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Six Stonehenge Mysteries

Six Stonehenge Mysteries 98

by K.P. Robbins, Author of The Stonehenge Scrolls

Although archaeologists have greatly expanded our knowledge of Stonehenge–through such means as radiocarbon dating, examination of bone fragments and attempts at re-creating stone hauling—many Stonehenge mysteries still remain. Some questions simply cannot be answered by scientific analysis, especially those that relate to psyche and motivations of the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge.

 

 

        I first visited Stonehenge over twenty years ago. In the years since, I’ve traveled to and studied other stone circles, cairns, dolmens and alignments throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. In the process, I’ve speculated about six Stonehenge mysteries which inspired my novel The Stonehenge Scrolls.

1.      Who built Stonehenge?

That’s the number one mystery most want solved. I don’t subscribe to theories involving ancient astronauts from other planets. After all, modern homo sapiens, a category that includes both the Stonehenge builders and ourselves, have demonstrated ingenuity and problem solving ability over the millennia. Although the general Neolithic population would not have possessed the knowledge to survey the land or move the stones (any more than the general population today can repair a computer), a specially selected and trained group could have developed and refined their building techniques and passed down their knowledge for generations.

Having seen so many examples of Neolithic stone structures, I couldn’t help noticing their similarities.

Perhaps this was due to the limitations of available materials, but I think it’s more likely that a small group, like a guild, served as prehistoric engineers and general contractors throughout a rather wide geographic area.

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Two trilithons are seen in the foreground; the one on the left is still intact, while only one upright stands in the tallest trilithon shown on the right.  In the background, a ring of lintels connects the sarsens of the stone circle. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins

2.      Of the hundreds of Neolithic stone circles, why is Stonehenge the one that intrigues us?

It’s not merely its impressive size. True, most stone circles I’ve seen were constructed with much smaller stones, and the Stonehenge sarsens are impressive, with estimates of weight ranging from 26 to 44 tons and standing 13 feet above ground. But the diameter of Stonehenge is relatively small, compared to the circles of nearby Avebury or the Ring of Brodgar on Scotland’s Orkney Island, both of which feature even larger boulders. Unlike the rough, natural stones of Avebury and Brodgar, the Stonehenge sarsens are smoothed and shaped. And that amazing ring of lintels connecting the sarsens is unique to Stonehenge. Of all the stone circles, Stonehenge is definitely the most elegantly designed.

3.      Is Stonehenge a monument to the summer solstice?

I don’t think so, even though news photographs appear every June of modern-day Druids and assorted revelers celebrating the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge. But to me, the Stonehenge design clearly identifies it as a winter solstice monument. As one enters the circle, one would have faced the center trilithon, the tallest, and the eye is drawn to this highest point. The winter solstice sun would have set between the uprights of the tallest trilithon, the exact opposite direction of the summer sunrise. Both Ireland’s Newgrange, which is oriented to the winter solstice sunrise, and Stonehenge celebrate the start of the solar new year, when days begin to lengthen.

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Near the single surviving upright of the tallest trilithon, its fallen stones lie on the ground. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins

4.      Why did the tallest trilithon fall?

One reason Stonehenge and other millennia-old monuments have survived is that the Neolithic builders had a tendency to over-engineer.  The uprights we see at Stonehenge have about a third of their length concealed below ground. Archaeologists have determined that the tallest trilithon fell because one of its uprights was far too short, thus not allowing enough support underground. But surely the Stonehenge builders realized this, because the other uprights are of adequate size.  What made them accept this obvious construction error?

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Trilithons tower over the ring of sarsens.  The foreground shows the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, where the mysterious skeleton was excavated. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins

5.      Who’s the skeleton found in the ditch at Stonehenge?

            In the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, archaeologists uncovered the skeleton of an adult male dating from around 2000 BC. He was tall, approximately twenty-seven years old and shot with arrows in his back and sternum. The skeleton was moved to an exhibit at the Salisbury Museum south of Stonehenge.  Was this killing evidence of a ritual execution? Or is there another explanation?

6.      What’s the meaning of the axe carvings at Stonehenge?

Elaborate carvings on the stones of spirals, lozenges and other geometric shapes are found at other Neolithic sites, many much older than Stonehenge. The spirals of Ireland’s Newgrange may be the best known, but Loughcrew in Ireland also boasts mysterious carvings.  A French guide referred to the carvings at the Neolithic tombs in Brittany as “the belle gravure.” But Stonehenge, for all its elegant design, remains unadorned with beautiful engravings, except for the mysterious carvings of axe heads on some of the uprights, shapes I have not encountered on any other Neolithic monument.  Furthermore, these carvings are closer to ground level than to the tops of the stones, suggesting they were made after the stones were erected.

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Lintels still connect these sarsens at what would have been the entrance to the circle.  A fallen standing stone remains outside the circle. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins

The Stonehenge Scrolls

My e-novel The Stonehenge Scrolls (http://www.thestonehengescrolls.com/) provides a fictional explanation for all these mysteries.  The book is based on the premise that eleven ancient scrolls unearthed near Dublin record the oral history of Stonehenge. In alternating chapters, a fictional archaeologist writes a blog asking if the scrolls could be true and speculating on the meaning of Stonehenge.  The Stonehenge Scrolls is available on Amazon and from MuseItUp Publishing.

The Stonehenge Scrolls

Six Stonehenge Mysteries 99

by K.P. Robbins www.TheStonehengeScrolls.com

“How did the Stonehenge monuments come to be?  Plenty of nonfiction titles discuss possibilities, but for a fictional perspective that is compelling and involving, you can’t beat the thrills and unusual perspectives of The Stonehenge Scrolls.  A fine saga, The Stonehenge Scrolls is driven by drama and tight, involving writing and is a pick for any who enjoyed Auel’s ‘Earth’s Children’ series and similar historical novels.” — Midwest Book Review.

In this e-novel based on known archaeological discoveries, eleven ancient scrolls unearthed near Dublin record the oral history of Stonehenge. In alternating chapters, fictional archaeologist Maeve Haley writes a blog asking if the scrolls could be true and speculating on the meaning of Stonehenge.

Author K.P. Robbins has studied stone circles, dolmens and cairns in England, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and Ireland.  “In my travels I met many people also fascinated with Neolithic stone monuments,” she says. “I hope The Stonehenge Scrolls not only appeals to them but also attracts new interest in Stonehenge.”

Available on Amazon Kindle and from MuseItUpPublishing.com

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K.P. Robbins, author of The Stonehenge Scrolls. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins


PS How They Rebuilt Stonehenge?

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For decades the official Stonehenge guidebooks have been full of fascinating facts and figures and theories surrounding the world’s greatest prehistoric monument. What the glossy brochures do not mention, however, is the systematic rebuilding of the 4,000 year old stone circle throughout the 20th Century.

This is one of the dark secrets of history archaeologists don’t talk about: The day they had the builders in at Stonehenge to recreate the most famous ancient monument in Britain as they thought it ought to look.

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   This picture shows workers on the site in 1901 in a restoration which caused outrage at the time but which is rarely referred to in official guidebooks. For it means that Stonehenge, jewel in the crown of Britain’s heritage industry, is not all it seems. Much of what the ancient site’s millions of visitors see in fact dates back less than 50 years.

From 1901 to 1964, the majority of the stone circle was restored in a series of makeovers which have left it, in the words of one archaeologist, as ‘a product of the 20th century heritage industry’. But the information is markedly absent from the guidebooks, brochures and info-phones used by tourists at the site. Coming in the wake of the news that the nearby Avebury stone circle was almost totally rebuilt in the 1920s, the revelation about Stonehenge has caused embarrassment among archaelogists. English Heritage, the guardian of the monument, is to rewrite the official guide, which dismisses the Henge’s recent history in a few words.  Dave Batchelor, English Heritage’s senior archaeologist said he would personally rewrite the official guide. ‘The detail was dropped in the Sixties’, he admitted. ‘But times have changed and we now believe this is an important piece of the Stonehenge story and must be told’.

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Cambridge University archeological archivist and leading Stonehenge author Christopher Chippindale admitted: ‘Not much of what we see at Stonehenge hasn’t been touched in some way’. And historical research student Brian Edwards, who recently revealed that the nearby Avebury Monument had been totally rebuilt, has found rare pictures of Stonehenge being restored. He said: ‘It has been as if Stonehenge had been historically cleansed’. ‘For too long people have been kept in the dark over the Stonehenge restoration work. I am astonished by how few people know about it. It is wonderful the guide book is going to tell the full story in the future.’

A million visitors a year are awe-struck as they look back in time into another age and marvel at the primitive technology and muscle-power which must have been employed transporting the huge monoliths and raising them on Salisbury Plain.  They gasp as they are told about this strangely spiritual site…. mankind’s first computer, its standing stones and precise lintels, lining up magically and mysteriously with the heavens above and the solstice suns.

But now, as if to head off a potential great archaeological controversy – and following interest displayed by historical researcher Brian Edwards and a local newspaper, the brochures will be re-written, to include the ‘forgotten years’. The years when teams of navvies sat aboard the greatest cranes in the British Empire to hoist stones upright; drag leaning trilithons into position, replace fallen lintels which once sat atop the huge sarsens. As Mr Edwards – the erstwhile enfant terrible of British archaeology following revelations that nearby Avebury was a total 20s and 30s rebuild by marmalade millionaire Alexander Keiller – says: ‘What we have been looking at is a 20th Century landscape, which is reminiscent of what Stonehenge MIGHT have been like thousands of years ago. It has been created by the heritage industry and is NOT the creation of prehistoric people. What we saw at the Millennium is less than 50 years old.’

In archaeological terms the re-writing of the guidebooks is dynamite. English Heritage run Stonehenge on behalf of the nation, and an English Heritage insider revealed: ‘Dark forces were at work in the 70s, when a decision was taken to drop the information about the restorations Now that is about to change.’

The Restoration and Rebuild

The first restoration of Stonehenge was launched 100 years ago this year.

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And, in 1901, as the builders went to work, The Times letters column was full of bucolic missives of complaint. But the first stage of ‘restoration’ thundered ahead regardless and the style guru of the day, John Ruskin, released the maxim which was to outlive him…. ‘Restoration is a lie,’ he stormed.  Nevertheless the Stonehenge makeover was to gather momentum and more work was carried out in 1919, 1920, 1958, 1959 and 1964. Christopher Chippindale, curator at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Anthropology, and author of Stonehenge Complete, admits: ‘Nearly all the stones have been moved in some way and are standing in concrete.’

A stone was straightened and set in concrete in 1901, six further stones in 1919 and 1920, three more in 1959 and four in 1964. There was also the excavation of the Altar stone and re-erection of the Trilithon in 1958.

The guide book ‘Stonehenge and Neighbouring Monuments’ , and the audio tour of the Henge omit any comprehensive mention of the rebuilding in the 20th Century. Only on page 18 is there a slight reference…‘A number of the leaning and fallen stones have been straightened and re-erected.’ But even that official guide book does contain clues to the large scale restoration, which was not deemed worth a full entry.

 

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Romancing the stones: The tumble-down stones as painted by John Constable in 1835 (top), and the very different landscape that greets today’s Stonehenge visitor (bottom).

Why does John Constable’s 1835 painting of the Henge on pages 18 and 19 look so vastly different from the latter-day pristine photograph across pages 28 and 29?  REASON: A lot of restoration work had taken place in between the two images being recorded. And, during long hot summers it would be possible – if one could get near to the stones – to see the turf peeling back to reveal the concrete boots into which the majority of the stones are now set. A dead give-away, but difficult to spot now as proximity to the Henge is limited.

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Raising an upright of the trilithon in 1958

Our pictures clearly show the rebuilding in progress. Some were discovered by Mr Chippendale and were used in a revised edition of his book. Many of those have since been lost. Others were found by Mr Edwards who unearthed guide books from the time when Stonehenge was not ashamed of its past and featured photographs and stories of the restorations.

‘The news is sensational,’ said Mr Edwards, a decorate student at the University of the West of England. ‘Once I realised how much work had been carried out, I was amazed to discover that practically no-one outside of the henge know of its reconstruction in the last 100 years. I have always thought that if people are bothering to make a trip to Stonehenge, from home or abroad, then the least they should expect is a true story.’

Part of this article was written by Roger Taverner and originally featured in ‘The Western Daily Press’  8/1/2001. Pictures appear courtesy of The Wiltshire Archeological Society and Christopher Chippindale.

Ancient

Ancient recipe books are like a panacea for modern diseases!

Ancient recipe books are like a panacea for modern diseases! 117

Six months ago, the world media reported that the mixture, created according to the Old English medical book of the 9th century, destroyed up to 90 percent of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, one of the antibiotic-resistant strains of this bacterium that causes barley in the eyes. Only the antibiotic vancomycin, the main drug used in the treatment of MRSA, had the same effect.

And the drug, which was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, would not have surprised the doctors of Ancient China.

Chinese pharmacologist Tu Yuyu discovered the drug artemisinin in the 70s, which cures malaria.

But the plant from which this substance is obtained, wormwood (Artemisia annua L), has been used to treat fevers, including those caused by malaria, as early as the 3rd or 4th centuries.

Tu Yuyu invented a cure for malaria after reading traditional Chinese medicine texts that described herbal recipes. The path to discovery and recognition was very difficult because hundreds of plant species had to be tested. In addition, the political atmosphere in China in the 70s was difficult. But her tenacity paid off. Artemisinin has now become an important antimalarial drug.

Her story is unusual in modern medicine. However, artemisinin is far from the only substance isolated from plants. Another malaria drug, quinine, is made from the bark of the officinalis L tree found in the rainforests of South America. The pain reliever morphine was isolated from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L), and the poison strychnine from the tree Strychnos nux-vomica L.

These plants were used in medicine for centuries and even millennia before chemists were able to isolate their most active components.

Is it possible that physicians can discover new drugs simply by studying ancient medical treatises, as did Tu Yuyu or English specialists? The answer to this question is ambiguous. Ancient pharmacological texts in Chinese, Arabic, Greek, or any other ancient language are not easy to study for a number of reasons.

Ancient recipe books

Ancient pharmacological texts are usually a list of recipes without explanation, whether they were used, and in what cases. Submit your favorite cookbook. You hardly cook all the recipes from it. If you do not make notes in it, then no one will know what recipes you tried, and so much you liked them. Commentaries are rarely found in ancient pharmacological books.

It is often difficult to determine which plants are listed in an ancient recipe. Nowadays, the Linnaean system is used to classify plants, where the genus and species of the plant are indicated. But before the Linnaean system became generally accepted, the classification of plants was extremely erratic.

Different local names could be used to denote the same plant. This means that it is not always possible to accurately determine which plants are discussed in the book. If we cannot accurately translate the names in old recipes, how can we evaluate their effectiveness?

Disease definitions also have links to local culture. This means that each nation has a different definition of the disease. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered fever to be a disease, but in modern medicine it is seen as a symptom of the disease.

The millennial collection of recipes “Kitab al-tabih”, written by Ibn Sayar al-Warak.

In the Greek and Roman texts, there are many descriptions of wave-like fever, that is, a fever that repeats every few days.

In modern medicine, wave-like fever is a symptom of malaria, but it is also a symptom of other diseases. Should scientists searching for new cures for malaria test all ancient Greek and Roman remedies for “wave-like fever”?

Holistic Medicine

The most important aspect, according to medical historians, is that each medical system must be considered holistically. This means that it is wrong to focus only on those aspects of ancient medicine that are successful by modern standards, and brush aside everything else.

Although there are effective medicines in ancient medicine, many of them are useless or even harmful. For example, in our time, hardly anyone will dare to be treated by taking huge doses of hellebore, as the ancient Greeks did.

But even with these shortcomings, there is great potential in ancient medical books for new drug discovery. This requires collaboration between pharmacologists, historians and ethno-pharmacologists who study traditional medicine from different cultures.

Such cooperation is not an easy process, because each of the specialists feels that they speak different languages. But the great examples mentioned above remind us that the result can be outstanding, especially when looking for cures for common diseases.

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Ancient

The ancient Romans also loved take-away food. For the first time, a hot fast food restaurant unearthed in Pompeii

The ancient Romans also loved take-away food. For the first time, a hot fast food restaurant unearthed in Pompeii 118
A "fast food restaurant" in the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy has been excavated. In addition to the exquisite murals, archaeologists have also discovered evidence that the restaurant was selling hot food (AP)

The ancient city of Pompeii, Italy, recently unearthed the remains of a complete hot fast food restaurant, showing that the ancient Romans also had take-away eating habits. There are also murals of chicken, duck and other dishes, as well as a variety of tableware. Archaeologists say this is the first time the ancient city of Pompeii has unearthed the remains of a hot fast food restaurant.

Massimo Osanna, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, said on December 26 that although approximately 80 similar fast food restaurants have been unearthed in the ancient city of Pompeii , the total unearthed hot food fast food restaurant is still the first Times.

Archaeologists excavated part of the counter of this hot food fast food restaurant in 2019, and now the entire polygonal counter is unearthed. There are multiple deep circular containers on the countertop. Archaeologists guessed that these are containers for holding hot food, similar to the soup vessels in modern salad bars.

The side wall of the counter is yellow as the background, and there are many murals on it, including bush-like plants, two ducks with heads down, a rooster, a dog on a rope, and a sea fairy riding a horse. These murals are still colorful after thousands of years.

Valeria Amoretti, an anthropologist in Pompeii, said: Preliminary analysis confirmed that these murals represent the food and beverages sold in this fast food restaurant. For example, a round container contains fragments of duck bones, as well as the remains of goats, pigs, fish, snails and other animals; a small amount of broad beans are also found at the bottom of the wine container.

Amoretti said that in ancient times, adding broad beans to wine can add flavor.

Ossana said that these remaining foods let us know what people ate on the day Pompeii was overthrown by volcanic ash. It also means that “the fast food on the street was very popular among ordinary people at the time, but the elites of the upper class in Rome did not frequent them.”

The location of this fast food restaurant is quite good. It is located at the bustling crossroads. There is a fountain square outside, and there are hot spring baths nearby. It is a good place to run restaurants.

Archaeologists also unearthed human remains at this fast food restaurant site. They also unearthed a bronze spoon, nine common food containers amphora, several flasks and a ceramic container for oil.

Pompeii was founded around 600 BC on a small hill on the banks of the Sano River in Italy. It was wiped out by volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Many precious historical relics were buried several meters overnight. Deeper than volcanic ash.

Pompeii is currently the most intact ancient Roman city ruins in Italy and has been included in the World Heritage List.

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Ancient

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 119

The writing of Elam, a neighbor of Sumer, one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, could not be deciphered to this day. However, the end of 2020 was marked by a breakthrough in Elam studies: French archaeologist François Dessay presented a deciphering of the Elamite Linear script used in the XXV-XIX centuries BC. e. Ilya Egorov, a specialist in comparative historical linguistics and an employee of the RANEPA, talks about who the Elamites are, what we know about their language and why the linear Elamite script was deciphered only now.

At the beginning of the story

The Elamite state existed from the third millennium to the 6th century BC. e., when all of its territory came under the rule of the Persian royal dynasty of the Achaemenids. Information about the Elamites has come down to us from Sumerian, Akkadian and Persian sources and from their own cuneiform texts. Now these sources have been supplemented by texts written in Linear Elamite script.

Elam was first mentioned in Sumerian clay tablets in the middle of the third millennium BC. e. The Sumerians designated this country with the sign NIM, which also meant ‘upper’. Elam does indeed lie on a higher ground compared to the main Sumerian cities. Susa, the capital of the Elamite state, was located in the foothills of the Zagros, east of the interfluve of the Tigris and Euphrates.

This is very close to the place where, as Samuel Kramer aptly put it, history began 

By the beginning of history, Kramer understood the beginning of written history, that is, the moment when written monuments appeared. Writing was invented in Sumer at the turn of the third and fourth millennia BC. e. A little later, a proto-Elamite letter appeared, from which, perhaps, the writing system that François Dessay deciphered came from. The corpus of proto-Elamite writing contains about 1,700 clay tablets, found mainly in Susa. They date back to 3100-2900 BC. e. Most of the tablets are kept in the Louvre storerooms. Now almost all of them have been digitized and are available on the Internet to everyone.

Proto-Elamite writing

In the strict sense, proto-Elamite writing remains undeciphered, that is, it has not yet been possible to ascribe to signs (most of which are rather abstract) concrete meanings and to understand how these texts should have sounded. However, we have a general idea of ​​what is written on these plates. In structure, they are similar to the Sumerian proto-cuneiform tablets from Uruk, containing household records.

A typical proto-Elamite plaque is designed roughly like a modern cashier’s check

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 120
Tablet Sb 15166, oriented as the scribe held it. Front side with body text on the right. On the left is the reverse side with the amount of property and the imprint of a cylindrical seal. Photo: CDLI project

They began to write in the upper right corner. First there was a headline that indicated the owner of the property. A list of this property followed. Each position in it was arranged like this: the name of the object, then some unit of measurement and quantity. When the line ended, they wrote on the next one from left to right, and after it – again from right to left. 

This direction of writing is called bustrofedon. The lines were separated from each other by a line. If the list needed to be continued on the reverse side, then the plate was turned over along the vertical axis. At the end of the list, the amount was calculated. For this, the plate was turned over along the horizontal axis relative to the front side. The back was sometimes stamped… So that life does not seem like honey to an uninitiated reader, it is customary to publish proto-Elamite tablets rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 121
Layout of the text. The plate is oriented in the same way as in modern publications. Source: Englund, Robert K., The State of Decipherment of Proto-Elamite // The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. P. 123

What language was behind the proto-Elamite script is still unclear. Moreover, it is unclear whether it is even worthwhile to correlate the proto-Elamite writing with any language. After all, here we are dealing with a record of an account rather than a text in the full sense of the word. The subject of the account and the unit of measure are indicated by pictograms followed by a number. This is most similar to how we indicate the quantity of the required product opposite the icon with its image in the online store.

Monuments of linear Elamite writing, in contrast to proto-Elamite tablets, already represent what can be called texts and read in the more familiar sense of the word. The earliest of these date back to about 2500-2400 BC. e., and the last 1900-1800 years BC. e. These are mainly monumental inscriptions, inscriptions on clay tablets and cones, and inscriptions on metal vessels of the Gunaga. The latter ultimately played a key role in decryption.

How to decipher ancient writing?

Speaking about decryption, first of all, it is necessary to distinguish between two situations: decoding of writing and decoding of the language. It so happens that we already know the written language, but the language is unknown. This is, for example, the case of the Hittite language.

The Hittite texts are written in a variation of Akkadian cuneiform that was read in the middle of the 19th century. Since the texts could be easily “spoken”, it was not too difficult to understand that the language belongs to the Indo-European family. After this was established, the meaning of many words began to be derived from the meanings of related words in other Indo-European languages. 

An important role was played by the fact that Akkadian cuneiform, in addition to syllabic signs, uses ideograms, that is, hieroglyphs denoting not some sound or syllable, but a concept. Fortunately for the researchers, Hittite scribes also inserted many Akkadian words.

The meaning of the remaining words can often be guessed from the context, just like we do in a foreign language lesson

It’s another matter when the writing itself is unknown.

And in that case , it’s a good idea to define the type of letter first.

Quite reliably, this can be established by the number of characters:

  • 20–40 characters – an alphabetical letter, where the character corresponds to a phoneme;
  • 50–100 signs – syllabic writing, where the sign corresponds to the syllable;
  • 100-600 characters – mixed type: syllabic or alphabetical writing using hieroglyphs (logograms and ideograms). In such a system, syllabic or letter signs are much more frequent than hieroglyphic;
  • > 600 – hieroglyphic writing, where the sign corresponds to a word (logogram) or a more general concept (ideogram).

If you are very lucky, then by looking at the alphabetical or syllabic system, you can guess the language in which the text is written.

Here the analysis of frequency combinations and their variants comes to the rescue. So, in deciphering the Mycenaean Linear B, the key was the assumption that the texts were written in Greek. They guessed this, noting that behind the variations of the chains of symbols, you can see the Greek inflectional paradigms.

The most important step towards the successful deciphering of ancient writing is the identification in the text of some personal names or geographical names known from other sources. Since proper names tend to sound similar in different languages, they help to easily establish the phonetic meaning of written signs.

Jean-François Champollion made a breakthrough in the study of Egyptian writing by identifying cartouches with the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra on the Rosetta Stone. Michael Ventris found place names in tablets with Linear B. Friedrich Grotefend was able to decipher the Persian cuneiform due to the fact that the Behistun inscription contained a list of kings known from the works of Herodotus.

The presence of parallel texts in other languages ​​greatly simplifies decryption. Monuments containing both the original text and its translation are called bilinguals.

If the translation is accurate, then deciphering turns into a not very difficult linguistic task, like those that high school students can cope with in a few hours at the Olympiad in linguistics.

The already mentioned Behistun inscription is an extremely important monument. It is a parallel trilingual inscription in Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite in cuneiform transmission.

So, deciphering writing is likely to be successful if at least two of the three conditions are met:

  • understand what language the texts are written in and find known related languages;
  • identify personal names;
  • find bilingual texts.

In the case of the Elamite Linear script, all three conditions had already been met, so that complete decryption remained a matter of time.

Elamite language

The assumption that the inscriptions made in the linear Elamite script reflect the Elamite language has remained only a hypothesis, although it is quite reliable. Indeed, the Akkadian version of one bilingual text mentions the king of Elam, Puzur-Inshushinak, so it is logical to think that the second language of these texts is Elamite. Now this guess has been confirmed.

The hypothesis that the mysterious inscriptions were made in the Elamite language gave optimism to the decoders. After all, Elamite is already well known.

The fact is that the Elamites used not only their own original script, but also the Akkadian cuneiform. Akkadian cuneiform was used in ancient times in the Middle East as widely as the Latin alphabet in modern Europe. In addition to the Elamite and Akkadian language proper, various modifications of the Akkadian cuneiform were used for writing in Hittite, Luwian, Hurrian, Urartian and some other languages.

Thanks to the cuneiform texts and the Elamite-Akkadian bilinguals, the Elamite language was learned well. There is a two-volume dictionary, a small but generally satisfactory grammar and a few short essays, so that reading Elamite texts is not difficult.

It has not yet been possible to establish the linguistic relatives of the Elamite language. It is considered an isolate .

There are two hypotheses about his family ties. David McAlpin compared Elamite to the Dravidian languages ​​spoken in southern India, eastern Iran and Pakistan. Czech linguist Vaclav Blazek – with the  languages ​​of the Afrasian macrofamily, which includes Semitic languages ​​in the Middle East, Egyptian (Ancient Egyptian and Coptic), Berber, Cushite, Omotic, and Chadian in northern Africa. 

After re-analyzing both hypotheses, Georgy Starostin came to the conclusion that McAlpin and Blazhek failed to show a close connection of the Elamites with the Dravids or Afrasians, but the Elamite can still be connected with these families on a deeper level. Proof of such a distant relationship remains a matter for the future.

What is already known about the Elamite Linear script?

By 2020, only 40 fairly short inscriptions are known. They can identify 258 characters. This number speaks rather of the mixed nature of the writing: syllabary and logograms. For example, in the Mycenaean linear letter B, comparable in the number of characters, there are 87 syllabic characters and 120 logograms. 

However, it is assumed that some of the 258 Elamite signs are actually variants of each other. Although not many monuments are known, they are scattered over an area of ​​about 1000 kilometers from Susa to Konar-Sandal and span several centuries. In such a situation, geographical and chronological variations should have arisen. François Dessay suggests that about a hundred characters were used at a time in one place. And this may already be a purely syllabic letter.

Before François Dessay, two attempts were made to decrypt. Walter Hinz in the 1960s thought he knew the meaning of almost 60 characters. Piero Merigi in the 1970s believed that it is possible to reliably speak about the meaning of 30 characters. François Dessay made more or less reliable conclusions about 13 signs in 2018.

The starting point for all decryptions is the bilingual Akkadian-Elamite inscription with a mention of the king Puzur-Inshushinak. There are ten more inscriptions where a string of symbols is found that can be identified with the name of this king. These ten inscriptions are grouped into three independent texts: the first one exists in four versions (inscriptions A, B, C, E), the second – in three (inscriptions F, G, H) and the third – in one (inscription I).

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Texts mentioning Puzur-Inshushinak. Source: Francois Desset, Linear Elamite writing // The Elamite world / eds. J. Alvarez-Mon, G.-P. Basello et Y. Wicks. Routledge World Series, Taylor and Francis, Abington. P. 201

The chain of characters in a gray frame under the number 2 in all three texts denotes the name of the king and reads pu-zu-r-šu-ši-na-k. In the text A / B / C / E under the number 1, apparently, there should be the name of the god, from which the name of the king is derived and which is translated from Akkadian ‘The Secret of Inshushinak’. 

The chain under the number 5 contains two already known characters – ši and in. This suggests that it should be read ši-in-piš-huk. Shinpishkhuk, as follows from cuneiform sources, is the father of Puzur-Inshushinak. The chains numbered 3 and 4 are most likely the titles of Puzur-Inshushinak.

In 2018, François Dessay began to study the body of the metal vessels of the Gunaga. He noticed that the texts on them are of a formulaic nature, that is, they consist of stable blocks with a small variable part. The inscriptions on the eight vessels begin with the same symbol (marked in green in the figure), followed by a variable part, most likely the name.

 Next, the title is indicated (in the figure it is indicated in blue). François Dessay noticed that ten vessels in the title contain the same chain of signs that followed the name Puzur-Inshushinak (in the figure below – under the number 6, in the figure above – under the number 3). He decided that it meant ‘king’ and began to select the names of the Elamite kings.

 It is known that one name must begin with ši (the string under the number 2), and the other must contain r in the middle (the string under the number 3). And these must be kings who lived between 2050 and 1800 BC e. – this is how the vessels are dated. Only one candidate was found: Shilhaha (chain 2) and Ebarat II (chain 3). So the meaning of some more symbols became known, and François Dessay opened the road to complete deciphering.

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Comparison of texts on the vessels of the Gunaga. Source: Desset F., Nine Linear Elamite Texts Inscribed on Silver “Gunagi” Vessels (X, Y, Z, F ‘, H’, I ‘, J’, K ‘and L’): New Data on Linear Elamite Writing and the History of the Sukkalmaḫ Dynasty // Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies Volume 56 (2). 2018

What was François Dessay doing in quarantine?

During the quarantine, Desse, along with three colleagues – Cambyz Tabibzade, Matthew Kervran and Jean-Pietro Basello – continued to explore the silver vessels of the Gunaga. They managed to establish that the cuneiform text on a vessel in honor of King Sive-Palar-Huhpak is very close to the text made in linear Elamite script on a vessel in honor of King Ittatu I.

In fact, they managed to find not even a bilingual, but a biggraphic text, that is, an inscription on the Siwe-Palar-Huhpaka vessel is practically a cuneiform transliteration of the inscription on the Ittatu I vessel. Thanks to this inscription, it was possible to carry out a complete decoding. 

The letter turned out to be completely phonetic, that is, the signs in it denote only syllables or individual sounds, and logograms or ideograms are not used.

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A vessel with a cuneiform inscription mentioning Siwe-Palar-Huhpak (left) and a vessel with an inscription in Linear Elamite script mentioning Ittatu I (right). Source: The Mahboubian Collection

As evidence of the success of the decryption, François Dessay presented in a short talk the reading and translation of two texts written in Linear Elamite script. The inscription on the stone discovered in Susa and now stored in the Louvre turned out to be just the name and title of the king Puzur-Inshushinak. The inscription on the silver vessel is an initiatory formula. 

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Photo and drawing of the letter E. Source: Alice Kober Gesellschaft für die Entzifferung antiker Schriftsysteme

‘Puzur-Shushinak, hatbak Suz, whisper of the people of Elam, (son of) Shinpishkhuk’.

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Photo and drawing of Q lettering. Source: Alice Kober Gesellschaft für die Entzifferung antiker Schriftsysteme

‘Mistress Marapshsha , Shumar-Ash / su ,

(this) silver (vessel) I made. In the temple that will be named after me (for the glory of my name -?),

Khumshat, (because) I have humbly made an offering to you. ‘

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