The University of Southampton

ECS researcher helps develop new technology that could allow the world’s oldest undeciphered writing system to be cracked

Published: 
26 February 2013
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An academic from ECS was part of a team of researchers that developed a system for examining some of the world’s most important historical documents in intricate detail.

Dr Kirk Martinez, from the Web and Internet Science Research Group, worked with Dr Graeme Earl, from the University of Southampton’s Archaeological Computing Research Group, to develop the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) System for Ancient Documentary Artefacts.

The system, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council in a collaboration with the University of Oxford, allows a researcher to move a virtual light source across the surface of a digital image of an artefact and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-seen-before details.

It comprises of a dome with 76 lights inside and a camera positioned at the top. A manuscript is placed in the centre of the dome and then 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 light individually lit. In post-processing the images are joined and a light moved across the surface of the digital image to reveal the hidden details.

Kirk said: “We aimed to make a modern, fast, but not too expensive version of this imaging system, and it’s great to see we succeeded in making something that is producing valuable data for humanities researchers.”

The system was recently used on objects held in the vaults of the Louvre Museum in Paris and images have now been made available online for free public access on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

Among these documents are manuscripts written in the so-called proto-Elamite writing system used in ancient Iran from 3200 to 3000BC and is the oldest undeciphered writing system currently known.

By viewing the extremely high quality images of these documents and sharing them with a community of scholars worldwide, a team from the University of Oxford hope to crack the code once and for all.

Dr Jacob Dahl, co-leader of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and a member of the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, said: “I have spent the last 10 years trying to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system and, with this new technology, I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough.

“The quality of the images captured is incredible and it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye that may have meaning.”

He believes the writing system he is examining may be even more interesting than previously thought.

“Looking at contemporary and later writing systems, we would expect to see proto-Elamite use only symbols to represent things, but we think they also used a syllabary – for example ‘cat’ would not be represented by a symbol depicting the animal but by symbols for the otherwise unrelated words ‘ca’ and ‘at’.

“Half of the signs used in this way seem to have been invented ex novo for the sounds they represent. If this turns out to be the case it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phoneticism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle (a modern example would be for example ‘I see you’, written with the three signs ‘eye’, the ‘sea’, and a ‘ewe’).”

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To find out more about the Archaeological Computing Research Group go to their website, the Web and Internet Science Group go to and the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford go to their website

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