Computers unlock 4,000 year old language

A mysterious 4000 year old urban civilization is coming close to revealing its secrets thanks to computer technology.

According to Science Daily, the civilization based in the Indus Valley, in India, was a significant power and traded with Ancient Egypt and Ur.  Like those two civilizations it used a hieroglyphic language which has been long forgotten.

Now a team of Indian and American researchers are using mathematics and computer science to try to piece together information about the still-unknown script.

Led by a University of Washington researcher computers  have extracted patterns in ancient Indus symbols. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows distinct patterns in the symbols’ placement in sequences and creates a statistical model for the unknown language.

It is possible to see the underlying grammatical structure of the Indus script even if the scientists don’t know what each word means. Such a model is stage one for decipherment, because any meaning ascribed to a symbol must make sense in the context of other symbols that precede or follow it.

Nobody has yet deciphered the Indus script. The symbols are found on tiny seals, tablets and amulets, left by people inhabiting the Indus Valley from about 2600 to 1900 B.C. Each artifact is inscribed with a sequence that is typically five to six symbols long.

The research shows that the heiroglyphs are a language and not pictograms of political or religious icons.

The computer work shows that the order of symbols is meaningful.  The presence of such distinct rules for sequencing symbols provides further support for the group’s previous findings, that the unknown script might represent a language.