Monday, August 29, 2016

Lost in translation: the Ancient books that we can't decode

In 1908, archaeologist Luigi Pernier was poking around the ruins of an ancient palace in Crete when he unearthed a smallish clay disc that featured a series of mysterious symbols set in a spiral on both sides.

Neither its layout, nor the symbols themselves, had been seen before – and neither have they been seen again since. The artifact is known as the Phaistos Disc. To this day, and despite many attempts, no one has a clue what the symbols mean, or what language they record.

The Voynich manuscript, a never-deciphered illustrated codex from the 1400s. Photo: New York Times

The best guess among scholars has the Disc being inscribed about 3800 years ago. Perhaps whoever did it was intent on recording some grand creation myth, or the lineage of a king now lost to history. Then again, perhaps it notes the dry accounting of a wheat harvest, or a fish haul.

Or maybe it's just a doodle: the meaningless scrawl of a bloke bored out of his wits with only a stick and a bit of clay to amuse himself.

The Voynich manuscript has defeated the world's finest codebreakers and is now being sold in replica form. 

No one knows. And that's the allure of the world's small but fascinating collection of undeciphered texts, which include not only things written in extinct languages but also much more recent documents from Freemasons, spies and, in one case, a serial killer.

If any of the puzzles are ever cracked, we could end up with the seeds of a tale that would make Dan Brown green with envy. Or we could end up with a note to remember to buy milk on the way home.

Interest in undeciphered texts can be expected to spike in coming months, and not just because Brown has a new novel on the way. Mostly it will be because of the news this week that a Spanish publisher, Siloe, has won the right to reproduce perhaps the most enigmatic book of them all, known as the Voynich manuscript.

The Voynich – currently under lock and key at Yale University – is a 240-page, lavishly illustrated book that dates from the early part of the 15th century. It has been studied intensively for decades by historians, linguists and cryptologists – including some very smart boffins who successfully cracked codes during two world wars – and still no one has figured out its language, much less its meaning.

The Minoan writing form known as Linear B, examples of which were found at the ruins of the Palace of Minos at Knossos on Crete, were deciphered in 1953.  Photo: Getty Images

It is the most romantic of an uncracked corpus that includes the writing of the ancient rulers of Nubia, the "proto-Elamite" script of Iran, and some rather bizarre inscriptions from Easter Island. Throw in the strange handwritten notes attributed to an unidentified murderer dubbed the Zodiac killer, a puzzling document found in a bombed out London cellar, and a note from a dead man near Adelaide, and you've got enough questions to keep Indiana Jones busy until Christmas.

"With its hint of genius," wrote British author and scholar Andrew Robinson in his 2009 major book, Lost Languages, "the successful decipherment of a major script carries a whiff of glamour and immortality about it."

Rongorongo texts from Easter Island remain a mystery. Photo: Alamy

The cracking of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 19th century, and deciphering of the Minoan writing form known as Linear B in 1953, he points out, produced an aura of achievement unmatched by any academic success short of winning a Nobel.

Hence all the interest in the publication of Voynich. The advent of 898 exact copies of the original – the extent of the print run – means thousands more eyes on the prize.

The Tamam Shud case of 1948, which sought to identify a man found dead at a beach, revealed a strange code that has yet to be deciphered. 

The most recent run at deciphering the manuscript was published this year, by Bradley Hauer and Grzegorz Kondrak of Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta. Using a powerful algorithm and a technique known as "anagramming" – mixing up individual letters on the assumption that the original author had done the same thing – they hoped to uncover vital clues.

Their approach involved, they noted with admirable understatement, "the challenging task of deciphering a text in an unknown language written using an unknown script, and in which the letters within words have been randomly scrambled".

American Alice Kober laid the groundwork for helping experts understand Linear B. Photo: US Brooklyn Public Library

The exercise did not result in a coherent translation, but did yield some interesting insights. In structure, the language of the Voynich bore many similarities to Esperanto – which was a bit of a surprise, given Esperanto wasn't invented until 1887. However, there were also many points in common with Hebrew – and that, the researchers suggested, might eventually be the key that unlocks the mystery.

Languages evolve, of course, and sometimes an unknown script can be deciphered if its ancestor can be identified. Weirdly, though, the process doesn't always work in reverse. Linear B, cracked the same year Queen Elizabeth was crowned, was clearly based on an earlier script, dubbed Linear A, but that remains stubbornly opaque to this day.

"Using the values associated with Linear B in Linear A mainly produces unintelligible words," concluded classicist Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco of the Universita degli Studi di Pisa in 2014.

"If it utilises the same or similar syllabic values as Linear B, then its underlying language appears unrelated to any known language."

The same could be said for another the world's great written mysteries, the so-called rongorongo texts from Easter Island.

The texts comprise a lot of symbols carved into about two dozen wooden panels. They were discovered in the 19th century and, to date, no one knows what they say.

Mind you, that hasn't stopped a lot of people taking a punt. Theories have ranged from a Polynesian karma sutra, a zodiac, and proof that the islands were colonised by people from Pakistan. In his book, Robinson warns that "the borderline between the lunatic and the intelligent, the cracked and the creative, in rongorongo studies" was sometimes invisible.

Occasionally in the matter of mysterious bits of writing, lunacy can be safely assumed. The coded letters sent to police in 1968-9 by the unknown murderer dubbed the Zodiac killer is a case in point. One has been tentatively deciphered (revealing a poorly spelled rant), but three more remain elusive. Does the killer identify himself in one? We may never know.

A degree of loopiness is also possible in the unknown hand that wrote what became known as the Blitz Ciphers, a collection of documents covered in mysterious symbols, discovered when a German bomb blew apart the walls of a London cellar during World War II. The smart money has the symbols as instructions for either a witchcraft or Masonic ritual, but proof has remained elusive.

Australia's contribution to the field of undeciphered texts is modest in the extreme. It comprises a single example, known as the Tamam Shud case.

The document in question, actually the back page of a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam, was handed to police after they went public in a quest to identify a dead bloke found on Glenelg Beach in South Australia in 1948.

The page contained a couple of phone numbers and a collection of seemingly random letters, presumed to be code. Perhaps the man had been a Cold War spy on a mission that went fatally pear-shaped. Perhaps he was a historian who had finally deciphered the Phaistos Disc but died before he could tell anyone.

Almost 70 years after his death, his identity and the meaning of his writing both remain unknown. Should anyone discover either, Dan Brown would love to hear from you.