Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

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9780071357432: Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

"Andrew Robinson has now followed up his beautifully illustrated The Story of Writing with a highly appropriate sequel­­Lost Languages, on undeciphered scripts. Many, it seems likely, will never be deciphered ..."­­Sir Arthur C. Clarke, C.B.E.

A landmark study of the world's most important undeciphered writing systems and the current race to crack them

Maybe it's the tantalizing possibility of giving new voice to long-hushed peoples and civilizations. Perhaps it's the puzzle solver's delight in the mental challenges posed by breaking their codes. Whatever the reasons, the public has long been fascinated with undeciphered ancient scripts and the ongoing efforts to crack them. In Lost Languages, Andrew Robinson reports from the front lines of the global efforts now under way to crack the Meroitic hieroglyphs of ancient Nubia, the Etruscan alphabet, the Indus Valley Sealstones, the Zapotec script­­the earliest in the Americas­­and five other major "lost languages." An enthralling story of genius, passion, and competition, Lost Languages provides a revealing look at how decipherment is done. In what is truly an archaeological mystery book, the author examines each script in detail and reviews what is known about the people who created it, while weaving in the intriguing cast of characters currently competing for the glory of cracking these ancient codes.

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From the Back Cover:

Maybe it's the possibility of "speaking with the dead," of hearing the voices of long-silent peoples and civilizations. Perhaps it's the puzzle solver's relish for the challenges posed by breaking codes. Whatever the reasons, undeciphered ancient scripts have long tantalized the public. Lost Languages investigates the most famous examples, leading us back to a far-distant past obscured by the ravages of time and haunted by code breakers hungry for glory.

The book begins with an incisive description of decipherment techniques and tells the stories of three great decipherments: Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 19th century and the Mayan glyphs of Central America and the Linear B clay tablets of the Minoan civilization of Crete in the 20th century. Then it tackles the important scripts still awaiting their decipherers.

Perhaps the greatest challenge today is the Indus script. Found on exquisitely beautiful seal stones, pottery, and copper tablets excavated in Pakistan and India, it is the only writing of the four "first" civilizations that cannot be read. Unraveled, it would not only break the millennia-long silence of the impressive Indus Valley civilization, it would also shed new light on the origins of the Indo-European ancestors of the modern West.

Then there are the Etruscans, who have spellbound the imagination ever since Renaissance times. Builders of sensational tombs and drinkers of wine, they were the cultural conduit through which the Greek alphabet reached Rome and hence the rest of Europe. And yet the language spoken by the Etruscans remains wrapped in mystery; if penetrated, it could reveal the history of a pre-Roman society almost as great as ancient Greece.

And on isolated Easter Island, the exotic Rongorongo script has long been an irresistible magnet for ambitious decipherers. Inscribed on wood with sharks' teeth and as enigmatic as the island's arresting stone faces, these texts are the only writing in pre-colonial Oceania. They definitely contain a lunar calendar and may tell the story of the origins of humankind in the Pacific Ocean. How old is Rongorongo? No one knows for sure.

The struggle to decipher these three scripts and six others­­including the notorious Phaistos disc of Crete (the world's first typewritten document, dated c. 1700 BC) and the Zapotec script of Mexico (the first writing system in the Americas)­­is recounted with extraordinary depth and erudition in this lavishly illustrated book. In Lost Languages, Robinson reports from the front lines of scholarship, where obsession, genius, occasional delusion, and sometimes bitter rivalry are de rigueur among the intriguing cast of modern characters who are currently competing for the rare honor of cracking these ancient codes­­and giving voice to forgotten worlds.

Praise for Lost Languages:

"A masterly book. Andrew Robinson takes us on a fascinating journey...Clearly written, dispassionate and entertaining, this archaeological and linguistic detective story will appeal to anyone interested in ancient civilizations and the intricacies of languages and scripts."­­Brian Fagan, Professor of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Barbara

"Andrew Robinson is a savvy and sure-footed Sherpa taking us just below the summits of the remaining Everests among the undeciphered scripts of the world... Lost Languages is written with the clarity of a Michael Ventris and with wise respect for fools and geniuses alike..."­­Thomas G. Palaima, Professor of Classics, Director, Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory, University of Texas at Austin

"With verve and insight, Andrew Robinson...does a great service to scholars and general readers with his lucid and valuable book."­­Stephen D. Houston, author of Maya Glyphs, Professor of Anthropology, Brigham Young University

"Andrew Robinson has forged a two-pronged goad to incite new interest in the recovery of mankind's forgotten past. [An] absorbing account."­­Asko Parpola, author of Deciphering the Indus Script, Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Helsinki

"...a real contribution to critical scholarship by someone who is in love with his subject."­­Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, Professor of Physics, Princeton University

"...a fascinating story, splendidly told...I couldn't put it down."­­Sir Patrick Moore, Astronomer, presenter of the BBC's The Sky at Night, and author of more than 60 books

"Andrew Robinson has now followed up his beautifully illustrated The Story of Writing with a highly appropriate sequel­­Lost Languages, on undeciphered scripts. Many, it seems likely, will never be deciphered­­which raises an interesting question. If we cannot always understand messages from our fellow humans­­how successful will we be when we receive the first communication from Outer Space?"­­Sir Arthur C. Clarke

About the Author:

Andrew Robinson is the literary editor of the London Times Higher Education Supplement. His many books include The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms, the award-winning Earthshock, and The Shape of the World: The Mapping and Discovery of the Earth, the book of a six-part television series shown all over the world.

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Robinson, Andrew
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