researchers decipher world's oldest writing system

Deciphering modern day handwriting is sometimes challenging so reading ancient manuscripts that have been preserved from 3,200 to 3,000 BC can be especially difficult. To the naked eye, ancient artifacts appear weathered, worn, and downright old, but thanks to reflectance transformation imaging technology that takes pictures of these ancient manuscripts, digital images can capture never-before-seen details and lead researchers to new and exciting discoveries.


Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton developed a Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) System for Ancient Documentary Artifacts to capture images of important historical documents.

The system is made up of a dome with 76 lights and a camera well placed camera. Once the manuscript or other artifact is placed in the center of the dome, 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit. The images are then joined together so that the reader can move the light across the surface of the image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.

Researchers are currently studying manuscripts written in the proto-Elamite writing system used in ancient Iran and said to be the world's oldest writing system. By viewing extremely high quality images of these documents, and by sharing them with a community of scholars worldwide, researchers hope to gain more insight to these ancient civilizations.

Dr Jacob Dahl, a co-leader of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and a member of Oxford University's Faculty of Oriental Studies, said: "The Louvre collection of early writing from Mesopotamia and Iran is incredibly important – it contains the first substantial law code, the first record of a battle between kings, the first propaganda, and the first literature. Being able to put these documents online would be a great achievement."

While some symbols are shared with those from Mesopotamia, such as numbers and signs for common pictures including animals and foodstuffs, 80-90% of the signs remain undeciphered. While the manuscript needs to be studied further, researchers believe that this writing system also used a syllabary, where symbols depict not just whole words but also syllables.

According to Dr Dahl, making these documents from early human history publicly accessible is becoming increasingly important as it promotes both cyberscholarship in academic research and also encourages cultural heritage preservation in areas of the world threatened by armed conflict and collapse of security like in Iraq and Syria.

Read more at the University of Oxford.

Ancient writing image via Shutterstock.

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