5,000-year-old Ancient Language on Verge of Being Decoded

Melissa Knowles

An archaeologist is on the verge of deciphering a 5,000-year-old language that has bewildered scientists and academics alike since its discovery in the 1800s. The ancient text, written on clay tablets, is from the proto-Elamite language used in what is now Southwestern Iran between 3200 B.C. and 2900 B.C.

Jacob Dahl, a professor of Oriental studies at the University of Oxford in England, is making progress decoding the archaic tablets, thanks to advances in technology. Dahl's tools of choice are a computer combined with a super-high-definition camera. The machine performs a process called reflectance transformation imaging, which uses a set of 76 lights to photograph every nook and cranny on the surface of the tablets. After being uploaded onto a computer, each image can then be examined from virtually any angle.

The images will be displayed online under the banner of an international research project headed by Dahl, who hopes to achieve something akin to academic outsourcing in order to speed up the process of deciphering the tablets. Dahl has already figured out more than 1,200 distinct signs and symbols and says that while the process is painstaking, he has been bitten by the challenge, calling it "unknown and uncharted territory."

Dahl has also said that with enough support, within two years, the tablets' meaning will be known by the world, and he'll close the book on one of the world's oldest mysteries.

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